Sharing the stage with pros

“And at the same time, you are of course a performer, but it’s very important that you understand that your role as a performer is to get the best performance from those wonderful colleagues that you have the chance to work with. “ Michael Tilson Thomas

As we added people to JRA’s staff this school year, I worried that it would be a rocky transition. Last year’s smaller staff had to scramble, but we all knew our parts and had each others’ backs. And we really liked each other. New people, especially those who were not known to us, could make for uncomfortable moments if they weren’t just the right people.

We’ve been together this year long enough that I can say with certainty that my fears were unfounded. Sometimes I step back and watch in amazement at the give and take, the support, and the sense of humor that this great staff exhibits. We play off each other’s strengths and support one another where we are weakest. And while the kids are the beneficiaries, it sure does make work fun.

Marion Houser came on board before we had a name or a building or even paychecks. That first summer, the two of us carried boxes, raised money, and did the nuts and bolts work of making this crazy idea come to life. Marion is a chemist by training and a teacher and organizer by inclination. We frequently know what the other is thinking. On Friday a student asked the two of us a question. We paused, looked at him with the same expression, and gave the exact, not-so-obvious answer at the same time in the same words. Marion, whose middle name must be efficiency, handles many of the logistical details of the day. She gets lunch ready for 17 kids, making it look effortless in the process. She handles our Friday Lockhart’s order and keeps everyone’s accounts straight. She goes with the morning running club and has been known to carry a 120 pound child across a chilly creek when it was the only way to get her to the other side. The kids know that Mrs. Houser will not put up with any nonsense, but she is the first one to advocate for a child who isn’t getting a fair shake. And she sure can teach math!

Tarish Pipkins started last year part-time, but came on board full-time before the year was out. He’s everyone’s favorite teacher, one who makes time for all the kids and shows an amazing gentleness with those who need it. He’s a gifted artist, a magical puppeteer, and a graduate of the university of life, which means the kids listen to him in a way they may not others. I’ve never seen him lose his temper with a child, but I have seen him set one straight with a calmness that no one mistook for leniency. He leads a daily kickball game that includes most of the school. Everyone is welcome to play as he pitches, referees, and cheers for each participant. At least once a game I hear that wonderful Mr. P laugh and I go to the window and watch joy in action.

Maggie Pesce joined us this year in August. She shone in a group of thirteen outstanding candidates for the job, and we have been more than happy with our choice. With a week’s notice, she packed up in the midst of a hurricane and moved down from Vermont. Maggie can be seen one moment bouncing down the hall on one of the hoppity balls, pigtails flying, and then leading a calming class of yoga the next. She challenges each student to be their best, taking great joy in finding an unknown talent in each child. Her classes incorporate drama, graphic novels, building projects, and movement. Trained in Quaker mediation, she often sits two students down and guides them through their difficulties with each other. She looks for just the right book that will engage each of her students, and kids who were previously antagonistic to reading now sneak off to a beanbag chair in her room to read, while they listen to the calming gurgle of her fish tank.

Katie Reily, our Speech and Language Pathologist/ Therapeutic Educator, joined us this year and is with us three weeks at a time, followed by three weeks away to recharge and continue her learning. When she is with us, she works with a few students intensively, either in articulation, expressive or pragmatic language, or in helping a child feel comfortable in his body. She also leads our social thinking lunch groups, calling upon Michelle Garcia Winner’s work. Katie sees the students with such gentle, caring eyes, and her manner has inspired us all to work to reach her level of patience and kindness. She has the uncanny ability to spend a few sessions with a child and help us know just what that child needs us to do. The addition of this gifted practitioner has made us a much better school, and we all love the peacefulness that comes when she is in the building.

Behm Williams, a LSU student, is with us this year as a paraprofessional. He was hired to serve as a shadow for a student who was having a difficult time, but he is so much more than that. He helps in classes and is always willing to take a walk with a student who needs time and space away from the group. He regularly comes out with an insight about a student or a situation that surprises me with its accuracy, often about something I totally missed. His sensitivity to even the most difficult of our students is wonderful to watch. As the youngest of the staff, he is able to relate to the students while still maintaining strong boundaries.

Sarah Flanary, one of our parents, started last year as an Augustine Project tutor for one of our students. It quickly became apparent what a gifted reading tutor she was, and this year we have contracted with her to add four more reading students. She also teaches Spanish twice a week, goes with our morning running club, and is a regular substitute. Sarah expects great things from her students and goes out of her way to find opportunities in the community for our kids. She teaches them HOW to learn and is their greatest cheerleader when they succeed. Her gentle manner and strong advocacy for her students causes them to want to be their best. I have great trust in and respect for her insights and thoughts, and I often bounce ideas off her.

Ryoko Honeycutt is a volunteer who showed up last year wanting to help. We quickly took her on as a Japanese teacher. Her students love her weekly class, and even kids who sometimes have behavior issues learn with respect and diligence. She speaks in a quiet calm voice and gently corrects when needed. Ryoko assured me she did not have training as a teacher, but she is a natural. After her class, she stays and cleans, restoring order and leaving a clean, peaceful building in her wake. This past week she hosted 31 parents, teachers and students at her restaurant, Akai Hana in Carrboro.

Claudia Kaplan joined us our first year as school administrator, and it’s fair to say she is indispensable. Claudia is the left brain to my right; together we make a great team. She balances the checkbook, pays the rent, organizes fund raisers, makes sure we have supplies, reminds us to have fire drills, and deals with all the frustrating minutiae that go into running a school. A gifted writer as well, she takes on so many of the day-to-day details that would never occur to me, and does them with grace and competence. And I’ve never met anyone who can nag in such a gentle, understanding way. That’s a gift in itself. Administrators often gain the reputations as bean counters who have no patience with vision; we are so lucky to have Claudia who truly gets and supports what we do.

While not officially on our staff, Natalie Mason, Occupational Therapist from A Place to Grow, joins us on Wednesdays to work with three students, and we count her as one of us. She does a great job of listening to the difficulties we have with her students and gives us great ideas to help them. She is calm, exceedingly competent, and cares for all of our kids. This is her second year working with our students at JRA and we respect and appreciate the work she does.

What all these people have in common is the ability to make the work we do more important than their egos. They love these children and aren’t afraid to tell them that. Their boundaries are strong and so is their sense of humor. Even after a hard day, I never mind going to work, knowing I’ll come in to a whole group who are willing to try again each day and laugh about the day before. We may have a beautiful building and the world’s best parents, but what makes Just Right Academy such a great place is the staff. There is no question about that and I am honored to call them collegues.