HARWICH – When a principal's phone rings in the early hours of the morning, it always gives a moment of pause. Fortunately for Monomoy Principal Bill Burkhead, a recent 7 a.m. call meant good news, even if it was something he had to keep mum about for a bit. Now the secret is out and being celebrated: Burkhead was named the Massachusetts Principal of the Year by the Secondary School Administrators' Association.
Nominated by Assistant Principal Janie Girolamo, Burkhead was subjected to a series of questions, followed by what Burkhead called a “pretty intensive interview,” ultimately leading to his being named Principal of the Year.
Burkhead said it took a bit to wrap his mind around the news.
“I was at home and my wife was there,” he said. “I was shocked. I was hoping it would be me, but to actually get the call that you'd been chosen, it took a while to really hit me.”
According to a press release, the accolade “recognizes outstanding middle and high school principals who have succeeded in providing high-quality learning opportunities for students, as well as demonstrating exemplary contributions to their profession.”
Burkhead, who began his career in education as a phys ed teacher, health teacher, and football coach, has been at the helm of Monomoy Regional High School since its opening in 2014, venturing from Plymouth North where he was an assistant principal and athletic director.
Burkhead said his philosophy involves remembering that he is not the smartest person in the room, and it pays to give everyone a voice.
“I surround myself with the right people and try to find ways to say yes,” he said. “With children I've always been of the belief that you have to treat everyone like they're your own, with love, with empathy, with pushing them still, with discipline, and an all-around set of core values.”
At MRHS that means a rigorous offering of academic courses, but also a host of initiatives aimed at strengthening ties between students and their teachers. Initiatives include the school's Jawsome hour, a daily happening that allows students to catch up on extra work, spend time with favorite teachers, join clubs, and more.
He is reluctant to speak in terms of “I” and instead prefers “We,” as he knows his success and the success of the school stems from the wealth of educators working there each day.
“To me this whole award was just a validation of Monomoy,” he said. “This is what we did. That's what I think [the MSSAA] really appreciated, was someone who could appreciate other people, value other people, allow them to thrive, and be excited about innovating.”
Failure, he said, is actually a key aspect of the equation.
“It's kind of cool to fail because that's how you learn,” Burkhead said.
But don't expect him to rest on his laurels now that he's armed with the esteemed award.
“The good news is we don't like the word complacency,” he said. “Just because the principal gets an award doesn't mean we stop. I'm just pumped because four years ago we weren't even a thing. I think this says a lot. We weren't even on the map, and now people know who we are.”
Burkhead said what made Monomoy a success was how its educators worked to meld together what had been two rival schools in Chatham and Harwich.
“It was two separate, rival cultures brought together,” he said. “That was the biggest challenge to me and I think we've succeeded at that part.”
A big part of that success involved the school's “Home Away From Home” culture. A walk around the school highlights myriad signs across numerous walls stating that “You are important.” Hanging on the main hallway wall is a mural of each of the school's 620 students, part of the 620 initiative through which educators and students give cards to those in need of a boost or who they feel deserve recognition for something good.
“It's the feeling that everyone is important,” Burkhead said. “I believe that enthusiasm is free, and so is negativity. We have to focus conscientiously on the former. When students and teachers start saying it's a home away from home, that's when you know it's working. Nobody can learn if they're not excited to be here or if they don't think anybody cares about them.”
Burkhead noted that while other districts are initiating socio-emotional learning protocols, Monomoy has already had them on board for some time. As Burkhead explained, the focus within the halls of MRHS is on the well-being of those inside, versus whether the latest test scores are up.
“I'm not too concerned about that,” Burkhead said. “Our scores have shown strong growth, but that hasn't been our focus. It's not about programs, it's about people. I think that's the beauty of Monomoy. Learning is important, caring about kids, high expectations, innovation, change are all our key components. But unlike some other schools we don't focus primarily on test scores.”
For Burkhead the aforementioned important people includes substitutes, parent volunteers, and community members.
“Any adult that works with our kids is important,” he said.
With the award being shared widely on social media, Burkhead hopes to turn the spotlight away from himself and shine it deeper into the school.
“I hope people will come out and visit us,” he said. “You can tell the culture of a school in the first five minutes. I hope it gives me a continued platform to brag about our school and share all the great things we're doing.”
When the subject of school choice comes up, Burkhead emphasizes the importance of concentrating on making Monomoy an excellent place for academics, athletics, arts, and more. Why? Because for him it's all about the students.
“The kids won't leave if you set up a great school,” he said.
Burkhead will be formally honored by his peers at the MSSAA Summer Institute in Hyannis in July.