We are in our final hours of the 2017/2018 school year! It has been a really great year for our Roadrunners and I want to thank all of you for your support and strong collaboration throughout the year. There was no school on Monday in observance of Memorial Day and then the last day of school will be Wednesday, May 30th. Our 6th Grade Graduation will take place on Wednesday at 8:00 am in the auditorium. After school, all families are invited to the unofficial end of year party that takes place every year in The Triangle at the convergence of Guadalupe Street and North Lamar.
Immediately after our 6th Grade Graduation Ceremony, I will once again have the privilege of participating in the McCallum High School Graduation at the Frank Erwin Center. It is one of my favorite events of the year and as I sit there looking out at the graduating class of 2018, it never fails to bring into perspective the importance of our work as educators. We are so fortunate to have such a talented and caring team of teachers to guide our students through the first years of their academic careers. I consistently hear how well prepared our students are for what awaits them after Lee Elementary. While the reasons for that level of preparation are many, I cannot thank our teachers enough for all of their hard work across our seven grade levels. As the graduating seniors walk across the stage this Wednesday, I will be there representing all of them and the positive impact that they have had over so many years.
Preparations are in full swing for our renovations which will take place over the summer. Thank you to everyone who has brought boxes or offered to assist with packing. Thursday we will be spent cleaning rooms and preparing for the work that will take place throughout the school. The auditorium will be renovated as well as the front office, with new space dedicated to our Health Room. During the summer the White House, which has housed our Sixth Grade Leadership Institute for many years will be removed to make way for a new four classroom wing, which will house our 6th graders as well as new classrooms for art and music. The latest plans will be on display in the front hall for everyone to check out before summer break begins. We are excited about all the improvements that will be happening over the summer and look forward to seeing everyone for the first day of school on Monday, August 20th.
Lastly, I had the opportunity to take a break from another busy week at our school to sit down with Clayton Maxwell for the final installment of this year’s We Are Lee series. We spoke about some of my challenges growing up and how it ultimately set me on a path that led me here to Russell Lee Elementary School.
We Are Lee: Was there someone in your elementary school that you looked up to?
Mr. Hewlett: I’m friends with my kindergarten teacher, still, and had a lot of teachers that I liked, but I did not look up to the principal, so the notion that I’m a principal now is pretty amusing. I guess, in full hindsight, I had a difficult time in school growing up. I spent a fair amount of time in the principal’s office.
We Are Lee: What for?
Mr. Hewlett: Just general rambunctiousness. I was one of those kids who had more energy than my body could contain at that age. That might be one of the reasons why I believe so strongly in outdoor time, experiential education, getting kids moving….because that was one of my things and it caught up with me later in life. I had challenges in middle and high school. If it weren’t for my mother, I would have probably not made it completely out of high school. She just … didn’t give up, and kind of kept advocating here and there to try to make sure that I navigated through high school.
We Are Lee: What do you think was the turning point that helped you pull it together? Was it something that your Mom did or was it something that you learned?
Mr. Hewlett: It was a combination. I just got to a point where it was, essentially, a crossroads and I would’ve gone down, probably, the wrong path if she had not been there strongly advocating for me. For that reason … that’s one of the things that I’ve come back to in my role as teacher, and now as administrator, is being that advocate. That’s something that’s really important to me. Not everybody has that strong advocate. So, when I got to college, I recognized I wanted to be able to assist kids who had struggles in school, as well. I did art, but I was also a psychology major, focused on learning disabilities and trying to identify ways to address learning difficulties for kids in school.
Mr. Hewlett: When I got out of college, I realized I needed a boots on the ground experience. So, I went to work as a teaching assistant at a school in Maryland that was entirely special education. It was kids from severely dyslexic to kids with all sorts of developmental delays. Like so many people, like so many of my colleagues here, I just fell in love with it.
We Are Lee: How do those experiences influence the way you are a principal now?
Mr. Hewlett: I am always on the lookout for students who need that type of advocate, like I once did, in those turning points in their lives. That’s something that is really important for Kris Muehling, too– right when we first started working together, we really connected on that. She has strong relationships with former students of hers and people that she’s been that advocate for, as well.
We Are Lee: Do you miss teaching?
Mr. Hewlett: I really liked teaching, so it was a somewhat reluctant path into administration, but I saw the ability to help students on a larger scale. But if I didn’t interact with kids on a daily basis, it would do me in.
We Are Lee: What are some ways that you’re out interacting with the kids on a day-to-day basis here?
Mr. Hewlett: I’ll take students out to work with the chickens, they really like doing that. I’ll get contacted by teachers that say, “Hey, this student could use a little attention today, it would be great if he or she could just be your helper for a little while, could go out and check on the gardens with you.” Just to get students out of the classroom setting if they’re like I was and they need to get moving a little bit. It’s nice to have it come full circle like that, where I can be the person addressing those needs like they were addressed for me.
We Are Lee: Sounds like you’re out and about in the school a lot.
Mr. Hewlett: I like to be in the music classroom as much as I can… it’s a fun opportunity to interact with students. And the Kindergarten hallway is kind of my happy place, as well. I went in today and completely disrupted Ms. Gonzales’s classroom. They were having their morning meeting and I just wanted to go in and see how everybody was doing, but five, ten minutes later, when I left, I’d kind of spun them into chaos a little bit, but that’s nice, too.
We Are Lee: I’m sure it was fun for them.
Mr. Hewlett: Yeah, especially at the younger grade levels. I work really hard on making it so that this office isn’t seen as punitive. We have peace areas in every classroom, so I just try to talk to them in terms of seeing my office as a peace area and, if they just need a break they can come in here … I keep a collection of mazes and, always, art supplies in here for them to come in and draw. Kids will just come in here, sit for a little while, work on something, check things out, read a little bit, then just say, “Okay, I’m ready to go back to class.” They just need that little break.
We Are Lee: I think this office would be a great place to hang out if you just needed a little break. There’s cool stuff to look at, pretty pleasantly disordered …
Mr. Hewlett: It’s certainly not ever too orderly in here, which I think, for the most part, kids can identify with.
We Are Lee: Just to switch it from work … what’s a perfect day off for you?
Mr. Hewlett: A perfect day off is spending a lot of time with my kids, my family, with Allie. Outdoors. We do a lot of outdoor adventures. A good day off is either a bike ride, a hike, a river trip, or … we all like spending time on the water … I always work really hard during the year, but then we take a pretty substantial trip in the summertime. That’s always something that I’ve done with my kids since they were really young.
We Are Lee: You do stuff. You don’t sit around.
Mr. Hewlett: No. I don’t sit around. I mean, even when I’m on the phone, I’m up moving around. I can’t sit on the phone and talk. I like to be on the move as much as possible.
We Are Lee: You talked about your mom. Are there any other role models that have guided you at all in your career or your life, in general?
Mr. Hewlett: For the most part, since I’ve gotten into education, the vast majority of my mentors have all been women whom I’ve worked with in school settings. My path into administration came from an assistant principal that I worked with. When I moved from the school I was at in Maryland to here, I became a special education teacher in AISD and, quickly, within the school, I became the department chair. My assistant principal, Dottie Goodman, at one point sat me down and said, “I think you should go into administration. I think it would be a really good role for you.” She’s somebody who I touch base with quite a bit; she was instrumental in me becoming an administrator. I did a master’s program, then ended up working at Murchison Middle School for six years as soon as I got into administration.
We Are Lee: So, Dottie Goodman saw something in you that suggested that you needed to be a principal?
Mr. Hewlett: Yeah, in an administrative role, which, again, at the time, I won’t say I took it as an insult, but that wasn’t something that I was kind of considering.
We Are Lee: I can also see you leading some really alternative outdoor school somewhere. Do you feel like there’s a confinement by working for AISD?
Mr. Hewlett: There absolutely is. I like our district, I believe in our district, and a lot of the initiatives that are going on with our district kind of align with my own personal beliefs on how we should be approaching things, so that’s helpful. But there’s still a level of confinement involved in just not being able to do everything in the way that I would choose to.
We Are Lee: What’s one thing you love about this job?
Mr. Hewlett: How much I absolutely adore the kids here. I mean, I draw a lot of energy, creativity, and just happiness from getting to work with these kids. Learning from them, seeing what they’re working on, and the things that resonate with them … that’s the thing that makes me the happiest. Even if I’m tired and it’s been a long week…
We Are Lee: Well, today you had 12 Kindergartners in here doing the pledge. I mean, that’s gold. That’s a crazy burst of life energy. It’s bound to be infectious.
Mr. Hewlett: It really is. I kind of feed off of that level of energy.
We Are Lee: I feel like you, Ms. Muehling, and Ms. Gilbert set a good tone every day with the morning announcements. Just in general, it feels like a precious environment that y’all have created.
Mr. Hewlett: I mean, we all feel really lucky to be here and be at a school where we’re able to bring a level of creativity. I reflect back on the things that we’ve worked on, really prioritized. When we got here, chess club was our only after school program. Since then, we’ve had well over 30 different after school programs, clubs, and different things that have existed, or exist now. Just being able to tap into different student interests is something that appeals to Ms. Muehling and Ms. Gilbert. We don’t have to focus our efforts on test scores and some of those things that are a mandatory priority at other schools. We all feel very fortunate to be at a school where we can kind of work on more of the social-emotional learning, fostering positive relationships, and things like that, with students, rather than, sometimes, the things that are forced upon you in other settings, just by virtue of what the needs are there.
We Are Lee: Do you have any John Hewlett personal manifestos or words to live by that you remind yourself of regularly?
Mr. Hewlett: I try to approach everything with a sense of humor. No matter how difficult a time a student might be having, I try to elicit a smile or a laugh. I try to use humor a lot to pull students out of whatever situation they might be facing. That can be easier said than done, sometimes. I mean, we have a lot of students at this school who have faced just unimaginable trauma and adversity. Even if it isn’t laughter, necessarily, but a smile… forming strong relationships with kids is something that I work hard on. Ms. Muehling, Ms. Gilbert and myself–after everything’s said and done, we’ve problem solved as best we can–we end the day with a laugh. I always try to just focus on the positive aspects, because things can get pretty heavy in this role. It can wear on you, certainly …
We Are Lee: So, that positive thing…and humor. Those things don’t come naturally to a lot of people. Are those qualities you deliberately cultivate?
Mr. Hewlett: Yes. Perspective is really important to me. I try to always see situations from different perspectives and that can be hard sometimes given some of the difficult situations that we deal with but, at the end of the day, once you’ve kind of made the best decision you can, I hearken back to always having a positive outlook on things. Working in education in general is a difficult job and sometimes you can get mired down in some of the day to day situations that can be trying, for sure. So I try to keep a positive outlook.
We Are Lee: Were your parents like that too?
Mr. Hewlett: Yes. I would say that my dad is kind of high-energy, always moving. He and I have run quite a few marathons together.
We Are Lee: So you just have never been quick to get rattled?
Mr. Hewlett: No. I try to approach situations really calmly. I think I do that in emergency situations. The calmer you stay in a situation, the better it’s going to turn out. There are a number of dangerous things that we have to deal with, and different crisis situations through the course of a day. Here, at the end of the school year, it seems to be just crisis situation after crisis situation. On a regular basis, we’re having kids that need significant levels of help and, if I don’t approach it calmly, then that’s going to be contagious.
We Are Lee: It’s more than just being calm. You have equanimity. It’s an ability to stay focused and just do the next things that needs to be done without stressing out.
Mr. Hewlett: Growing up, I didn’t see myself as a leader. I’ve always liked surrounding myself with doers. If I look at who my friends are, the people that I spend the most time with … they all do stuff. They don’t just talk about this, talk about that. They’re out there doing stuff on a regular basis, a wide variety of things, and I’ve always kind of been drawn to people who make stuff happen.
We Are Lee: Yep, you seem like a doer.
Mr. Hewlett: I think, because of that, I’ve learned a lot. I’m always learning. My grandfather, he wasn’t one to really tell me what to do. That wasn’t his thing, but he was huge on lifelong learning. He’d say. “I don’t care how old you are, keep learning. It’s important.” He demonstrated that. Really, I think that always resonated with me. You’re never fully accomplished. There’s always stuff to be worked on, an improvement to be made, but you’ve got to pay attention to the different lessons that exist in everyday life. I work hard on surrounding myself with good people who approach things from a very student-centered standpoint.
We Are Lee: I can see how learning is the fountain of youth.
Mr. Hewlett: I’m very reflective. I always kind of reflect back on how different things went and what I could’ve done better and what my role in different situations was. I always come back to what was best for students. You can get mired down in different back and forths with staff members, with parents, with community members, but at the end of the day, if I make the decision that I think is ultimately what best serves our students, then I’m content with that situation.
We Are Lee: Any thoughts on anything you want from us parents?
Mr. Hewlett: Enjoy your time with your kids. When I look at the type of year that our students have had, I see just so many amazing experiences they get to have here at Lee Elementary. I’ve never seen a school anywhere close to Lee in terms of unique experiences like geography day, grade level programs… I heard from a former student just the other day about how wonderful the grade level programs were for them growing up and their ability to speak in front of a room full of people now.
We Are Lee: Harry will be singing “De Colores” when he’s an old man thanks to the Mexico Program.
Mr. Hewlett: So yes, just enjoy the time your kids get to spend here at Lee, because the cliché is true: the time is over before you know it.
Have a wonderful summer,
Russell Lee Elementary School
Sara Bircher, President