Saturday, May 26, 2007

Nancy Calhoun, Middle School Principal

(remarks for a reception honoring Nancy Calhoun, retiring from the Walker School after thirty-three years' teaching, twenty-three as founding principal of Walker's middle school.)

Today a student pays tribute to Mrs. Calhoun as a teacher, and our headmaster will give his thoughts about Nancy as a colleague and friend. It falls to me, as a member of the faculty in the middle school, to give you the inside scoop on Nancy Calhoun as a boss.

First, you should know that, as a boss, she is strict. That's not to say that she rides us during faculty meetings. She smiles indulgently while we act up like our kids. The girls in the front row pass notes and share candy, the boys in the back throw paper and make wisecracks, and there's always someone to say, "Wait! What are we talking about?" But we can all name the items on a list called Nancy's Non-Negotiables, and we fall in line behind those without question: things like respecting students, keeping parents informed, keeping Nancy informed, and being professional with each other. I've noticed that the list has grown a little since she hired me back in '98.

She's the kind of boss who gets things done. I was told when I started here that Nancy Calhoun always gets what she wants. It's more accurate to say that Nancy always wants what's best for the school, and she has the will and the creativity to get it. We needed room for a music program -- she found space in the gym. She concluded that middle schoolers need single-gender math classes, and she juggled schedules to make it happen. She found the ideal band director who happened to be married to our music teacher, and she convinced the Board of Trustees to change policy. She found the ideal science instructor in England, and she fought the U.S. Immigration Service to keep him.

And, while her faculty is in the classroom helping children to grow, she has made a priority of our professional and personal growth. A few years ago, Nancy instituted book discussions for us -- books about school, but also books about family and personal life. She encourages us to try new methods, or even new fields -- so a former literature teacher now incorporates writing with mathematics; and an art instructor has developed a curriculum for Art History. And just as she shows up to watch our children in countless sports events and plays and concerts to build them up, she writes us very personal notes that show how much she has noticed and appreciated what we do. I was startled in a private meeting with the Headmaster, when he mentioned some things that I'd volunteered to do -- and I realized that Nancy must have been keeping track and telling him. Our dean of students Blair Fisher, at the announcement that he would succeed Nancy, thanked her for seeing leadership potential in him long before he did. And Nancy hasn't stopped educating herself, either -- I know that she began a few years ago to study People magazine cover to cover, when she realized that everyone else already knew who Britney Spears was.

Most of us first met Nancy at our interviews, when it became clear that this boss looks beyond your résumé for one essential quality: to work in Nancy's organization, you have to actually enjoy Middle Schoolers -- in all their potential, and all their intense needs. Then she looks for wide-ranging experience beyond teaching, and interest beyond a subject area. That's why our faculty is so weird, including a math teacher who chases tornados, a science teacher who quotes Chaucer, a Civics teacher who designs websites, a History teacher who writes musicals, and people with backgrounds in business, geology, world travel, parenting, armed services, administration, and showbiz. And when she offered us a position, we all jumped. In fact, Kitty Drew says that she interviewed at another school, where the principal said, "Oh, if you have the chance to work for Nancy Calhoun, take it."

Since this is an insider's view, I bet you all want to know -- out of the public eye, behind closed doors -- is she really so considerate, positive, and well-spoken? Sorry to disappoint any news reporters here, but the answer is, yes, yes, and yes. We can trust that what she says to us face to face is what she believes in her heart, and it's no less than what she says to anyone else. And I bet all of us have had to go behind closed doors with her to confess our own mistakes, and, I, for one, always leave as if I've received absolution from Mother Superior.

These past eight years, I've spent a lot of time working with teachers from Cobb and surrounding counties. I find that, whenever they relax, they talk exclusively about their problems with overbearing and incompetent administrators. Whenever teachers of the Walker middle school relax, we talk about something interesting we've discovered, or ways to reach certain students, or we talk about the arts, or world affairs. I think that says a lot about Nancy Calhoun, the choices she made, the priorities she has set, and the way she leads. And when I tell those public school teachers how we think of Nancy as a colleague, they can't imagine it.

The truth is, we in the Middle School faculty have never referred to Nancy as the Boss. She has been our teacher, and she has been our friend -- and that's the real inside scoop.

1 comment:

W. Scott Smoot said...

After I delivered my address, Headmaster Don Robertson recounted seeing a bewildered man hanging out in the Middle School hall. Asked if he needed assistance, the man replied, "No, I just spent thirty minutes with Nancy Calhoun, and I think she was chewing me out, but I feel pretty good about it."