It’s 7:15 a.m. and it’s raining. The weather doesn’t matter however, because he is standing outside every day…rain, sleet, or snow, like the postman…greeting students as they walked in the building. Jeff Wright said good morning to each and every kid at King College Prep for six years.
I was lucky to have been his assistant principal (AP) and I am proud to be part of his leadership lineage because he is the principal I always strived to be. Greeting students was just the beginning of his day.
For National Principals Month, I would like to pay tribute to my mentor, Jeff Wright. He saw the leader in me and taught me most of what I know.
Cancel the meeting
Meeting…what meeting? I can’t believe how much time I spend preparing for, having and debriefing meetings nowadays. When I was Jeff’s AP, our morning check-ins took place on “the walk.”
If you were an adult and you wanted to have a conversation with him you better have on your walking shoes, because that’s the only way you were going to get his ear or hear some thoughts of his. I went on this walk with him through each hallway on each floor as he checked on each space in his 400,000 square-foot building. He knew that his presence and visibility would be the key to changing the narrative for the school. You can’t change something you don’t see. What gets monitored gets done—and ultimately improves.
The office staff was always complaining about never being able to find Mr. Wright because he was always in classrooms, like that was a bad thing. It’s funny to me now, because the actual role of the principal is instructional leader but people expect the principal to be in the presence of everything but teaching and learning. I remember that if you caught him in his office, he would stand to signal to you that you would not be staying too long.
The old way of doing the job seem to be an office-based approach. In 2008, that was not Jeff’s way. He wanted to be where the students were.
Be the work. Be the school. Be the leader
He was the people’s principal. Parents loved him, kids loved him and teachers respected him. As I reflect on why, I would say because he was accessible and reliable. Maybe it was the fact that he never missed a day in front of the building (the only time he took a day off was to get his appendix removed). Maybe it was that he knew every kids’ name and they knew that if he said he was going to do it, it would get done…and with a smile.
I never heard him complain or lament over the difficulty of the work. He did the job and did it well without a peep. This made it easy for the rest of us to do more. To see him pick-up trash, teach classes, sing with the choir, and chaperone dances.
He was the centerpiece of the school. He was the face of the school. He was the voice of the school.
I know he made his mark because, he has been gone from Chicago for 5 years, but when I run into students from the King College Prep classes of 2008-2016, they ask, “Have you talked to Mr. Wright?”
The Details Matter
While many may not have understood his ways and may have thought of him as a control freak, Jeff was intentional about every move he made. A school that had five principals in five years prior to his arrival needed someone who was going to get every detail right. Jeff made sure that the messages that went out in the school community were perfect and consistent. He made sure that the school voice was predictable, respectful and informative. He understood that while we were all individuals, we were one school.
In the world of school choice, selective enrollment and all the other complexities of education, branding is everything. He was the school’s brand manager before this was a thing. He wanted the student experience to be one that lived with them forever.
He knew the story he wanted to tell about our school and our students, so everything he did and said was in alignment with that story. From the school crest, to the font choice, to the graduation program, to each college acceptance letter of every student hung in the cafeteria, and every other tradition.The details matter. There were so many rituals that made the school feel as good as it did. But if you knew only one thing about our school, you knew that…We are King. We are college bound.
Have a sense of humor
Though the business of excellence was serious, he was funnier than people thought. My favorite story of the two of us was June 2010. It was the dreaded time of year when seniors are coming up with pranks. This particular year, they planned to toilet paper and egg the school (it’s good to have a confidential informant when you are the assistant principal). When I told Jeff, he wasn’t having it. So he did what any principal would do…he called me at 11:30 p.m. to pick him up so that we could stake out the school to catch them in the act.
So there we are…dressed in all black…waiting for them. Just as we were about to give up, he sees the first roll go up in a tree. “Go LeeAndra!” He shouts. I step on the gas and we give chase to the seniors. Jeff hops out of the car to chase them on foot. I do my best “Fast and Furious” driving impersonation for the assist…and we catch them! Senior prank cancelled!!!!
He is the only person I would have done a stake out with, and the only person two young and agile boys would let catch them.
Happy Principals Month.