|by Harry & Rosemary Wong
Special to the Gazette
Surviving Without a Principal
“One day I was in the school with 980 6th and 7th grade kids and staff. The next day I was gone for eight weeks.”
Debra Beebe is the Principal at J. F. Drake Middle School in Auburn, Alabama. When she got the call to participate in the CBS reality show, Survivor, she had only one week to prepare everything before she left. “Not to mention,” she adds, “according to the show’s contracts, I could not tell anyone, but family, where I was going.”
Debra credits her two Assistant Principals, Duriel Barlow (7th grade) and Sandy Resa (6th grade), as the reason Drake Middle School ran so well in her absence.
“We have established administrative procedures, responsibilities, and routines that assisted in a smooth transition in my absence,” Debra says.
Debra, Duriel, and Sandy work as a team and emphasize communication as the key to success. Having similar personalities, Debra says, they all work together very well. They are united by their love of kids, outgoing natures, and the belief in success through a positive attitude.
“Each assistant principal is assigned specific responsibilities. Tasks are divided among the leadership in my team,” says Debra. “If one administrator is absent, the others naturally cover any responsibility of the missing person.”
Debra says, “While I was away filming Survivor, a student passed away, they had to hire a new office secretary, continue team academic meetings, attend principal and administrative council meetings, and deal with multiple parent, student, and building issues. I returned to a building still standing and still functioning as if I never left.”
In Her Absence
Ask Debra who ran the school in her absence and she will tell you, “The same people who do when I am there."
The school never missed a beat while she was away. Every decision made at J. F. Drake Middle School is based on a team method. Besides the administrative team, there are teacher teams that focus on various aspects of professional development, educational techniques, and school organization. There are five teams of three 7th grade teachers, and five teams of four 6th grade teachers.
J. F. Drake Middle School is located in a college town, and so they are constantly bringing in fresh, new teachers to their staff. Debra gives each new teacher a copy of The First Days of School and goes over the book in detail with the help of a PowerPoint presentation. They then meet with the new staff each month and a chapter is discussed in a book group setting. She says, “I have a veteran teacher that told me he still pulls your book the beginning of each year to get him ‘fired up!’” Click here to see Debra’s new teacher PowerPoint presentation.
With a school set up in teams, it takes no time at all for new teachers to get acclimated. Debra says new teachers are welcomed into their teams with open arms, given mentors and professional support, and even provided with a gift basket!
“Teachers are encouraged to visit the classrooms and observe lessons of our master teachers. Team meetings, curriculum meetings, and grade-level meetings are held to discuss routines and procedures,” says Debra.
It’s not only the teachers and administrators who work in teams. At J. F. Drake Middle School, even the students are a part of these teams! Much like in Harry Potter, each student’s team is his home. “It is our desire that each student at Drake Middle School feels a part of a family—their team,” says Debra.
All of the teams are named after cats. Leopards, Cheetahs, Tigers, Panthers, everyone is a Wildcat! Teams have colors, t-shirts, slogans, locations, cheers, and flags. Students and teachers come together to support each of their teams. Team identity is a large part of the culture at J. F. Drake Middle School.
Procedures, Practice, Tradition
Procedures, Practice, and Traditions are the driving force at J. F. Drake Middle School.
Procedures at J. F. Drake Middle School center around ROAR:
ROAR is a behavior system with rules. Please see Chapter 18 in The First Days of School
It is important to know the difference between rules and procedures.
For every area of the campus there are four ROAR categories. Within each category are procedures for students to follow. Click here to see Drake Middle School’s ROAR rules and procedures.
Debra says, “Procedures, procedures, procedures are the key to success.” Procedures such as the ROAR school-wide ones helped the school run efficiently while she was away filming Survivor.
Drake Middle School uses a Positive Behavior Support (PBS) program to reinforce the procedures at the school.
“In the past, we took for granted that kids knew how we expected them to behave and what appropriate behavior was,” says Debra. “This is the first year we actually modeled what behavior we want.”
On the first day of school, teacher teams were assigned to various areas of the campus. The teachers taught a PBS lesson so students could practice the rules of these areas. They acted out what to do and what not do. And yes, this included flushing the toilets!
Students were then asked to design some form of advertisement, game, or presentation of the rules they practiced. These were shared with classmates for further reinforcement.
J. F. Drake Middle School is rich in traditions, from their city-wide pep rallies to Summer Camp Drake Middle.
Summer Camp Drake Middle is a transition program for incoming 6th graders. On the last day of school every year, 5th graders from six feeder elementary schools receive a “Congratulations” letter. These letters are personally addressed to each child and contain their team assignments and the dates of their Summer Camp session.
On the day of the camp, students and parents are invited to the school to meet their teammates, participate in games, and even learn how to use their lockers. Debra says, “The staff is in camp shirts; We Are Family is blaring from the speakers; and pom-poms are shaking as the staff welcomes their new student families.”
Students spend the day bonding with their teachers and teams. Meanwhile, parents meet with Debra to go over important information. They review everything from car lines to dress code to habits for success in middle school.
Camp Drake Middle has become a tradition not only in the school, but in the community as well.
Each team holds a big celebration at the end of every nine weeks. During this celebration, students are chosen to be acknowledged for their attributes.
Debra says, “We celebrate success for everyone. Every child, even those whose successful traits are difficult to see, will be celebrated at some point during the year.” Sometimes teachers have to dig deep to find the trait to celebrate. Debra compares this task to a box of Cracker Jack.
The Importance of a Teacher’s Role
Being on Survivor not only fulfilled a life-long dream for Debra, it has also helped her to become a better educator and administrator.
She says, “[People] may think they know how much a child born into poverty treasures something as simple as a pencil or a book. I thought I knew. But I didn’t, really, until this experience. I now know what real hunger and loneliness feel like.” She says she understands more clearly now what underprivileged students are feeling, and why they may struggle socially or not perform well in school.
“I also understand how unfair it is for us to require students to perform mental and physical tasks when they are hungry and tired,” says Debra. (Her students like to tease her for the fact that she failed a math problem in a challenge on Survivor. In her defense,
Debra acknowledges, “I knew there was an end to my experience. Some children live in these conditions daily and never see the end.”
Debra came to realize just how important her role is, how important the role of a teacher is, to a student who has nothing else. When a child is needing, there is nothing more special than the supportive and loving environment like the one at J. F. Drake Middle School.
Our Mission Is to Carry On
How far did Debra make it on Survivor?
What happened to her school while she was away those fall days?
How does Survivor apply to you?
For a printable version of this article click here.
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