Chattahoochee Elementary School Principal Jeff Lee told his staff that, if they were going to do anything to commemorate his retirement, they should just do something “low-key.”
He didn’t want a long ceremony where people sat around watching one speaker after another get up to make speeches.
So, naturally the school’s staff organized a sidewalk party with teachers dancing to music, a parade of cars with parents and current and former students passing by to greet him and arranged to have Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris stop by to present a Jeff Lee Day proclamation from the city.
Signs with sayings such as “Retirement Ahead” and “You can’t retire from being amazing” were also installed around the front of the school.
“This is their version of low-key,” Lee joked afterward.
After 13 years of leading Chattahoochee Elementary School as its principal, Lee’s official last day at the school is July 30. The last day of classes, however, was Wednesday and the school’s teachers will be leaving for summer vacation soon. That made Friday one of the last opportunities for the school community to celebrate with Lee.
In a surreal coincidence, Lee’s tenure as principal at the school matched the length of the educational careers of students who started school during his first year at the school.
“The kids who graduated this year from Duluth High School started in kindergarten here with me 13 years ago,” Lee said. “It was really exciting. They came back last week, a lot of them, just to come back and see the students and see their teachers and classrooms and things.
“That’s what brings us so much happiness as teachers to see the impact we’ve had on kids.”
Harris said Lee is popular with Chattahoochee Elementary parents. The school is part of the Duluth High School cluster and, since it is part of the Duluth community, Harris hears from its parents often.
“I’ve had so much admiration for you for many, many years,” Harris told Lee. “And, as mayor, I can tell you frequently parents come up to me and brag about this school, all of you (staff members) and this leader. I hear (about Lee) more than any principal in the cluster — and we have an excellent, excellent cluster.
“So, I hear great things about the school and, Jeff, you are really loved. You really are so we are going to make this Jeff Lee Day in the city of Duluth.”
Fourth-grade teacher Linda Heckman said Lee created a friendly and welcoming environment at the school for staff and families with an open door policy. In addition to being a Chattahoochee Elementary teacher, she also has a daughter, Audrey, who is a rising third-grader at the school.
Heckman said Lee is widely loved at the school and just about all of the staff cried when he announced he would be retiring at the end of this school year. As for the environment he fostered, she recalled her interview for a job at the school as one example of the welcoming environment Lee fostered at the school.
“It was just he and I, and the assistant principal, and it was very laid back,” she said. “I felt an immediate connection. He just made the interview so comfortable, and I just knew that I wanted to work here at Chattahoochee after meeting him.”
Audrey Heckman added, “I like that he’s nice, funny and he does a really good job as principal.”
Lee has been an educator for 28 years, all of which have been in Gwinnett County Public Schools — which is the same school system that he grew up in as a kid.
He started his career as a teacher at both Knight Elementary School and Freeman’s Mill Elementary School, where he also eventually served as assistant principal. Chattahoochee is the only school where he has served as principal.
“Kids bring me joy,” he said. “Being around kids — kids are happy, they’re excited, they have a love of learning and what I really wanted us to have was a school that was a happy place that kids wanted to be in.”
Lee explained that he is retiring to spend more time with his family, and to help take care of his mother. His father passed away last year, and he said retiring will allow him to have the time to take his mother to doctor appointments and other appointments.
Trying to juggle his duties as a principal with helping his mother meant that his mind was always on two subjects at the same time.
“What happens is when I go spend time with her, I wonder about what’s going on at school and, when I’m at school, I’m wondering what’s going on with her, so I just want to be present with my mom and have that time with her,” he said.
One thing Lee said he will miss is the spirit of teamwork and camaraderie at the school.
“The main thing I will miss is just the relationships with families and getting to know teachers,” he said. “We are a family here. We spend more time together here, the adults, than we spend with our families at home sometimes.
“We have been a part of people getting married, having kids and us growing up as adults and learning and growing as well. So, that is what I will miss most is just the connections that I am able to make with the community.”
And, as for the version of “low-key” that his staff came up with for a retirement bash, Lee said it was just about perfect.
“It was exactly what I would have wanted, although I didn’t really know what I wanted,” he said. “It was exactly what made me very happy about ending my career.”