Do you remember your elementary school principal? Were they a somewhat frightening disciplinarian and authority figure, a keeper of the building and the books, a rarely visible figurehead, or an inspiration?

I’ll answer my own question. I remember my elementary school principal, David E. Smith, and I remain inspired by him to this day. I was a painfully shy, asthmatic first grader when I entered Browning Heights Elementary School in the Birdville ISD in Haltom City in the 1950s. Each day after recess I literally held my breath hoping no one would hear my wheezing and send me home because school was where I wanted most to be.

Mr. Smith was a big reason why I loved school. I can picture him standing at the front door each morning, smiling and greeting us all by name. I remember his visits to my classroom and the way my second grade teacher Mrs. Austin smiled and stood up straighter when she saw him. I recall special occasions when he read to us and shared his love of learning. Many years later, I was thrilled to share the news with him that I had become a principal, and that I aspired to be just like him.

After Mr. Smith served as principal of Browning Heights Elementary for 34 (!!!) years, he retired from the position and was honored when his school was renamed for him. It’s been my great good fortune to keep in touch with him for all these years, and I write this article to honor and to celebrate him.

In a recent conversation, I asked him what words describe an exemplary principal. Without hesitation, he listed “dedication, compassion, common sense, empathy, honesty, kindness, and understanding”. Mr. Smith led in the days before STAAR, PLCs, the pandemic, and vouchers—yet it seems the attributes he shared are just as vital today as they were then.

When asked what advice he’d give to current school leaders, he said “be yourself” and “try to always think before you speak.”  He suggested that, when dealing with teachers, leaders should “always be upfront, let them know how you feel about the school and make sure you explain why you are making the decision you chose.” Finally, he affirmed that principals should always show the students and teachers they are loved. His words of wisdom make perfect sense to me.

Years ago Mr. Smith understood the importance of belonging to a professional organization. His name is displayed at the TEPSA office on a plaque listing the life members, and he reminisces about attending conferences and connecting with colleagues. As a genuine lifelong learner, he continues to stay abreast of the news in education. I am proud that we share this TEPSA affiliation.

Mr. Smith could never have foreseen the demands and challenges that school leaders face today; however, he remains an inspiration to me and a lasting example of what a principal should be. What lessons have you learned from mentors? And more importantly…what lessons are your students and teachers learning from you?

*A Life Worth Living is the name of the book Mr. Smith wrote about his extraordinary career and life.

Karen Bessette is a longtime TEPSAN and former TEPSA State President. She serves as a Principal Coach in Northside ISD.

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

© Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association

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