By Sarah Colson
One might expect a lot of hard work, dedication and strategy to go into creating a new school that would produce one of Tennessee’s Principals of the Year. For Peggy Greene, principal of Ridgeview Elementary, all that hard work was also accompanied by something much simpler: a meal.
At Ridgeview’s outset eight years ago, Greene, who was named Tennessee’s 2015-16 Principal of the Year last week, brought all of her teachers together for two faculty meetings. Instead of discussing curriculum or strategy, however, they simply shared a meal and some valuable time together.
“We only had team building activities,” she said, “things we could do to get to know each other. I didn’t allow them to sit with their own grade levels; they had to venture out. The teachers met each other and then knew each other and loved each other. That start is what really helped us more than anything.”
Director of Washington County Schools system Ron Dykes said what’s remarkable about Greene is that she not only possesses the leadership skills required to run a great school, but she has overcome the challenges of combining a new school composed of students from several different districts and created a culture of leadership amongst teachers originally from 13 different districts.
“She took the helm of a new school that previously did not exist and became the leader of that building to a student body that previously did not exist as an entity,” Dykes said. Greene was chosen to run the new school eight years ago. “She took teachers and students that had never worked or learned together before.”
Greene said she was able to merge so many different ideas and practices together by creating a “family-loving culture” and positive environment between her new teachers from the very beginning.
“It’s a very caring school,” she said, “and I didn’t get this award without the amazing, amazing group of teachers. Their vision is my vision. It’s a great school and it’s definitely a family.”
Dykes also commended Greene on how she prepares students to be community-builders, citing her strengths in parent involvement and implementing EPIC!, a Washington County initiative that teaches students and staff mutual respect and moral courage.
“Building-level leadership is the true trench work of the leadership,” Dykes said. “Each principal is charged with moving that individual school academically. They’re charged with maintaining the safety of students and faculty and staff and they’re charged with creating an environment that’s conducive to learning.
“That school then in essence becomes a key component of the entire system moving forward, so it’s like having a battalion. It speaks volumes of the type of building-level leadership Washington County has schoolwide and she’s just a prime example of that type of leadership excellence.”
Some of Greene’s teachers are former students she had during the 11 years she taught third grade at Sulphur Springs Elementary.
“I tell these teachers that they’re mine; I’m their mom,” Greene said, laughing. “I feel like I’ve got a responsibility here and I’ve got to be a model for them because they’re always looking to how I’m going to react to challenges. A good relationship with the teachers is just so important. They’re learning and I love to teach teachers, to guide them.”
After being nominated for the First District of East Tennessee, Greene had to submit a reflection paper. Named a finalist, she went to Nashville and answered even more questions—from what motivates her as a principal to how she handles educational issues and trends. The last round was a timed speech on her role as an ambassador.
“I wanted to make sure that it means that I serve not only as an educator but as a trusted leader to improve the relationships in the community,” she said, “because these students are going to be the future of the community and I wanted to make sure that my role is in helping the students to become well-rounded contributors in the community, to empower the child to have greater confidence because if you have greater confidence you have a positive outlook. It’s important for us to know that the students will impact the community sometime or another.”
That task of forming the future of the community could weigh heavily on a leader in Greene’s position. Helping carry her through that challenge, she said, is the support of her family, her competitive drive and “a lot of energy.”
“I’m going all the time,” she said. “It’s a great school but I always have a vision to do what I can to make it better or what I can do to go a different direction if something is not working. We are constantly reflecting to see if we can do better.”
Greene said while testing and state standards can put some pressure on the teachers and younger students, test scores are a huge help when trying to identify those areas where they can become better.
“Testing is huge in the state of Tennessee but it’s not all negative, and what we try to do is make positives out of it,” she said. “We dissect those scores.”
Ridgeview was recognized as a Reward School in 2014. Greene said Common Core standards, despite detractors, have helped students make the connection between classroom learning and real life implications.
“It’s a different way than students have ever been taught before,” Greene said. “It’s a way that’s going to help and prepare them for college and for their career. If we don’t prepare them then they’re not going to be successful in whatever stage they’re in.”
Greene ends each day by repeating her motto over the intercom: “Shine, don’t whine. And I love you.”
It isn’t the award or other achievements over the course of her nearly 39-year career in the school system that makes her challenging job “worth it,” Greene said. Instead, it’s those little moments that happen every once in a while to remind her why she does all she does.
“At the first of the year I forgot to say the motto on the first day of class,” Greene said with tears in her eyes. “A seventh grader came up to me and said, ‘Mrs. Greene, you didn’t say you loved us.’ A seventh grader. And I learned my lesson. I’ll be saying it from now on. I just want to let them know every day, somebody loves them here.”