‘All about the kids’: New BLE principal focuses on meeting children where they are

Thomas McClellan, center, is the new principal at Bon Lin Elementary, and he will be relying on the expert help from his assistant principals Michele Dial (at left) and Jennifer Yoder to keep the Bartlett school running smoothly. Photo by Carolyn Bahm.

Thomas McClellan is the new principal at Bon Lin Elementary School, but he’s been a familiar face at the school for a long time already. He previously served as Bon Lin’s assistant principal for 11 years and was chosen for his new role when Kasandra Berry retired.

His first official day as principal was July 1.

His background includes a master’s degree in educational psychology from the University of Memphis, and his educational experience spans 17 years since his start as a teacher. He has also been an assistant principal at both the middle and high school levels.

Before his work at Bon Lin, he served as Elmore Park Middle School’s assistant principal. Kay Williams was Bon Lin’s principal at that time and was also McClellan’s across-the-street neighbor. When her school needed another assistant principal, she pitched the idea to McClellan. The prospect appealed to him immediately.

“I’d always kind of wanted to do elementary – I think that’s kind of where my heart was. So she said, ‘Do you want to come to my school?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely.’”

He’s equally pleased to move up to his school’s top administrative office. “As an educator, when you get into administration it’s always your goal to be a principal. You like to take all your educational experiences and all the relationships that you’ve built over the years with family, friends and teachers and then kind of want to put your own stamp on the school.”

The priorities

He plans to concentrate on three main areas this year. First, school safety is a priority in light of security issues that have happened at many U.S. schools. That includes practicing lock-down drills and updating procedures.

The second thing will be a stronger focus on student achievement, particularly when it comes to helping students who are struggling academically before they get too lost. But he said such intervention also extends to all students. All children get at least an hour of daily intervention, he said.

“We’re going to focus on leaving those students with their homeroom teachers and not moving them as much, so they can get more instruction from their homeroom teachers.”

Third, he plans for the school to be really “just all about the kids.” That includes student spotlights, as well as using a large whiteboard in the principal’s office, where students can come in and autograph with permanent markers when they go above and beyond. Their signatures will stay up all school year, and school officials will take their pictures as they sign.

The theme for the year is to “Be Your Bon Lin Best Every Day.” That’s whatever the student’s best is, he said. “If a C is your best, then that’s the best. If straight As are your best, then we’re going to get a little bit more out of you. So we’re going to be all about the kids.”

When he met with teachers last Wednesday morning, he encouraged them to get to know their students better – not just their academic struggles, but what makes them tick. “If we’re not sitting kids down and looking in their eyes and finding out what they want to be in life, what scares them, how they feel when they make mistakes, then that’s where we need to go.”

McClellan explained the concept. “When a kid can come to school and know that he or she is loved, that their teacher is going to listen to them and accept them for how they come in the building, and then make sure that they can make mistakes – because they’re going to make mistakes, either behaviorally or academically they’re going to make mistakes – but they’re going to know that we’re going to support them and not just criticize and punish them. It’s just so important to me.”

The challenges

Among the challenge that Tennessee educators will be facing are the new science standards, he said. This year will be a year of exploration of those changes before they officially go into effect for the 2019-20 school year.

There are also some new observations for literacy for the younger grades, McClellan said. Teachers’ work has been examined with care for years as part of the team rubric, but they will be observed through a different lens for literacy this year. That will be a change for the teachers.

He explained that teacher observations are based on the TNReady tests and their previous year of work. They get a raw score of where they fall between Levels 1 and 5, and that level determines the frequency at which their work is observed. The new element this year in those observations is focusing on literacy and writing for the younger grades.

Parental involvement

That literacy focus matches with what educators expect from the school’s parents.

“It’s really important for parents to read to their kids every night in some way, whether the child is reading to them or whether they are reading to the kid,” he said.

Bon Lin Elementary has held sessions in the past to train parents how to get their pre-readers ready for literacy. “What are the main characters? Think about the setting. Think about the climax of the story. So those kind of things are already embedded in kids as they start to read. So when they come across that in a text, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the main character,’ or ‘Oh, that’s the villain of the story.’”

In addition to reading, he appreciates when people support their children’s efforts on homework. Bon Lin tends to assign work that reinforces what has already been learned that day, not a new concept that the child must struggle with alone. Parents are partners with the school when they help to reinforce those skills.

He said the school is blessed to have very involved and supportive parents.

“The great thing about this school, since I’ve been here so long, is that it pretty much runs itself. The faculty knows what the expectations are, the parents do too, the kids do too. So it’s a pretty well-oiled machine.”

His own experience as a parent enriches his understanding of children, although he said he does try to take off the “principal” hat when he comes home and remembers to be just “Dad” when there. Both he and his wife are educators (she teaches at Riverdale Elementary), and they have three children: A junior at Houston High School, a freshman starting at CBHS and a fifth-grader who’s still at Riverdale Elementary.

Parents who want to know a little more about him as a person might be interested to learn he’s originally from New England, so he’s a huge Patriots and Red Sox fan. He used to love playing golf before having back surgery and giving that hobby up, but he still loves to hunt and fish.

One truly important thing he hopes his school’s parents know about him is, “I truly try to treat all 950 kids here like they are my own. Sometimes they need love, and sometimes they need some other kind of love.”

Tough love is still love, right?

“I really do try to treat them like they are my kids,” he said. “And every time I make a decision, I’m like, ‘How would I want my child to be treated in the same situation?’ Or when I see a teacher do something, I think, ‘If my child was in that classroom, would that be OK with me?’ It’s always that connection that’s important.”