While driving home from a third-round interview for Principal at Old Quarry Middle School on a sunny filled April afternoon, my phone rang and I quickly scrambled to answer. On the other end was Dr. Courtney Orzel, Superintendent of Schools at District 113A. I answered with excitement, and Dr. Orzel stated, “Hello, Joe. They loved you, and I would like to offer you the position of principal at Old Quarry Middle School.” My heart began to race, and I quickly answered her saying, “Yes! Absolutely! I am so excited!” The reason I want to share this with all of you is because that specific phone call served as the first step of an unbelievable journey for a first-year principal.

July 1, 2019, was my first official day as a building principal. I was eager to send out my first email to my new staff. This was my opportunity to introduce myself, and the email had to be perfectly written and set the tone for the upcoming school year. One of the focal points in my email was to inform the staff that I wanted to offer one-on-one interviews with each staff member so we could get to know each other as individuals. I also wanted to use this as an opportunity for everyone to offer any and all feedback that they could provide me to help improve Old Quarry Middle School. During that summer, I met with 90% of the staff. These one-on-one conversations were extremely beneficial to me because it helped me understand the entire landscape of the building and to help identify areas for improvement. After hearing from each staff member, I was able to determine that communication, discipline, and staff morale were all areas for improvement and it got me thinking that our organizational structures and processes needed to be improved.

The first order of business was to establish a theme for the school year. Before starting, I noticed that a lot of staff members were tweeting out pictures of their classes and telling the Twitter world what their “Why?” was. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I decided on the theme of “What is your why? My why is you.” Having a theme allowed us as a staff to have a common goal to ensure that every decision we made from that point forward was going to be for our students and each other.

Once we had established the theme for the year, I needed to prepare for a spectacular opening day that had to be perfect. This was the first time that I would be in front of the staff and had to convey that I was their leader. During the one-on-one interviews, it was apparent challenges existed. The feedback allowed me to come up with the next big opportunity. I called Dr. Orzel and asked if I could have a fire in the courtyard during the opening day. She hesitantly answered, “Yes, but please do not burn the place down.” Now, I can’t take full credit for this idea because I learned of this from one of my mentors, building principal, Allan Davenport. The idea was to provide staff with an opportunity to brainstorm anything negative from the previous years and write it onto a print out of a paper ship. When they finished writing, the teachers walked to the courtyard and placed their thoughts into the bonfire. I explained to the staff that from this point forward, everything in the past was gone, and it is time to move forward. Observing staff participate in this activity gave me great joy as I watched staff literally letting go of anything and everything negative that was on their minds, personally or professionally. It was like observing each staff member remove 25-pound weights off their backs and shoulders.

After staff made their way back to their seats, I utilized Mentimeter, an online survey tool, to ask the audience a question, and the question could be answered utilizing their cell phones. Their answers to the question: “What makes a family a family?” were quickly being placed into a word web projected at the front of the room. Staff members provided answers of loyalty, honesty, compassion, love, and support, to name a few. The answers were truly amazing and even more than I could ever imagine. I stated to the staff, “Congratulations! You just normed everything we will do as a staff from this point forward!” I had those word webs printed out into window decals and placed them on the window of each classroom door. This reminded the staff every time they entered their classroom what we stood for, and that moment helped us realize that we were the #OQFAMILY!

As a leader, it is extremely important to help your employees feel safe and valued. As the building principal it was my number one goal to help staff understand that they were valued and appreciated on a daily basis. Without them realizing it at first, during the opening day, we, together, created the organizational structure.

It is important that other leaders understand that without a strong organizational structure, the school cannot function. It is vitally important to provide a place for your teachers to flourish and take chances. The Old Quarry staff is a staff that will do anything for kids and their colleagues. If it needs to get done, they will come together and make it happen. Sometimes, as leaders, we get in the way of teachers doing their jobs. When we let them fly and take risks, they will surprise you in more ways than one could ever imagine.

Having a strong organizational structure in place has allowed Old Quarry Middle School to continue to provide students with learning during this remote learning period. The staff at Old Quarry has continued to provide exceptional learning opportunities through a number of ways. Staff is providing direct instruction through the use of Google Meets. Social workers are providing social-emotional services for students remotely. Special education teachers are stepping out of their role as co-teachers and becoming 1-1 special education teachers. Though the building is closed, school is not.

Staff members are continuing to work together to plan engaging lessons for their students. The staff has truly answered the call of having a “whatever it takes” attitude for our schools. The Old Quarry staff has truly transformed into a family and has shown our students and community that we care for our students, whether they are in school or at home. Although this is not the picture-perfect ending to the year we had hoped for, it has given us all the security to know we can make it through anything! This is exactly why the OQ Family is a School to Watch… and will continue to be for years to come.

Joe Sweeney
Old Quarry Middle School