Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.
For Barbara Harmon, hiring former Germantown High School students to teach at that Memphis school is one of the great joys of her job as principal there.
“We have 15 teachers who were students,” said Harmon, a finalist this year for Tennessee Principal of the Year. “… I believe this is the ultimate compliment — to have our former students to return to give back to our current students.”
Harmon, herself, began her career decades ago at Germantown High. Before being hired, the University of Memphis graduate says she called Shelby County Schools every day asking for a teaching job.
“Two weeks after school started, I received a call to report to Germantown High School for an interview,” Harmon said. “I was hired by Ernest Chism [Germantown’s then principal], and I began my teaching career the next day. I was so excited, but also scared.”
Now, more than 20 years later, Harmon shares how she uses her experiences in the classroom to encourage her teachers, create a strong school culture, and reach out to students in need.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
My first education job was as an accounting teacher at Germantown High School. I have a very organized and structured personality, so accounting fit right into my wheelhouse. I quickly found out that I loved teaching and my students. I found out later that the other teachers had chosen all of the “A students” and put them in their classrooms. But the students that came to me were wonderful. Some needed just needed additional intervention and support, and I loved working with every one of those students. I had a pretty good first year even though I was so young and new to the profession and only five years older than some of my students.
Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless…
I can observe students actively engaged in quality learning. Why? I truly believe that student learners are able to retain instructional information much better when they are doing the research, thinking, and are working together to learn. I am very student-centered and I’m motivated in preparing our students for high school life, but most of all preparing them for what will come after high school whether that is college, a good career, or the military. Nothing makes my day more complete than witnessing a student become aware of the significance of their learning and where it is taking them.
Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
I have been evaluating teachers for over 22 years. One of my most vivid memories was a new teacher who was attempting to teach without any understanding of the evaluation model, and [who] was unfamiliar with the rubrics and, quite frankly, with teaching. He struggled with classroom management and organization. We worked closely with the teacher to provide mentoring and modeling on how it was possible to meet the objectives of the evaluation rubrics while teaching an effective lesson. This teacher started his second year on a completely different foot. In fact, after a few years of teaching he became a mentor to other new teachers and has now earned his PhD in Educational Administration and is conducting teacher evaluations. This is a true success story, and I frequently use it to encourage new teachers to believe in the process.
What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
The change of which I am most proud was the immediate change in school culture once I was named principal. A school’s performance will never improve until the teachers feel appreciated and understood. Many schools claim that they promote a “family-like” environment and culture, but at our school we actually have a “family-like” relationship. Whether it is our faculty/staff, student body, or parents, we work together for our students to be successful throughout their four years at our school and then for life. We have multiple families who send all of their children to Germantown High for the instructional excellence and the caring atmosphere. I never forget my 20 years in the classroom and how it felt to be a teacher. Not a day goes by that I do not remember the good and bad days.
What is the hardest part of your job?
I think the hardest part of my job is pacing myself and not becoming overwhelmed with the responsibilities that are present every day. I am on call 24 hours a day and it is difficult to disconnect from the job. While it is difficult, it is also very satisfying.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.
We had an incident where we had a student who was stealing food from the lunchroom. We kept working with him and then found out that he was taking food home for his younger brother. Both parents had lost their jobs and there was no food. We worked with the cafeteria manager and the teachers to provide take-home food and then contacted social services. It made me realize how hard life can be for some.
What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
I hate telling teachers “no” or that they have just lost their jobs because of budget constraints. There does not seem to be enough money to meet the needs of all of our students whether it be technology, supplies, or staffing. Because we are an optional school and we have very specialized programs, it is often difficult to balance the disparity of class sizes [The optional schools system is a specialized program that students test into]
With the optional programs comes the need for specialized classes, which sometimes are smaller than the standard classes. With staffing limitations, the standard classes are sometimes at capacity. The optional teachers are teaching possibly five or six classes a day, which means planning is challenging.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice was from Ernest Chism, and he said to hire good teachers and to get out of their way.