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The guiding principal

Teaching is a tough occupation
by: Jim Clark Gresham Outlook Education Reporter Rob Cullivan talks with students while acting as 'Principal for a Day' at Powell Valley Elementary School on Thursday, Oct. 27.

Outlook reporter Rob Cullivan acts as 'principal for the day' at Powell Valley Elementary School

When the Gresham-Barlow School District invited me to serve as 'Principal for a Day' at Powell Valley Elementary, a kindergarten-to-fifth-grade school, I relished the opportunity to show these public educators how they should do their jobs.

By the end of the day, however, I had learned something.

I couldn't do their jobs.

Here are eight other lessons I learned:

1. Educators get up early.

As a part-time musician and entertainment writer, I tend to go to bed late because, well, you know. Nonetheless, I rose before the birds on Oct. 27 and made my way to Gresham City Hall, where several civic and business leaders - including Outlook Advertising Manager Cheryl Swart - had assembled to also serve as honorary principals in the district.

Fueled by coffee and bagels, I listened as Superintendent Jim Schlachter gave us an assignment for the day. Unfortunately, I had set my coffee on the sheet to which he referred, rendering it unreadable. Which led to my next lesson:

2. Becky Kadrmas is the most organized person on Earth.

Powell Valley's real principal, Becky Kadrmas, has probably never ruined an assignment sheet with coffee. Yet, despite her neat manner of dress and her organized office, she was far from formal, and proved to be a delightful person with whom to spend the day.

Kadrmas introduced me to several dedicated staff members, including Educational Assistant Tracey Junk. She volunteered this year to teach dance to the students, to help make up for the fact their gym classes have been cut in half.

'I just have danced since I was 5,' she said. 'It did a lot of great things for me, got me motivated, so I decided to do it for the kids.'

3. Powell Valley has overcome adversity.

From Kadrmas, I learned Powell Valley has 448 students, almost half of whom are from low-income families, yet had doubled its reading and math scores over the past two years, an achievement she repeatedly attributed to her staff, not herself.

4. I am an old-school disciplinarian.

I heard teachers gently, but firmly, telling students to make 'appropriate choices' when they misbehaved. I, on the other hand, gruffly told two second-grade boys to stop fighting over a chair. The teacher, Heather Stewart, was not offended by my intrusion.

'I could use all the help I can get,' she said with a chuckle, a comment that exemplified my next observation.

5. Our schools are crowded.

Some classrooms have had as many as 38 students this year, Kadrmas told me, and I generally saw about 30 students in every classroom I visited. Ideally most teachers prefer to have 25 to 28 students per class because it allows them to have a few minutes daily of individual contact with each student. However, thanks to the decreasing staff numbers in our schools, that's not likely to happen for a while, which concerns Kadrmas.

'I think that we are always on the edge of not having enough supervision to keep every child as safe as we want,' she said. 'If we cut anymore, I don't know how we're going to be able to do this.'

6. It's hard to teach.

In Molly Edeline's second-grade classroom, Jenny Shi and Daniel Carballo Espinoza were both writing and illustrating stories about their lives when Daniel asked me to help him spell 'tree.'

When we got to the second 'e,' he wanted to know why the word needed it. I searched for an answer that never came before distracting him by saying how much I liked his drawings.

Meanwhile, Edeline said children are using iPods for the first time to record their narratives and hear them played back. Hearing yourself read allows you to improve your fluency, she said.

'I can't wait till the end of the school year to see how their fluency improves,' Edeline added.

7. I have forgotten math.

I almost destroyed my educational credibility when I forgot how to figure out the square root of a square's area, and wound up giving one boy the wrong answer to a math problem.

Fortunately, though, my presence among the math students did not destroy their love of calculation.

Joseph Washburn, 9, a fourth grader, told me, 'I like numbers - you can do a lot of different equations with them.' Meanwhile, his classmate, Kelsey Klinger, 9, said she enjoyed the school's new online math software, IXL.

'It's so much fun to actually learn online, and the fun part of it is you can earn a prize,' she said. 'You can't wait to find out what it is and when you earn a prize, you just want to keep on going.'

Which led me to my final lesson:

8. Powell Valley has a lot of enthusiastic students.

Take Madisen Carew, 9, who told me about a book on sharks she was reading.

'They're cool,' she said. 'Their eyes are cool, the way that they are shaped and the way that they move.'

Or take Logan Baley, 7, going on 21, who may be the most verbose child in the district. The second-grader spent a good 10 minutes explaining to me why he was a fan of Wall-E, a Disney animated robot, as well as snakes, both subjects he was exploring through books.

'I don't want a bull python to swallow me,' he added.