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Spirited principal builds culture, trust at school

Robin Chenoweth
Tue, 2018-05-01 06:00

EHE alum epitomizes the essence of School Principals' Day

Any third-grader who’s up on mnemonic devices knows: Your principal is your pal. As America pays homage to administrators on School Principals' Day, it’s worth bearing in mind that they are much more.

Recent studies on successful schools are clear. Principals have a sizable impact on test scores, graduation rates, teacher turnover and academic achievement. That’s because talented school leaders create a positive climate by encouraging teacher collaboration and helping students believe they can succeed. That can-do culture, research shows, is even more persuasive than the home environment.

Tremont Elementary School Principal Jim Buffer, ’86 BS, ’89 MA, knows a thing or two about building a culture of trust and fostering relationships in schools. A day in his world underscores that even the subtlest messages matter.

The tie

8 a.m. – Typically, Buffer starts the day directing drop-off traffic and greeting students. But today he meets architects and administrative staff at the district office to discuss a building addition to his Upper Arlington, Ohio, school.

In a room full of power suits, the principal wears a tie with Peanuts characters on it. Still, Buffer is all business.

The group discusses a gabled roof versus a modern design; mobile classroom monitors; the need for a speed zone on the north side of the school — “things you never thought you’d have to do when you went into school administration,” Buffer says.

His preferred design — with a rooftop learning area and hallway reading nooks — has Buffer pumped as he hops into his car for the short drive to Tremont.

9:10 a.m. — His inbox is already mounting with matters that need attention. Proficiency tests stalled this morning when the state website went down. Parents want to discuss their children’s class placement for next year.

It’s a big day at Tremont. Special education teacher Bobby Huffman, ’17 MA, is receiving the Golden Apple Award from the Upper Arlington Civic Association. He has no idea it’s going to happen. Buffer — who loves a good prank — gleefully sets up a fake meeting with the teacher, then with his staff orchestrates an “incident” that will bring the unsuspecting teacher to the cafeteria for the big reveal.

“It’s going to be beautiful,” Buffer says, rubbing his hands together like a cartoon villain. “He will be stunned.”

In the hall, a small girl casually looks up as she passes him. “I like your tie,” she says.

“Me, too,” says the girl walking in single-file behind her.

Buffer, wearing his ever-popular Peanuts tie, steps off a bus at the school.

He heads outside to check on a mural being painted by a visiting artist and students. Second graders paint yellows, blues and greens on the brick wall. Calling each student by name, Buffer offers praise. He asks one boy if he liked painting.

“Yeah. I had a rough night last night, though,” the boy confides.

“Why is that, buddy?” Buffer asks.

“My brother kicked me in the privates. Brothers,” the boy exclaims with an exasperated roll of his eyes.

Buffer doesn’t miss a beat. “Having had two older brothers, I understand. Are you guys getting along today?”

“Yeah.”

A rope has come loose on the climbing structure. The principal radios a maintenance worker. Students surround him as he walks back inside. They want to talk about the characters on his tie.

“I like Lucy,” one girl chimes in.

“Why? Because she always pulls the football away from Charlie Brown?” Buffer asks. “If my room was a mess when I was little, my mom called me Pigpen.” Everyone giggles.

Inside, Buffer remarks, “It’s very difficult to stay in a bad mood when you work in an elementary school.”

Students' notes and drawings decorate Buffer's office.

Infusing culture

10:20 a.m. – A chorus of greetings welcomes the principal as he steps into the music room. He points to a wall of guitars and ukuleles, which students play at an after-school club on Wednesdays.

Buffer can’t say enough good about Tino Benedetti, whom he nominated for Central Ohio Music Teacher of the Year. (Benedetti won.) “He brings a lot of life to the school,” Buffer said. “He is just amazing.”

He has similar praise for the art teachers, “spectacular;” the instructional specialist, “so good;” the counselor, “awesome.”

“My philosophy has always been that building culture is the most important part of the administrative job,” he says. “Some administrators really focus on data, data, data. And that’s wonderful. But you can’t do that at the cost of culture. I strive to let our teachers know how much they’re appreciated.”

11:30 a.m. – Time for the Golden Apple ruse. During a team meeting assessing progress of special ed students, Buffer feigns a text. “(A student) is causing a ruckus in the cafeteria,” he says to Huffman.

The group is off in a sprint. They arrive at a cafeteria filled with balloons, students and civic association members wearing gold jackets. Huffman is confused and Buffer thinks it’s hilarious. The teacher receives his golden apple and everyone cheers.

1 p.m. – In Buffer’s office, mementos fill shelves and walls: Presents from students. Stuffed animals. A photo of him receiving his diploma from his father, the late EHE Emeritus Professor James Buffer. A student has pranked the prankster by taping tiny photos of himself throughout the office. “I love that kid,” Buffer says.

After scarfing lunch and answering a few dozen new emails, Buffer counsels an upset student. He calls his mom to fill her in. They share a laugh. “A little bit of humor can go a long way in terms of connecting with somebody.”

His staff and parents say Buffer is easygoing and strikes the right balance between being an authority figure and a friend. Maybe that’s why he’s been called into classrooms three times this day, to diffuse with humor, to reinforce correct behavior.

Buffer, front row, says his mother made him wear a tie for his kindergarten photo at Tremont Elementary in 1968.

A tie, even in 1968

2:10 p.m. – Buffer shares a sepia photo of kids with Peter Pan collars and dated hairstyles. The architecture behind the kindergarten cohort is familiar, the same brickwork the architect praised during the construction meeting. It’s Tremont Elementary.

In the front center, one boy stands, arms tucked stiffly at his side. “That’s me,” Buffer says. “I’m the only person wearing a tie.”

The boy standing to his left, a lifelong friend, sent the photo after Buffer became Tremont’s principal two years ago.

As school dismisses, Buffer races from bus to bus, checking in with drivers, talking with children. He stoops to pat a dog’s head, darts into the teacher’s lounge to grab a tray of cupcakes, then hoofs it to the library for Bobby Huffman’s staff reception.

Joking with the teachers, he seems in the right place, at the right time. The building, the old parts and the new, mark the passage of time. And Buffer does, too. His tie is different, but he wears the same grin he did in his kindergarten photo. Some things, it seems, were just meant to be.

 

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