Julia Harris and Maria Coleman: The principal players change at Middlebrook School

The principal’s office in Middlebrook School is at the back of a long hallway. Walk past the administration desk, and it’s the last door on the right.

“When was the last time you were in the principal’s office?” current Middlebrook Principal Julia Harris asks.

Ms. Harris will leave the office on June 28, handing the keys over to Maria Coleman. The two have been working on the transition since March.

“We’re passing the baton,” Ms. Harris said.

“My husband retired this year,” she continued. “We’re going to do things while we’re young enough and ready to go. We have a cruise planned for the Danube in the fall and having just more time to spend together.”

Originally from Rochester, N.Y., Ms. Harris started at Wilton High School as a reading teacher 28 years ago and moved to Middlebrook where she was first a teacher at the evening school before starting the reading program at the school in 1987. She has been the principal for 15 years.

“I see myself doing something with children,” she said, referring to the future. “It’s just too soon to determine.”

Besides traveling, she wants to visit her grandchildren in New Hampshire and upstate New York.

“I’ve worked with the best possible superintendents, and the best part of being principal is that you get to pick the people you work with,” she added. “We have a blue ribbon staff and a blue ribbon school.”

Ms. Coleman came to Wilton 14 years ago, first as a second grade teacher at Miller-Driscoll School, and was also a mathematics instructional leader.

“Then I took the unexpected jump to high school administration five years ago, first as an assistant principal, then as the associate principal,” she said. “I’ve sort of had the bookends of the district. This is an opportunity for me to bridge the two and to bring my experiences of where kids are coming from and where they are going.”

The two speak as if they are old friends. The training and transition period began in earnest following Ms. Coleman’s appointment to the position. They spend several hours together each Monday.

“A lot of the unknowns have been demystified for me,” Ms. Coleman said. “I think she’s grown tired of me.”

“Never!” Ms. Harris said. “Never, never, never! It’s been fun.”

Another advantage for Ms. Coleman has been the openness of the staff and students at Middlebrook. She visits frequently, going to plays and events as much as possible, and continues to gain knowledge of the school she will soon be in control of.

Both educators didn’t plan on becoming principals when their careers began, but opportunity knocked in each case.

“Heavens, no,” Ms. Harris said when asked if she set out to become a principal at the beginning of her career. “It just kind of evolved.”

“You always look for opportunities to grow,” Ms. Coleman added.

A principal’s day is unpredictable. While a calendar is in place, there are administrative team meetings on Monday, classroom observations, administrative guidance meetings, assemblies, student events, district meetings, and the unexpected that can take their attention away for anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.

“It runs the gamut,” Ms. Harris said.

Middle school can be a difficult time to be a student. With the playground and recess of elementary school in the past, students walk into a time of school bells, puberty, and a whole new social circle. For Ms. Coleman, how will she deal with the challenge of making that transition easy for students?

“As adults, we have to recognize that any time of transition can be anxiety provoking,” she said. “Students have perceptions of what is awaiting them. It’s just about reassuring them that, even though they’re taking the next step, they’re ready for that step.”

Ms. Coleman added there are adults on staff who are going to assist in making students comfortable, stressing that students fear the unknown of middle school.

As Ms. Harris looked around her office, she pondered a few highlights of her tenure at Middlebrook.

“The first year as principal, we opened a brand new wing, and settling in all of the teams, and setting the protocols,” she said. Other highlights, she said, were watching how the students respond to tragedy, such as Hurricane Katrina, and becoming a blue-ribbon school. Mostly, though, it’s watching the development of the students, as well as new programs beginning at the school, including culinary arts and iSTEM (science-technology-engineering-math).

The thing that one can’t help but notice while talking with both Ms. Harris and Ms. Coleman is their passion and energy. Indeed, both words come up repeatedly as they talk. It’s those things that serve as the basis for their being principals, but those aren’t the only things that make it work. Ms. Coleman spoke about her training process, which she said began with her work as a classroom teacher, evolving into administrator. That taught her to address and understand disciplinary incidents and issues, budgeting, and other skills that she carries into leading the staff and students at Middlebrook.

“I’ve had this wonderful gift since March,” she said. “I don’t know of any beginning principals that have the opportunity to work directly with an expert like Julia. She has shared everything with me. There has been no ego, and has taught me all of her tricks.

“The time that we have spent together has been great. She put together a calendar month-by-month of all of the different initiatives that happen. We’ve studied the budget and the process. We have talked about teacher evaluation as well. I’ll be trained in July and again in August, as that’s completely new in the district.”

“I’ve made her late for many dinners with her husband.”

“You too!” Ms. Harris said with a laugh.

Stylistically, they share similarities. Both say they are collaborative, with open doors and “constant conversation.” They believe in being highly visible and involved with the students and staff.

After Ms. Harris departs, Ms. Coleman will spend the summer training and adjusting to being the principal. She said she will allow herself a break during summer, but will soon be ready for the students to return.

“By about the end of July, you really start to notice that the kids aren’t here, and we miss them,” she said.

With boxes coming and going as each educator moves, Ms. Coleman said one thing will be on display in her new office.

“It’s traveled with me from my Miller-Driscoll days,” she said, offering a hint. “It’s a Jackson Pollock-like canvas that was actually done by my second graders my last year teaching. They will be the eighth graders here at Middlebrook.”

Pottery, books, and other artwork will likely adorn the space of the new principal, who enjoys cooking and reading in her spare time, as well as time with her husband, Jason.

Ms. Harris leaves Middlebrook to be with her husband, Pat. She also has three grown daughters, two sons-in-law, and six grandchildren, and “1,056 middle school students.”

“I would say that Julia is ending her career the way that she started it: as a teacher,” Ms. Coleman said. “And she’s a wonderful teacher for me.”

“I know that Middlebrook is in very good hands with Maria at the helm,” Ms. Harris said. “I’m very confident that all will go well and the Middlebrook family will be the Middlebrook family.”