From the Classroom to the Principal's Office

Kevin Petrone was hired as a teacher at Thetford Elementary School (TES) in 2010 after working as a second grade teacher at Samuel Morey for seven years. As a first grade teacher at Thetford,  he quickly earned the reputation as patient, but firm. I can attest to his patience:  it took working almost the entire year with my daughter to keep her shoes on during circle time on the rug-- and it paid off! (Although she still prefers to be barefoot, her shoes are usually on her feet the whole school day now.)

In 2013, Kevin was hired as TES's interim principal and now holds the principal position. He just started his fourth year and draws on his eleven years as a classroom teacher in his approach to leadership. I talked with Kevin recently about his transition to administration -- the opportunities, challenges and areas of focus.

What prompted your transition from classroom to principal's office?

I had always thought about moving to administration. What happened at TES is that an opportunity presented itself. I jumped sooner than I would have, but Keith Thompson moved [out of the position as TES principal] to fill an assistant superintendent roll, and I turned to UVEI to get principal certification.

I also wanted to extend my impact beyond classroom. I was a competent teacher. Colleagueship, sharing ideas and bringing things into the school is hard to do at classroom level. The administrative role makes it easier to influence school culture and climate. I have more of an impact in that role.

What do you find most rewarding about the principalship? What do you miss?

I’m in my fourth year, and it’s extremely different from the dream! I sometimes compare being a principal to having a baby: you don’t really know what it’s like even though people tell you what to expect. So much goes on behind the scenes. As a classroom teacher, you don’t really know. You make judgements about your administrators. Now I have more respect for the position.

What have you found surprising about this job?

Facilities and maintenance. Some days the custodian isn’t in, and I’m fixing toilets, getting phone calls in the middle of night that heat and water are out. I also spend a lot of time on special education law. I’ve learned so much about this.

What are the biggest joys of the job? The challenges?

Joys? Working with the larger school community. community responses, community feedback and conversations with people who are really satisfied. I really enjoy having those conversations with people and passing that feedback on to those responsible. I have way more connections -- parents, school boards, local communities.

Challenges? So many on a daily basis. I have high expectations for myself in this role -- the matter of prioritizing is a challenge. On any given day your plan can go out the window. Those things that come up are pressing, like sitting down with a child who needs you. It’s easy to be removed from kids in this role. So it’s important to be present. I don’t have a daily influence on kids, but it’s there. But I’m more connected with them throughout their life here. As an elementary teacher, once kids move out of your classroom, you barely see them. Now I have them for seven years. I have a different perspective.

This year there’s a focus on Project Based Learning (PBL) at TES. Why PBL? What were you seeing in the school that led you to choose this approach?

It’s funny, as the supervisory union was forming this initiative around PBL, at TES, our school leadership team and groups of teachers were already talking about student engagement. We created value statements a few years ago, and PBL was on our list.

What are some examples of successful PBL at TES?

It’s still our first year and it’s in progress. The first grade farm stand is a great example. It was done last year and this year it involved more than one classroom -- harvesting the garden and making products, selling after school, donating to charity. We have smaller PBL projects, too -- the sixth grade mapped the playground. They calculated the square footage so we can get an idea about how much fertilizer we need year-to-year. It’s more authentic, it removes the text book. The kids see value in what they’re doing.

What school-community connections do you think may be enhanced?

Our PTO is in process of developing a directory of business and community members with expertise who would be willing to come to school and share their expertise; what subject teachers are working on and an expert they can go to find resources. This is a work in progress. Our goal is to have a bank of people who can help kids with the project they’re working on.

The principal's job is challenging, but rewarding. It’s a good feeling.

Interview conducted by Kristen Downey

Kevin Petrone is the principal at Thetford Elementary School.  He graduated from UVEI’s Principal Intern Program in 2014.