John Blaydes got an early Christmas present this year.
A few days before the start of Christmas vacation Blaydes was in a meeting in his office at McGaugh Elementary School in Seal Beach when the door burst open and a group of third-graders resolutely marched in.
"Poetry break," one of them announced.
Blaydes stopped his meeting, leaned back in his chair and listened while the third-grade students recited and read some of their favorite poems to him. When they finished, he thanked them gravely, and they went back to their classroom.
If it seems like pushy behavior for a group of students to invade the office of their principal unannounced, you don't know John Blaydes--or McGaugh Elementary School.
"They turned the tables on me," said Blaydes delightedly the other evening in the living room of his Brea home.
You see, throughout the school year, Blaydes frequently pops into classrooms unannounced, proclaims a "poetry break" and reads to the students. With the younger ones, he sometimes carries the message with hand puppets he operates expertly. Small wonder then that he stopped his meeting and greeted his third-graders warmly. John Blaydes has his priorities very firmly in place.
So firmly that the word got all the way to Washington a few months ago. On Oct. 9 Blaydes received a plaque, an old-fashioned school bell and the National Distinguished School Principals Award from U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett. He had been nominated by his own peers and selected from among 4,000 elementary school principals as California's top principal.
At 49, John Blaydes is that rare, highly talented educator who has chosen to work at the grass-roots level rather than climbing the ladder of educational administration. He started that climb once, then decided to leave a district administrative job to become an elementary principal again. He has never looked back.
"I started out teaching the elementary grades in Anaheim," he said, "and I really liked working with younger children. So much can be done at that age to build self-esteem. Attitudes can be set that will carry them all the way through school. If they don't get that self-esteem in the lower grades, it's very hard to turn it around in high school."
Some of the programs created by Blaydes to build self-esteem and love of learning in his students are as remarkable as they are creative. Just to grab two:
He believes strongly in the importance of the arts in education and has produced some astonishing results with untrained children. McGaugh, for example, does a Pageant of the Masters Festival every spring similar to the one in Laguna Beach. But McGaugh adds some touches of its own.
The students study each of the painters portrayed "so they know the styles of these artists." They also incorporate dancing with each painting, the product of another Blaydes innovation called the Choreography Club, in which about 70 boys and girls learn professional dance routines after school.
"Every child," Blaydes said firmly, "has a chance to perform in a production sometime during the year."
A program called SOAR--respect for Self, Others, Adults and Rules--hands out awards every month to McGaugh students for all sorts of achievements. Again, Blaydes sees to it that every child wins some kind of award each year.
Sitting with his wife, Mary Alice, in the living room of their warm Brea home full of period furniture and framed copies of old sheet music that she had found among her grandmother's belongings, Blaydes exuded enthusiasm when he talked about his students and the programs created for them at McGaugh.
"School," he said, "can be a refuge, a place where a child, who may or may not experience it at home, can be successful. They don't have to be bright; they just have to feel good about themselves as learners."
That has been John Blaydes' goal since he first enrolled at Cal State Long Beach almost 30 years ago. Born in Hollywood, he met Mary Alice when both were students at Long Beach Wilson High School. She worked while he did a stint in the Coast Guard.
When he got out, they were married and enrolled at Cal State Long Beach together. She dropped out in her third year to have their first child, Scott. It took her two decades to get back. After raising Scott and a second child, daughter Allison, Mary Alice Blaydes completed her degree and is now a librarian at Brea-Olinda High School.
Meanwhile, Blaydes, after teaching and serving as an elementary school principal, started up the administrative ladder. He was personnel director in the the Los Alamitos District for four years--long enough to discover that that wasn't what he wanted.
"I found that the greatest impact I could have was as a principal," he said. "The principal makes the difference in a school--sets the tone, goals and expectations. That's where I wanted to be."
And that's where he has been for the last four years, creating a dynamic school environment that has always stressed "educating the whole child. Academic excellence is our goal, and every student is special. I believe we need to touch their souls as well as stimulate their brains."
In fighting toward that goal, Blaydes has shown no reluctance about speaking his mind on educational matters, even when those matters involve politics and social changes.
"Sometimes," he said, "it seems that the schools are doing more societal things than educational. I think that's too bad because it absorbs resources that could be used to educate. And yet the needs are so great.
"Take day care for example. So many mothers are working today. Our district has taken the lead in piloting a day-care program. It extends the custodial time at school, but what other options do we have? It would be ideal for the state to pay for day-care programs, but I don't see any prospect of that."
He recognizes the need for quality teachers and deplores the need of new teachers to enter the field these days out of the love of kids and education.
"They realize they aren't going to get paid adequately," he said. "That's why we must raise pay for teachers--and that means putting the funding for schools on a less political level. Imagine trying to run a multimillion-dollar business without knowing how much money will be available next year."
While underscoring the need for day care, he refuses to see the growing number of families in which both parents work as the biggest social problem facing educators. "There are lots of parents who both work but who value education and spend a lot of time working with their kids. The key is how the family looks at education. Educators used to have the respect of the community, but today most parents simply want their children to acquire skills so they can go out and get jobs.
"That's not enough. We need to value education--to value reading, and the beauty of the language. These things are not valued today. How do we change that? I don't know. I just know that it will probably take a long time."
He regards teacher selection as one of his most important jobs.
"Whenever I have an opening," he said, "all my energies go into that choice. I ask difficult questions and require them to teach demonstration lessons. Then if they're hired, I reinforce them. My job as a school administrator is to be truthful. I wouldn't defend an incompetent teacher, but I'd defend a good one all the way."
When he was asked why--in his view--he was selected as California's best elementary school principal, he thought for several moments, then said: "Two things primarily. First, my ability to work with parents, teachers and children to create a dynamic and enthusiastic school environment that enables the students to build pride in themselves and their school. And, second, the conviction that we must educate the whole child."
He is openly angry at the effects of Proposition 13 on public schools ("a devastating loss of funding that took away our property base and decimated all kinds of important educational programs") and what he holds to be public misperceptions of the educational benefits of the state lottery. "It's minimal," he said, "less than 3% of our budget. Instead of helping the schools, the lottery has been harmful because it allows the taxpayers to assume that the schools have this windfall of money. No way. The lottery money is a teaspoon in the bucket, a Band-Aid that has actually lessened the real sources of school financing."
But with John Blaydes, it always comes back to the children. He recalled with a kind of wonder his visit to a classroom earlier in the day where one of his teachers was working with a group of communicatively handicapped 5-year-olds:
"The teacher wanted the children to place eyes on a Rudolph puppet, and one little girl just didn't understand. She put the eyes in all the wrong places until the teacher put on one eye and gave the puppet to the child. She put the other one in the right place--and then just beamed because everyone in the room applauded. Now that child has been freed up to go on."
John Blaydes savored the child's victory, just as he shares in the special moments of all his children. "It is," he said happily, "like being a grandfather."