Education Desk: Meet Rick Fleming, A Florida ‘Principal Of The Year’ Finalist
Rick Fleming is one of three finalists across the state for Florida’s 2018 Principal of the Year award. He is principal of West Shore Junior/Senior High in the Brevard Public Schools district. He has served the district for more than 20 years in teaching and administrative roles. 90.7’s Crystal Chavez spoke to Fleming as part of reporting from WMFE’s Education Desk.
Chavez: What is the biggest challenge in terms of leading teachers?
Fleming: Keeping morale and keeping teachers inspired and motivated is a big challenge and a big part of my job, [also] finding the latest research on what works with kids. With teachers it’s the same thing as working with students, you have to inspire, you have to motivate and I would say in the challenging times of budget deficits and funding and salaries, it’s an ongoing challenge to keep teachers inspired, motivated so that they don’t number one, burn out.
Chavez: We know there’s a teacher shortage across the state, if you had a magic wand what would you do to address the teacher shortage?
Fleming: If there could be some incentive programs at the state and federal level perhaps to allow a certain amount of student loans to be written off, or to offer bonuses, signing bonuses for beginning teachers to encourage people to get into public service.
Chavez: What is the biggest challenge in terms of leading a body of students?
Fleming: I like the fact that we’ve turned the pendulum back to the social/emotional connections of kids. Equally as important as the rigor that you present them with, and in my particular case my job is to help them build the most aggressive competitive college admissions portfolio that I can, but along with that there has to be support mechanisms, there has to be social/emotional connections, peer-to-peer, student-to-teacher, teacher-to-teacher and that connectivity with the students, I think we’ve done some very unique things at my school to build that social/emotional connection.
Chavez: School shootings are often in the news, what do you do on your campus for safety?
Fleming: Great question. I have to applaud our district, Brevard County for coming up with security initiatives to include additional fencing. We have a single point of entry at our school, during the school day you can only enter and exit through the front office. We have locks that are key-pad locks, the front office is the first line of defense with anybody who enters our building.
The shame is, if bad guys want to get in, they can get in but you can do things to maximize student awareness and we have specific ‘code red’ and ‘code blue’ activities at our school that we practice often to give students a location, a safe place to go in the event there’s an emergency. There’s been things that have been learned by school shootings, to not congregate students in one area of a classroom, to move five to this corner, six to that corner, eight to the other corner. It’s sad that we have to think that way and feel that way, but again it’s the day and age that we live in and we have to be prepared and you can’t be over prepared for something like that.
Chavez: How is your school preparing for the standardized tests, the FSA (Florida Standards Assessments) when do those start?
Fleming: Yes, as a matter of fact we’re coming up to our testing season… The ultimate goal is for our students to earn college credit through taking a litany of Advanced Placement courses. FSA is a measurement of the Florida standards and we certainly prepare kids for that but the author of the Florida standards if I can recall, was someone who used to work for College Board, so I think they’re mirrored after College Board’s standards which are very rigorous in nature.
If you’re preparing kids for College Board type standards and Advanced Placement, the FSA kind of takes care of itself, so we try not to focus on testing, testing, testing, testing. We try to focus on the standards and teaching and learning and let the chips fall where they may when it comes to assessment.
Chavez: When it comes to students who may be struggling, whether it’s on those tests or something else, what do you tell them?
Fleming: We’re big on building a climate of resiliency. I think what today’s kids lack is a commitment and resiliency to overcoming challenge and I think if we can build their social/emotional connection and build the virtues of commitment, hard work and resiliency, overcoming obstacles and getting back on that horse, then the students will be more apt to try harder, to not give up and to do the things that they really thought they couldn’t do.
Chavez: As you mentioned earlier, sometimes we hear about teachers doing a lot with a little. They sometimes buy things for their classroom out of their own pockets, so what do you do to give teachers a pep talk when needed?
Fleming: In my world, you’ve got to know your people, you have to know them, you have to know their children’s names, their spouse’s name. I do a lot of managing by wandering around. Every morning when I get to work, I grab my walkie-talkie and I walk. I may meet and greet 15, 20 staff members along the way, along with many students and that minimizes the feel for them that they need to have face time with me, and that they’ve seen me already during the day. I think that helps and builds their confidence.
Chavez: What’s an area you could improve on?
Fleming: Well, I would have to say budgeting and finance. Being a principal, coming into the school, inheriting a budget where you’re responsible for say, cafeteria profit and loss reports; that’s not necessarily something they teach you in “principal school” however, reviewing those meal equivalencies and ensuring that your cafeteria is turning a profit to make sure that they’re able to pay their staff and be able to cover all their overhead costs, is not something I really knew, so I can always grow in that area of doing a better job of things like in the finance area and budget.