'This is what I do'
- Jason Vondersmith
- Portland Tribune - Features
Jan Watt's persona still permeates Cleveland High
The term 'old school' gets thrown around, but for Jan Watt, it fits.
She could be relaxing and playing golf and sitting in the sun in Central Oregon and enjoying her retirement, but every day Watt makes her way to her beloved Cleveland High School, hoping to make an impact with students and faculty in the same tough, disciplined, no-nonsense fashion she has done for 42 school years. She works as a 'volunteer' special projects coordinator now after 34 years of teaching, but, really, her
title could be something more befitting of her strength and conviction and profile around the Southeast Portland high school:
'She's very dedicated,' says principal Paul Cook, who, along with then-outgoing principal Bruce Plato asked Watt to stick with the school upon her retirement in 2002. 'She is truly a person who is all about the kids. I haven't met too many people like that. Every school needs a Jan Watt. It's peace of mind with her. A special person, a special friend.'
Adds Anne Kate Peterson, a former Watt student and now CHS science teacher: 'This school wouldn't still be standing without her.'
The 63-year-old Watt's work at Cleveland has spanned five decades and thousands of kids. The first freshmen she encountered in 1967 would be 57 years old now.
'When you look at the decades, geez, I've been around a long time,' she says. 'But something that has never changed - I like this age group. These kids are phenomenally interesting. I find it very easy to advocate for kids this age.'
Watt has never married or had children. Instead she considers each of the fresh faces walking around the Cleveland halls her kids.
'This place, this community, this student body - tremendous parent corps, phenomenal alumni - this is my passion, this is what I do,' she says. 'If it gets to the point where things change - and who knows what the circumstances might be? - I know when it'll be my time to leave. I'll never outlive my usefulness. I'm very much adamant about that.'
The thing is, what would Cleveland do without her?
'She jokes about being married to Grover Cleveland,' says Kendra Gardner, a Cleveland physical education teacher and Watt's close friend. 'I've never met anyone more committed to an institution, to a purpose, to a cause.'
It's about taking ownership, Gardner adds. 'That is the number one thing I learned from her,' she says. 'It's not a career where you can check in and check out, punch the time card.'
Watt gets a little money for her work these days, from Cleveland, not the Portland Public Schools fund. But, Cook adds, for the amount of work she does, it amounts to being a volunteer position. Interestingly, a student asked her recently what she had done since August. Watt gave the kid a short list of things she had been a part of:
August registration; leadership class projects; PSAT/Explore/ACT testing; track dedication and phase four work; homecoming; soccer and volleyball announcing; football booth help; clubs; parents calls and shadows; foundation liaison; NCAA coordination; CHS Hall of Fame; OAKS testing; graduation/baccalaureate/senior recognition assembly/All-N Party; alumni association; eighth grade open house.
'It's a never-ending stream of talking with people,' says Watt, whose work with Cleveland High athletics over the years earned her a merit award from the PIL Athletic Hall of Fame.
Watt, who attended old Washington High and got degrees from Portland State, taught social sciences, history, journalism and ran the school newspaper, the Clarion, formerly the Tomahawk, for all 34 years. She is proud to say several of her journalism students have made their way in the business, most notably Anne Reifenberg, a Pulitzer Prize winner with the Dallas Morning News.
'She was a wonderful teacher,' says Dave Rogoway, CHS '71, a Portland jeweler and former radio jock. 'She was young when I was there, and she could connect with kids because of her age. (Journalism) was the only class I liked. She made it fun, not a stuffy, burned-out teacher. She was tough, but not in a negative way. She had a lot of humor.'
These days, Watt inhabits a small office, the size of a large walk-in closet. She has a view of a hallway and constantly says hello to people. Students stop by all the time, some just to talk.
'Cleveland High School is extremely fortunate to have somebody like Ms. Watt,' says Eleanor Bray, student body president. 'You can go to her anytime with any activities going on.'
Bray says that Watt is a disciplinarian, 'but in a positive way. She's the type that wants people to try their hardest in everything they do.'
It is suggested to Watt that she could probably teach in Catholic school, with paddle or ruler in hand. She laughs heartily.
'I wouldn't go that far, and I'm definitely not a nun,' she says. 'I have been known to take liberties that I shouldn't have taken.' One area of crackdown has been at school dances, where the bumpin' and grindin' would not be tolerated.
Watt is all about setting high standards.
'It sounds terribly egotistical, but I have a knack for challenging and getting kids to rise to a standard,' she says.
Says Gardner: 'Jan comes at everything from a position of strength and conviction. And those are pretty strong and powerful words that girls, in particular, need to hear. She doesn't mince words, she'll get in your face and tell you how things need to be.'
All the years and kids run together - she'd remember faces, not necessarily names, she says. And she has recognized one significant change in the years.
'It wouldn't make me very popular with the public, but the honest God's truth, the changes are not so much in the students, but changes are within parenting,' Watt says. 'I've seen a dramatic change in the manner in which parents view their role, what they expect out of the school, which I believe today in large part are social service agencies.
'We feed, clothe, medicate, provide dental, transportation, you name it. Cleveland is a microcosm. We have excellent parental support, but we also have parents who don't care whether their kids come to school or not.
'I have kids who drop in here, and they just sit and talk and talk,' she adds. 'Because there's an adult willing to listen to them. It's a dilemma, because what do you do? Where do you look at the line? To me, there is no more line. The expectation is the schools will take care of it.'
But, it's part of her life as an educator.
'I laughingly say I'm way too young (to retire),' Watt says. 'I've been here a long time, I'm very invested in this community and this school. If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't come to work.'