Principal Jeff Edwards
Championing the YA-Yas, SURFERS and the Bibliomaniacs
Books seem to spill from everywhere in Principal Jeff Edwards’ office at Sequoyah Middle School. His large bookcase is packed tight with a mix of paperbacks and hard covers; stacks of books occupy a worktable and more volumes are piled on his desk.
But it is no surprise. “Books are tools for anybody who works with people,” Edwards said. And as the administrator heading a school of nearly 1,000 students and 65 teachers, he definitely falls into that category.
Being principal in a school with a thousand 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds is a challenge, Edwards said. The population of Sequoyah Middle School is larger than some towns in Oklahoma. But, unlike a small town, one-third of the community changes completely every year as eighth-graders move on to high school and new fifth-graders arrive. Even with the continual turnover, Edwards puts a high priority on building relationships.
“It requires mutual trust and respect for relationships to be nurtured and continue to grow,” he said.
One way Edwards works on his relationships with students is through his daily “letter from the principal” – a tradition he instituted six years ago. English teachers read his letters to students each day at the beginning of class. The letters always contain a thought-provoking quote and end with this appeal: “With words that I would like you to consider and reflect upon, make yours an exceptional life – or not. The greatest power that a person possesses is the power to choose. Please choose wisely.”
Edwards began the practice after he purchased a package of similar letters with inspirational quotes from another school district. Before long, he realized he could make the messages more valuable.
“I started writing them so I could get to know the kids and they could get to know me,” he said. He frequently shares personal experiences with the students and often requests that students share their thoughts with him. Each spring, Edwards invites the students to write their own letters to the principal. It is one of several contests he holds throughout the school year. The prizes are always books or gift certificates to the book store.
“I believe you should put a book in someone’s hand whenever you can,” he said. Edwards also believes “the more a school reads, the better it functions.”
Another way Edwards gets to know the Sequoyah population is through after-school reading groups. Currently, there are three groups: the YA-YAs (Young Adults reading Young Adult literature), the SURFERS (Sequoyah’s Ultra-Radical Fanatical Exceptional Readers) and the Bibliomaniacs. Edwards said the groups provide him opportunities to interact positively with the students.
“They have strong opinions about what they read and they love expressing them,” he said. All the books deal with relationships, giving the students an extra resource to draw upon when they are meeting life’s challenges.
“You don’t have to experience everything yourself,” Edwards said. “You can read about how others feel about something that happens.” Books also provide more ways to solve problems, he said.
As a principal, he is sometimes required to discipline students. Edwards said his attitude regarding discipline has evolved over the years. When he began teaching, he viewed discipline primarily as punishment. But that changed when his son Joshua was born in 1980.
The key word in discipline is disciple, Edwards explained. Now he strives to disciple the students so they become disciplined in the appropriate behavior. For example, he said several students have been required to walk with their hands in their pockets to learn to keep their hands to themselves. Edwards said this approach takes time, but “anything you want to be long-lasting, you have to put your time into.”
Edwards never planned to go the administrator route. From the first grade, he wanted to be a teacher, and he told all of his instructors he planned to follow in their footsteps.
Another pivotal event took place in September and October 1966, when a team from the University of Oklahoma competed on the GE College Bowl television show. The Sooners triumphed and won for five consecutive weeks before retiring as undisputed champions. Edwards remembers watching the TV show from his home in California and the impact it had on him.
“I decided to go to OU,” he said. He wrote to the university and they sent him a complete package as if he were a senior instead of a fifth-grader. Edwards held on to his dream, determined to attend OU, and was the only one at his high school wearing Greg Pruitt’s Sooners jersey.
“I told myself every day I was going there,” he said.
Edwards realized his ambition and graduated from OU in 1978. That fall he began teaching sixth-grade English at Sequoyah. During his years as an English teacher, other faculty members encouraged him to get his administrative certificate, which he completed in 1980. When the district opened Cimarron Middle School in 1982, Edwards went there to teach sixth grade. Beginning in 1983, he served as assistant principal before returning to Sequoyah in 1989 as principal. That was 17 years ago, and the time has gone quickly, Edwards said.
But Edwards has spent that time making Sequoyah a nurturing and caring place for students traversing the chaotic years of middle school. And perhaps the most valuable discipline is the lesson in each day’s letter: the greatest power that a person possesses is the power to choose. Please choose wisely.