In this episode I talk to Elementary Principal Craig McCalla.
Craig is in his 11th year as Principal in the small town Dexter Michigan. He was Michigan’s Region Two Principal of the year in 2012. He started out as a Special Ed teacher of Emotional Impaired students, then eventually made his way from assistant principal to principal of his own building.
We also talk about his path to the principalship, what he’s learned and what tips he has to share including having transgender students in his school. Click on "Read More" for the entire transcript.
Jonathan: Hi there everybody welcome to the principal entrepreneur. I'm your host Jonathan Royce. This is episode 49 of the principal entrepreneur where I provide tips and tricks, strategies and suggestion that answer the question; how do I become a great principle. I'll also interview principals and school leaders just like me and you and discuss their areas of expertise and how they overcome the challenges within their schools. We'll look to gain some insights on the strategies they use daily to help run their school.
In today's episode we'll talk to elementary principal Craig McCullough. Craig is in his 11th year as principal for the small town of Dexter, Michigan. He was Michigan's region two principal of the Year in 2012. He started out as an elementary or EI teacher then eventually made his way from assistant principal to principal of his own building. Today we're going to talk about his past to the principalship, what he learned and what tips he has to share in creating an inclusive environment in his school. Welcome to the show Craig.
Craig: Aye Jonathan thank you, glad to be here.
Jonathan: I am glad to get a chance to talk with you again. I really appreciate you taking the time and I want to start out with, kind of discussing your formative years. I know your family is important to you and I just wanted to learn how you… how your family influenced your decision to become an educator.
Craig: No problem so yes. So my youngest brother is cognitively impaired. So from a very young age I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I wasn't sure what I wanted to be the teacher of. I started out as an English major and then I decided to go into special education. I just felt that that group of students was one that could use some good people in it. So I actually went into EI instead of going to cognitive impairments, I went to emotional impairments. So that was my path as far as undergrad and then my major was an emotional impairment. So that gave me was an avenue to support some of our neediest kids.
There is always a population in schools, a marginalized group that needs extra support in our community that was where I felt I could be of a strong influence. So I watched my family go through the you know the IEP process. The process of getting a child into special education.
My youngest brother back in the early 80’s. He was the first inclusion student in Washtenaw County. So I watched that whole battle of well if you bring those kids into our school they're going to take away from the other kids. So those kinds of issues cycle. Back then that was the issue. Now special education students, right now, everybody wouldn't have, that wouldn't be an issue at all. It never is. We have students of all different disabilities throughout our schools and open our arms and support them every way we can. But it wasn't always that way. So I watched my family go through that, that support of working with the school could be made. And so as an educator I wanted to make sure I was there to support those families who were bringing those children into our schools and make sure that they knew that their children were going to be supported in our schools.
Jonathan: So what was and; growing up what was the.. if you look back on that, what was the most important takeaway that you learned from that experience.
Craig: It's just, you fight for what's important. Our children what's important you know you look at all families when they come to you as it is a building administrator now. When families come to me they don't have this global perspective of you know, all the students in Dexter or even just the students at Cornerstone, they care about their child. That's who they're there to advocate for. And what I took away from that is, that that is what is near and dear to a family's hearts.
I know coming in I have this global view of Cornerstone as my view of Dexter school, of all of our students here. But this family is coming in because they care about what's important to their child and as in, as a building principal, that was my biggest takeaway. Was knowing that when these families come in, they care about their child and they want what's best for their child.
Jonathan: Right so when you think about that just that transition from teacher to principal, how did that kind of work itself out.
Craig: That you know; it was me it was a smooth transition you know. I firmly believe that everybody in an administrative role needs to have some … have a good understanding special education and of those families. What it gave me when I walked into the principalship was, I've lived it. I've looked at as a brother, I've seen my family go through it so I knew that when I came in, that transition of working with these families; It's a critical role in what we do as an administrator and especially at the elementary school. My building is a young 5's - first, first and second grade building.
So this is right at the beginning of their schooling. So a lot of families still don't understand how it works. I need to provide support for their child. We sometimes give them more support than what the family even knew existed. So we're kind of that building block and that's what I see is my role that transition was. I want all families to know hey, here's what the school is going to do to support your child and then I feel that it's been a vital role because not a lot of people did that for my parents back then.
Jonathan: Right and speaking of the slow change that sometimes takes place in education, has there or have you ever gone up against any staff push back when it comes to inclusion? And what is… and how did you work your way through that.
Craig: Yeah well sometimes what happens is especially so part of you know, again with my degree of students with emotional impairments I'll just stick there. The students have aggressive outbursts either with the language, or will physically you know knock over a desk, because there will be something they're upset about and you'll get families and or teachers who will say or even some administrators say they need to go they need to be moved, they can't be here.
Craig: And that's always their first rationale is well moving part of it they let's move into a different classroom. I'm like so number one, we're not going to address or try and support this child for the reasons for the outburst. Our answer is just to move them and when you just move them, well then next class, guess what oh you already moved them once, let's move them again. And that is not what we're going to do;
So I've taken a pretty strong stance on all these students either our students with emotional impairment, sometimes students with autism they have these whether it's outbursts and whether people think like oh that shouldn't be in a classroom. That is not the approach. The approach is what are we going to do to support that child and those other children in the classroom?
The argument is that; we have 24 more that we have to care about. You're absolutely correct and I care about those kids just as much as I care about this one. But this isn't a perfect world where everything has to be made like perfect every day. We have to learn to deal with situations. You have to learn to deal with situations that arise and as building leaders you know as building leaders and as educators in there how are we going to support that child.
So I always go back to what are we not doing to support that child? What was the outburst for? Let's back up. What was in the antecedent before the thing that happened? That's where we need to focus our energy and put those supports in place for our kids and family so it doesn't happen. So that really has been you know the approach when I talk to other building leaders, when I talk to other staff members. They know that’s where it all starts, the andtecedent. We don’t react by yanking kids or out of our school or our classroom.
Jonathan: So how tough was that in your first year as a principal dealing with that type of situation with staff member that may have been there 10, 15 years.
Craig: You know that coming in, that was one of my strengths you know, I think being in the EI classroom for years, really understanding special education, understating special ed law really helped me. When I first came in, yep so I was, you know, I walked in as a 34 year old brand new principal and they tried to push real hard about well these kids have to, well when you can put down federal law and state law right in front of them and say this is what it is. And if we don't follow the law you and I can both lose our jobs.
Jonathan: Right right
Craig: Like no, like no we're going to investigate and see what happened, you're fired, I'm
fired. I'm not getting fired and this is what we're going to do; support every one of our kids. Once I came in with that approach that I felt very deeply of. They backed right off. Like this is how we support kids in our building and this is how we support kids in our district. Number one because it is the right thing to do. All kids means, all kids but on top of that we have our district policy, state policies and federal laws that this is what we do. This is how kids are taken care of. Once they understood kind of where I was coming from they knew not to question anymore. They knew that our mantra was what decision's best for kids. And that's kind of how it's been built around the last 11 years now. Sometimes our job as educators are made harder because we're doing what's best for kids.
Craig: We don't make it easier for us. We make it best for kids.
Jonathan: And that's; if you were going to sum up you know your perspective there on getting staffed to if not buy-in and fall in line. What would be your, your biggest takeaway learning the law or having conviction or …
Craig: I think it's a bit of both you have two, number one I think you have to understand you’re the contact in your district to teacher, contact in your district. But as a building principal you need to have a good relationship with your special ed director and your special ed team. If you're not a former special ed teacher and don't really understand the laws as well. They do your special ed director and your special education staff really do understand that law and you need to ask some questions because that gives you know, that gives you the know-how that you need to make sure all kids are supportive.
So number one it's finding the knowledge. If you don't have it, go find it. The second part is you need to have the convictions. That all means we're going to support all kids in our building and that you know, I truly feel that we as we as educators need to make the best decisions for our kids. And that needs to be also part of the mantra of the building.
Jonathan: Right I'd like to kind of transitions special ed is not the hot topic that it was maybe when you first started out or you were going through high school. Now it's LGBTQ and sexuality that seems to be the latest trend when it comes to inclusion. I know you presented on that and I'm wondering how those two kind of dove tail for you or if you had… if there was more struggle for this new this new topic or was it just a smooth transition because all means all.
Craig: You know in a lot of ways Jonathan that you know, all means all, also for me it really was a smooth transition. You know supporting LGBTQ community was important to me and to be honest you know about five years ago I really didn't know a whole lot. I knew as a building principal I'm going to support all kids but it wasn't till the first transgender student came to in the Cornerstone that I was like oh well here's what else were going to do.
You know and really it wasn't like this grand change or shock and my thinking. It was just oh well here's the student this is what we're going to do to support this student because we make that decisions for kids and that all means all. And then I started to find out a little bit more information. You know yes that it is a hot topic around here around our entire country right now the different laws you know, the Gavin Grimm case was going to the Supreme Court's and they backed off because of the new administration's view on title nine and how they interpret things.
You know the guidance policy here in the state of Michigan got a lot of traction and it's a lot of misunderstanding I think. So even though these are guidance policies what's good really for all kids there wasn't a lot of pushback. The state wasn't saying here are bylaws what you have to do. It was like this is just good practice for supporting our kids. I find there's a lot of misunderstanding out there. There's a lot of people who confuse gender identity with sexual identity. A lot of these people don't know that sexuality has nothing to do with it for a transgender student. It's just how they identify themselves.
Jonathan: … talk about that because I think you're right and I don't know a whole lot about the issue which is one of the reasons this is a great conversation for me. When you're talking about gender and sexuality what does that mean to you.
Craig: You know what, well you know sexuality is who you're attracted to and who you choose for your partner. And that gender identity is just the gender you identify with. What do I; do you identify as a male, do I identify as a female, do you identify somewhere in between and you know there's tons of research out there that shows you're right whatever gender you identify with your that that's who you are.
You know sometimes your parts don't mean like your bodily parts don't match your gender. A lot of these children know as soon as they can start talking I’m a boy, or know I'm a girl and that's just because that's how they see themselves. Their parts don't match when they know they know.
There's a recent study out there that shows you know if you show picture or images that are typically male or typically female and you hit the button with what you identify with there's a certain reaction time. Well what they've proven with all these thousands of tests is you can't fake it.
So if I identify as a male right now I can't fake to be female. Well it's just that the reaction time doesn't happen fast enough. But they say the person who identifies as a different gender who would be considered transgender can hit it every time. They know who they are. So there's lots of research out there you know, but part of comes down to again forcing someone else to either live a life or do something different because you just don't choose that for yourself. And to me it boggles the mind sometimes. You know all; a lot of the issue comes around bathrooms.
Craig: You know and you and I've had enough conversations Jonathan that you know and I think it's we all do the same things in a bathroom. We all make the same noises, we all appreciate privacy, we all go and use the bathroom and leave.
Jonathan: Absolutely, and wash your hands.
Craig: Yes you wash your hands. Exactly. It's a lot we teach little kids make sure you wash your hands. You know and in I don't see why we need to take one of those basic rights away from people. You know in the same thing why are we not putting those protections in and to make sure they're not being bullied or harassed or taking you know; or finding accommodation to support them.
If you have you know a 90 pound freshman in high school who's getting bullied teased and harassed and in the locker room you're going to make an accommodation for that student. Everybody would be up in arms if you would continue to allow this this child to be bullied and harassed and picked on. They'd be all over the place but there's people out there like if they're transgender well you know it’s… that's their choice and they just have to deal with it.
Jonathan: mm hm
Craig: It's not right.
Jonathan: I mean …
Craig: It's not right and that's where you know, I feel very fortunate being in the district I'm in. Of all of our work of talking about supporting our LBGTQ students and our transgender students they are you know everybody has been behind us. You're always going to get some people that pushback but this is where the community has stepped up and said we appreciate what Dexter school is doing to support all of our kids.
Jonathan: If you would have and this is off topic a little bit. But in terms of the homogeneous visual nature of Dexter ah it's … what are your demographics?
Craig: Dexter is primarily white. I mean we are … I don't have the numbers but about or around 95, 96 percent white. You know our biggest group of diversity is our socio-economic. You know status are low-income families. We have very few students of color within our buildings and then that is the one whenever families come I talked about tons of incredible things about extra schools when they ask you know, what is the drawback what is something. I always talked about our lack of diversity.
You know and that's really still in the past year you know, I've been doing a lot of the work with the LBGTQ work. But we've really picked up in the last year doing more with social justice of really looking at how do we make sure our schools even though they are primarily white I mean very white; how do we make sure that all of our students of color all over other marginalized groups of children and families when they walk in our doors you know, okay you are supporting us.
So we're really doing a lot of work around how do we have conversations with our students. You know again five to eight year old conversations we're not going way in depth about major issues right now. What I found with a lot of reasons when people I've been talking to, I've worked a lot with Dr. Sheila Griffin here in the area around you know, social justice and diversity and a lot of the information she shared with me and what I've you know what I've come to understand is; we don't talk about it with our children enough.
So we say we're nice to people were kind to people but we've never really talked about other religions or people of color or other … they're marginalized people. We just say remember we were nice to everybody. So what happens is our students then come back to, okay but we never talk about that person of color, so there must be something wrong with them. And what happens is, they make it up.
So we've; I've actually read a wonderful story here to all of my classes, ‘The Last Stop on Market Street’ by Matt de la Pena. It's a beautiful book. It's won the Caldcott, Newberry and Corrette Scott King award. Just for number one; the story, the visual pieces and the message in the book. And in there there's one part of it where Nana and CJ, which are two characters in the book, are going to go help and support people at a soup kitchen. Well they live in the city and CJ asks his mom at one point why don't they have a car. She said what do we need a car for we take the bus.
When I talk to my students about that they go up and say well, I said well why don't you think that they don't have a car. The students will raise their hands and say the reason was because black people don't have cars and I'm like, that's not true. But I'm like no that's not true. And really it's; but it's one of those conversations because they think well they can't afford it because they are poor.
Craig: And so it opens up a conversation and I tell you it's not like I went into a big in-depth conversation with them but it's like no that's not true. A lot of people of color; a lot of black people have cars. They can afford cars, they have lots of money too. What would be another reason they wouldn't because they're in the city they can take the subway, they can take a bus, they can take a cab kids now they can take Uber.
Craig: You know it, it is just being around it too but their perceptions with a lot of kids is well this is the reason why. And so it's very interesting just to have opened up the conversation.
There's also you know within the book, there on the bus, and I asked the students and there's a person on the bus who has lots of tattoos all over. Or again a lot of times you look at shows on TV and stuff people with tattoos oh they must be the bad person.
Craig: Well but when you ask, they're like who do you know who has a tattoo almost every hand in the class goes up. My dad does, my mom does, my uncle does, my aunt does, my friend does, my teacher does. Yep that oh everybody has them now. You're right you know, it's like but again that's really all the conversations not like real in-depth stuff.
But just; you just bring it up you know at the end when we talk about the soup kitchen won't be some reason people need to go to the soup kitchen because like well people sometimes I'll need help right why do we do make food here in Dexter to our local farms in action. You know we have people in our own communities who sometimes struggle.
Craig: Who don't have money, right. So it just kind of bringing it back to you know, you just have conversations around it and that part of; you know here in our community I just I don't want kids leaving Cornerstone with thinking things they shouldn't.
Craig: Now how do we kind of start some of those conversations.
Jonathan: And that if I; if I'm looking back over here, over my notes your educational philosophy is kind of grounded in your family experience and then from there the idea of the marginalized has you know, grown exponentially into all sorts of different areas. And I'm wondering how you… how you see that.
Craig: Yeah oh absolutely. I mean I you know I was born and raised in a small town like right here next door in Chelsea. They're small I would call it then maybe a farming community where again, it was a very much a white district. You know and you didn't have those conversations. I've grown so much as an adult and through education of just having conversations just because I needed to.
Craig: You know they didn't have that conversation about it so how I had to change my thinking and my own belief over time. Of it is just like well of course. This is what it needs to be to support all kids. Then especially when I went to schools you know, I've always been an elementary education except for the one years when I was at the high school, middle school.
But when the four or five six year olds come in they truly do support everybody. I mean they're friends, they're playing they really don't see differences. The kids at cornerstone I would say right now I talked about it so much like Mr. McCalla please stop you see us being nice and respecting everybody you know, being respectful, being responsible, being safe. Can you please stop that now but at some point you know things change.
Craig: And it’s; I don't know if it's as a society we're afraid to have those conversations, if we think too some we're nice enough.
Jonathan: I think you just look at the current landscape and you know that's absolutely true that we're afraid to have those conversations.
Craig: Right right and it is and it's you know because what are the the things you can't say around the dinner table, right whenever you meet someone new you can't talk about religion, you can't talk about politics. There's like, there's a list they always say you can't say and I think as a society you know, we've kind of… we've gotten away from being able to have good conversations with people, still walk away maybe not agreeing but we can still go and have lunch together.
Craig: You know so often now when you talk about topics people would say are, taboo topics and don't talk about, well then you don't get to have conversations and then what happens is our kids don't get to hear adults having conversations like that either. And it's, you know, to me if we can start and change that view, even you know here at Cornerstone. I'm telling my teachers I don't want you to go in these big philosophical discussions because again they're five six seven eight year olds. But again if you see something in a book it's okay to point it out, ask a question and move on.
Craig: You know and just say well yeah this is how we're different oh this is great! Why is this you know why is this person wearing a full-length robe and hijab. Oh you know, just to have a quick conversation with it because it helps with our society as a whole when you go out and see people in the community and around you're not like whoa! why is that woman got that you know, why she does she have a hijab on her head, why? You know they have an understanding of it right and you're not afraid.
Jonathan: So how do you… I got two more questions. How do you develop your staff so what did that you don't need to go through the whole spiel. But if you know, what's something that you do at your staff meetings to kind of start those conversations or give permission to have those conversations.
Craig: Well you know the superintendent and school board are incredible, they you know they support me wholeheartedly on you know supporting transgender students the LGBTQ. I've talked to him about the social justice before. He said go for it. So I've got that that part. I've got one hundred percent support. I think it's just offering conversations is building we know we support all kids, as a building we know this is very important. And when we brought it up to the staff, when Mr. Bruder and I, the other principal down at the other elementary school, just acted like oh my goodness thank you! We've been waiting, we've been wanting; we didn't know if we could.
They wanted it to be okay for me to say that this is how we support all kids and this is what we to do support everyone. So they were, they're very supportive. Now that being said. There's still a lot of work to be done as far as making sure we're training our staff. I have some staff right now going on to the social justice meetings. But it's like a social justice network through our local ISD and thats really about being socially just as a building.
So I have three staff members going through there to kind of help lead that part here at our school. Part of it is just reading articles, having open conversations but even in a building after 11 years I know my staff very well, they're incredible people. But we read a short article on white privilege and it was it showed me how much more work I have to do here. Of really getting our staff to see it because so many people you know I had members of my staff going well we're, good we're nice. Why are we reading this article? This doesn't pertain to us. And I'm like oh my goodness yes it does. We got to figure out how to come back in and have those conversations.
Craig: In making it building and training not just my teachers but my co-educators, my secretaries, my buildings and grounds, my food nutrition everybody who's here they're building needs to understand this is how, this is what it means to be supportive of all people. So it's little conversations. I don't think you can you know, force too much.
Jonathan: Can’t force it, can’t rush it.
Craig: They need to know that this is what this building stands for and this is how it is. If you're not happy with what our building stands for then you might need to find a different building.
Craig: And I think that really needs to be the message and I think when you look at people in education I think it's an easy group of people to sway. You know really it's again providing the information, providing the foresight to see and think about it. You know, when you talk about the person you know an example they always say, you know if you're white and you get pulled over by a police officer you have a very different reaction then a person of color.
And some people I think people on our staff like well what do you mean? No that's not true. What we need you know so you need to start having some of those conversations to get them to realize that you know, what some of those people in our community, what the marginalized groups actually see and feel some time.
Jonathan: Right that's I appreciate that. Just to wrap up here. You kind of mentioned a book that you would recommend, ‘Last Stop To Market” is that the title.
Craig: Yep, yep, yep. It's called ‘The Last Stop on Market Street’ by Matt de la Pena. It's a great, it's a children's book, it's awesome. But again as an elementary principal I'm always looking for books throughout you know, to share stuff with. And it's they're awesome because books have messages in. It's a great way to talk and relate to kids another great one is 'One' by Kathryn Otoshi. It talks about bullying about being the one person who stands up to someone who's bullying.
Craig: It's a great book and it's just tons of ways to open up great conversations in there as well.
Jonathan: So just a final wrap-up question here. I appreciate your time. What's one piece of
advice that you would give to a first-year principal or your first year self.
Craig: My first-year-self? Just get a lay of the land, understand you're building a little bit, of what you're coming into and then just make some commitments around students. Really I think you build that, your vision, mission. You know take whatever degree in your building kind of find out what it is. If it's not about supporting all kids and all families in your community and in your school. I would look at revamping it you know.
It's me that that needs to be the message coming out because when you, when you as a new principal, new administrator says all means all in our building. This is what we're doing to support our kids. The kids feel it, the community feels it and your staff feels it. And to me that means you have an inclusive space to really get a good learning will happen. When all kids are supported guess what, the bullying comes down, kids feel safer, scores go up and the learning goes up.
Craig: It's just proven.
Craig: When you support all kids learning goes up for everybody. So as a new principal I would find ways to open those conversations with staff, talk about truly what are we here for? You know even if you have a veteran staff that you're walking into. You still don't know as a brand new administrator. You don't know where they're coming from or what they know and you want them to build that vision number one around their belief. And my hopes would be in an elementary school or in the school the belief is built on supporting all kids. And all you're doing is validating the great work they've been doing.
When you get that core and they know that you believe the same thing and then it's much easier to go forward even with changes. Even with changes in your curriculum changes you know supporting whether your behavior policies of how to use support, you and your special needs kids are all students within you know your policies that are in the building. Yet the decisions moving forward it really just can be you know big. It could be your anchor, your anchor for decision.
Jonathan: Right well that's it. I appreciate you taking the time to join us here on the principal entrepreneur and until next time thanks for stopping by.
Craig: Hey thanks for having me Jon I appreciate it.
Jonathan: Alright have a good one.
Craig: You as well bye, bye, bye.
Jonathan: I hope you enjoyed that episode of the principal entrepreneur with elementary principal Craig McCalla. A couple of quick take aways. All kids means all kids in conversations about inclusion to start as young as early elementary. Thanks for taking the time to listen to this episode of The principal entrepreneur. If you enjoyed this episode please share it with your friends give us a rating and review on iTunes and until next time this has been Jon Royce with the principal entrepreneur.
I'm a Principal and an Entrepreneur. I'm the former owner of a food venture Hustling Hoagies, the author of the children's picture books Detective Dwayne Drake and the Alphabet Thief, Detective Dwayne Drake and The Case of the Mathematical Misfit and the ebook Making it as a Male Model in Michigan. I've worked professionally as a model and commercial actor......