Being principal, even for just a day, is no small feat on your feet
I was asked to serve as principal for a day at St. James Middle School, which meant following in the footsteps of Principal Olga Toggas. And that actually required me to practically sprint to keep up with her up and down the school halls—and I have long strides at about a foot taller than Toggas! But for her, serving as principal is a marathon she happily runs.
From about 7:30 a.m. to beyond the last bell at 3:30 p.m., Toggas is an educator, nurturer, cheerleader, disciplinarian, problem solver and, overall, a leader. And I learned, firsthand, that you have to be able to easily pivot from one role to the next because staff and students ultimately look to you for the best solution.
That’s all in a day’s work for Toggas. For me, being thrown into making the morning PA announcements after two eighth graders read off the day’s menu was enough to throw me. She prepped me by telling me how she tries to make announcements fast and interesting to elongate middle schoolers’ short attention spans. What I didn’t know was that my announcement included a National Education proclamation, chockfull of formal phrases. I did well, she said with a thumbs up, but I can only imagine my seventh grade son cringing in his homeroom down the hall, hearing his mom over the PA. (I made sure to embarrass him a couple times throughout the day, with a hug in the hallway and a peck on the cheek in the cafeteria.)
Soon after the first bell, I was whisked away behind Toggas as she rolled her mobile desk down the west wing toward the bus pickup/drop-off area. The eighth graders were taking a field trip to the high school that morning to get their first grand tour of where they’ll be as freshmen next year. The logistical timing of buses and loading up of the students was a streamlined process, complete with radios and faculty standing at strategic points along the way toward the buses. Toggas seemed to be pleased with it, but, at the same time, almost like she expected better.
“The most challenging part of the job is time,” she says. “The more I can spend time to think things through is beneficial, but too much time is also challenging to know when to release projects to others and trying to decide what I need to be involved with.”
Toggas has nearly 20 years of experience working in the Horry County Schools district, first as a high school English teacher at Carolina Forest Middle, then at Carolina Forest High teaching English and serving as an instructional coach. She earned two M.Ed. degrees from Coastal Carolina University in Secondary English Education and Educational Leadership, which primed her for the next eight years as High School English Learning Specialist and her current role as principal here, which she took on in 2017.
“The hope is here,” Toggas says of the middle school years, where she explains that it’s integral to form a firm foundation in good habits before students enter their final four years of school.
The remainder of my day as principal was filled with sitting in on two classes, in which a duo of “Shark Ambassadors” (classroom student leaders) came up to us right away to fill us in on what they were working on, and staff curriculum planning in math and English. At lunch, Toggas didn’t hide her disappointment in the kettles of soup running out for a special lunch held for the teachers, so she bought lunch for those teachers who didn’t get treated to a bowl of soup. (She, on the other hand, barely stopped to eat a mini bag of Doritos over the course of the day.) Toggas’ “open air” office set up at her mobile desk in the middle of the hallway was impressive, as she would pull out her whistle and megaphone for some rowdy students pulling on backpacks, and she never missed an opportunity to offer a warm greeting and words of encouragement for others passing by. She even helped a girl—a rising basketball star—who was hobbling on an ankle she rolled in gym class over to a bench.
“I like to be balanced and approachable enough at all ends to see things from different perspectives—and I need to be accessible to make those connections,” says Toggas. “It’s also important for me to watch the patterns in what’s what happening over and over and again in the school to come up with multiple paths to solve the problem, like a GPS.
“I want to be more transparent this year, but that doesn’t mean become too vulnerable,” she adds.
I was honored to be named one of 50-plus Principals for a Day throughout Horry County Schools. It’s an event that’s been a multi-year tradition and I think it’s one that’s a valuable reminder of the priceless role these full-time principals play in our children’s lives every day.