"Prosperity always inflates the imprudent, and worldly peace weakens the vigor of the soul." - Peter Abelard

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Q & A With Jamie Chisum, New Interim Principal at WMS

This story was originally published in the August 18th issue of The Wellesley Townsman.

Jamie Chisum at his new home, Wellesley Middle School. Wicked Local photo by Kate Flock.

The Townsman sat down and caught up with Wellesley Middle School Interim Principal Jamie Chisum during his preparations for the 2011-12 school year.  
Townsman: What was your journey to this position?
Chisum: Well, I’m nearly 42 years old, and I graduated from college in ’91, so it’s been a few years. I did a little bit of substitute teaching, I did some track coaching, and then I went to grad school. I thought I wanted to be a writer, I was actually studying English at the University of Oregon, but then I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do for my career. I moved back to Massachusetts, went to UMass, and got my masters degree. I taught 9th grade English for 5 years at Taconic High School in Pittsfield, then I met my wife, who was living in Wayland at the time. I decided that commuting all the way from Pittsfield was too far, and so I looked for a teaching job here. I was really fortunate to get hired as an English teacher at WHS, which I did for 7 years, and then I applied to be the assistant principal, and I got that job 6 years ago. In June of this year, Superintendent [Bella] Wong tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I would be interested in serving as an interim here at WMS, and I said yes.
Townsman: What interested you in the interim principal position?
Chisum: I love Wellesley, I wanted to be a principal, and this opened up and it allowed me to be a principal and stay in Wellesley, and that really appealed to me. I was curious, I guess, was the largest thing. I’ve never worked at a middle school before, and I just thought it was a neat opportunity to learn more.
Townsman: How has your summer been? What kind of prep work have you been doing?
Chisum: My summer has been a lot of learning. I’ve been doing a lot of listening, and a lot of interviewing of folks because we’ve had a lot of hiring to do. I’ve also had to learn about this place, learn about this age group, and learn about the people – where they’ve been, where they want to go, and what they might need from me. I’m going to continue to do that for a while, the school year is going to start and I’ll still have a lot to learn.
Townsman: What are you looking forward to most about being WMS principal?
Chisum: I’m excited to work with this age group. The Guidance Director said, you know, what you need to understand about middle school kids is that some of them still sleep with stuffed animals. When the 6th graders come in, they’re just bridging the gap. It’s a marked difference and, I can’t help it, it makes me smile when I just start to think about how eager and curious and cute they’re going to be. People in this building just love this age group.
Townsman: What do you remember of middle school? It’s kind of stereotyped to be a very tough time, a lot of social problems and bullying and such. Did you have any particularly tough experiences as a teenager?
Chisum: Middle school is tough; I remember it being hard and awkward. It was hard to fit in. I grew up in the Berkshires and I went to this regional middle school where they combined eight towns into one school. I remember coming in and just being terrified, this big building and I didn’t know my way around, and all these other kids knew each other. By the time we were eighth graders, though it seemed like everybody got along just fine.
Townsman: What do you think will be your biggest challenges with this new position?
Chisum: One of the roles that I have to play is to help this middle school community prepare for their search for a full-time principal. We’ve got to make sure that this year isn’t just treading water; people should still be challenged professionally. We don’t want to take a step backwards.
Townsman: How does the whole interim role work? How long will you be here?
Chisum: I could be the new permanent principal, but that’s not my choice. They’ll have a full search, and that the way it ought to be. It’s what the middle school deserves, to cast the net. At the end of the day, if that person happens to be me, then awesome for me, but it needs to be awesome for the middle school first and foremost.
Townsman: What do you think the main difference will be between the middle school and the high school?
Chisum: Developmentally, obviously, the kids are at a different place. It seems to me that [middle school] is more a time of exploration then the high school tends to be. That’s refreshing to me.
Townsman: Are you still planning on being involved with the track team, as you were at WHS?
Chisum: Oh, I’m going to be a big fan, but I can’t coach. It’s too much time. What’s crazy is that I’m also in a graduate program at BC, getting my doctorate and I’ve got three kids at home. Personally, that’s a very difficult thing for me to give up. I love coaching track, and I’m going to miss it terribly.
Townsman: Did your predecessor, Josh Frank, give you any advice about the position? Are you trying to emulate any of his initiatives or perhaps looking to make changes?
Chisum: What Josh told me is that this is a great place with passionate teachers and that the kids are awesome, he loved the kids here, and I think that would be something I want to continue to do. The trap, I think, is to get caught up in this office. There are a lot of important meetings and no one would blame me for spending lots of time talking to adults, but you need to know the kids. We should never lose track of that.
Townsman: How would you summarize your personal teaching philosophy?
Chisum: I think I’m a relational teacher and relational learner. That’s why I’ve been wading in and listening and being as patient as I can this summer. You need to build relationships with kids. They need to know who you are. It’s the same thing as a leader, you build relationships first and it’s easier to handle difficult things. I would also say I try to be proactive, not reactive, and trust is definitely a big component.
Townsman: Any closing thoughts? Have you been able to find your way around the new building?
Chisum: I’d just add that we’re going to continue and try to be an excellent school. You know, one of my biggest fears is that some 6th grader is going to come up to me with one of those floor-plan maps of the middle school, and he’ll ask me how to get to Room 245, and I’ll just have no idea at all. I’m working on getting to know the building better.
Jamie Chisum discusses his future at WMS in an Aug. 15 interview with the Townsman. Wicked Local photo by Kate Flock.

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