Quilcene principal retires – again: Stebbins credits kids with keeping him young

Kirk Boxleitner kboxleitner@ptleader.com
Posted 3/7/17

Gary Stebbins promised the Quilcene School District he would stay on as its principal for two years, but it’s only now, as he reaches the end of his fourth year, that he’s retiring.

The reason …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

E-mail
Password
Log in

Quilcene principal retires – again: Stebbins credits kids with keeping him young

Posted

Gary Stebbins promised the Quilcene School District he would stay on as its principal for two years, but it’s only now, as he reaches the end of his fourth year, that he’s retiring.

The reason why he stayed on longer than he expected becomes clear if you follow him as he walks through the hallways of the K-12 campus, where he is greeted genially as “Doctor G” by students of all ages.

“In my 44 years as an educator, this is my fourth retirement,” Stebbins said. “The kids keep you young. You’re forced to grow dendrites to stay one step ahead of them.”

Stebbins believes “you have to connect before you can correct,” and his office is a treasure trove of attractions to draw in students, from the tanks containing his fish and toad, which they can feed, to the action figure of Superintendent Chalmers from “The Simpsons” perched on the edge of his desk.

“A principal’s office shouldn’t be scary,” Stebbins said. “I have kids coming in all the time to redeem Attaboy or Attagirl slips, for when they get caught doing a good job. Expecting kids to respond because you’re in a position of authority over them doesn’t work. What I find works is to tell them, ‘Hey, why don’t you do me a favor?’”

Stebbins has no shortage of experience with kids whose school experiences haven’t always been as positive. During his decades as an educator in California, he taught science to juvenile delinquents at a rehabilitative ranch, and did so well that he became principal of a juvenile hall in San Jose.

“Unlike other jobs, everyone has an opinion about school, because everyone has been to school, if only as a student,” Stebbins said. “If your child has had problems in the past, you’re not likely to expect that your next interactions with school staff will be positive. But that’s exactly what I tried to give those kids.”

Stebbins stayed in San Jose to become principal of a middle school of 1,200 students, a position he held for more than 10 years.

‘BLESSING OF QUILCENE’

“It was when middle schools were transitioning out of being junior high schools,” said Stebbins, drawing parallels between steering that transition and adjusting to a K-12 school at Quilcene. “The blessing of Quilcene is that there’s not a huge bureaucracy, so you can change quickly, and those changes can be integrated at all grade levels at once. The curse is that you have to do it all.”

The state holds Quilcene accountable to the same standards as any other school district, even though it has a much smaller budget and far fewer staff members, he said.

“You can’t step into this job as a neophyte,” Stebbins said. “There’s so much complexity. When we hire new people, we can’t just look for an English teacher or a math teacher. We need people whose skills can be plugged into multiple areas. We need Renaissance men and women.”

Stebbins expressed pride, not only in having helped hire 60 percent of the district’s current staff, but also of not losing a single staff member to turnover last year.

“People talk about what the most important job of a principal is, but to my mind, the most important thing you can do is hire the best teachers you can,” Stebbins said. “Consistence is important. A teacher that a student has for just one year of his life can make a huge difference to the rest of his life.”

After an entire career in California, including a stint as a university professor in San Jose, Stebbins moved to Washington to be closer to his family, and came to Quilcene after a stint as principal of a now-closed school in North Kitsap.

“My grandkids live just up the road from here,” Stebbins said in his office in Quilcene. “My wife got me to apply for the job here, because I still had extra time and energy. Being a principal is a lifestyle.”

For the remainder of the year, Stebbins intends to stay hands-on with students, to the point that he’s taking his laptop to the cafeteria during lunch, so he can interact with the kids while still getting administrative work done.

“You see all these kids now, checking their phones between classes,” Stebbins said. “They’re information-rich, but lacking in experience, even in this little community. That’s not necessarily good or bad. It’s just a change, from one generation to the next. It is what it is. These kids are a microcosm of humanity, and you can’t help but laugh at what they get up to sometimes. You wouldn’t think that school principal is one of the happiest jobs in America, but studies have shown that it’s true.”

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment