Thinking back to my own middle school years, I recall the principal’s office was not somewhere you wanted to find yourself. However, today I am happy to enter the office of Principal Jon Wilcox at Tumwater Middle School. Immediately, I am put at ease by his warm smile and easy nature, which is not something all middle school principals can pull off.
I start by asking him why he wanted to get into education. “Was it for the summers off?” I jokingly say. He just laughs, telling me he was lucky to find his calling early on. Growing up in Chehalis with a family full of educators, Jon says he had great role models to learn from. He explains that he wanted to become a teacher because he hoped to make a difference in kids’ lives. “I got a placement to do my internship at a middle school, and I just fell in love with the age group and the challenges facing them,”Jon says.
Upon graduating from Central Washington University, Jon was hired as a high school science teacher in Yakima. But with much of his family still on this side of the mountains, Jon eventually made his way back, moving his family to Olympia. It was then he ventured back into middle school as a vice principal in Kent, but with it came a long commute. In 2002 the principal position came open at Tumwater Middle School. “I read the job description and it was a perfect fit for me – did the interview, got the job, and been here ever since. It’s been a very enriching experience for me. I work with an amazing staff that makes my job easy every day. And I look forward to coming to work every morning,” Jon explains.
After talking with his staff, I conclude that the feeling is mutual. Lead secretary, Mary Taylor, has worked with Jon for the past 14 years and has nothing but great things to say about him. “He has an open door policy and is always willing to listen. Jon always looks for a way to help with the solution and come up with a win-win scenario,” Mary suggests.
As I ask Jon about the day-to-day life of a principal, he tells me most people just think about the paperwork, not the great things he gets to do. “What is wonderful is being able to go out and sit in a classroom and see this amazing lesson going on, and kids rise up to really high expectations. I also get to see that bigger picture of the whole school,” he says.
With close to 450 students and even more being added next year, Jon says that it is difficult to find time for everything he would like to do. The one thing he really misses about teaching is having that one-on-one time to bond with the students. “The kid connection is a challenge, and I say that because when you’re a classroom teacher you see that child every single day, and you form this really strong relationship with them. And when that relationship is solid and positive you can get things out of kids you didn’t think you necessarily could,” Jon elaborates.
However, as a principal, Jon says he gets to influence the entire school, which can be just as rewarding. Most of the time, he sees students who are struggling and tries his best to figure out why. “Our approach to discipline is really straight forward. We’re here to help kids grow. We have zero perfect students and adults on campus. Learning from each other is an important piece,” Jon tells me. He is definitely a hands-on principal who tries to foster an environment where teachers can be comfortable trying new things, even if they do not always work.
Jon’s vice principal, Nick Reykdal, says his colleague’s approach to education is really an inspiration. “Jon has been a mentor to me and many others as he embodies a calm, cool approach to working with middle-level students and without compromise always considers what is best for young people when making decisions.”
It is because of not only what he does for the students, but who he is as a person that made it an easy decision for Reykdal to nominate Jon for Regional Principal of the Year. “He prides himself in facilitating leadership opportunities for staff and students and being always willing to work towards consensus-building,” Reykdal concludes.
The annual award is given by the Association of Washington School Principals, and Jon says he was surprised when he received it. “The job of a principal is not a single job; it’s working really well with a team. It’s nice to get recognized for your work, but I wouldn’t have been in that position without great people around me. It’s an award for the school,” Jon suggests.
Jon also makes sure to point out how important the community has been in making his school a success. “I am so grateful to the community that we live in here that they support schools strongly. Those folks that don’t have children in school are still very avid and strong supporters about what’s happening in school. The community stays very connected to the schools. They want to know all of our successes; they want to know all of our challenges. I think is something people don’t always hear, they don’t always know, we are very much aware of how much support they give us,” Jon finishes.
As we end our conversation, I am pleased to learn that Principal Wilcox has no plans for leaving Tumwater Middle School anytime soon. This is a relief because my fourth-grade son will become one of his students in the near future. In September the school will go the route of many other districts in the area and bring their sixth graders into their middle school.