We’ve all heard folks grumble that time flies faster and faster as we age. With schedules governed by school calendars each year, that sentiment seems to be most aptly applied to principals! Each year seems to go more quickly than the last, and I’m likely not the only one wondering where all the time has gone.
I’m the principal of a high school in Western Montana, located in a beautiful valley south of Missoula. We have four seasons here every year—winter, spring, summer, and forest-fire-smoke season. On the final day of July last summer, as the pace of visitors into the school’s office was slowly increasing in anticipation of another school year’s start, a small wildfire just southwest of town became a big one. A huge blowup grew to thousands of acres in a few hours and put hundreds of homes at risk—many of which belonged to our students. The fire grew so rapidly that it immediately earned a Type I national Incident Command Team; the kind they bring in when things get serious.
As a high school principal, I had many worries. As a resident of a great community, I worried about my friends, neighbors, and employees in the area that was evacuated. I worried about our students and parents who were at risk of losing their homes and property. And naturally, I worried about all the normal planning that goes with getting the school year started properly. In the midst of all of these worries and concerns, I received a call from a representative of the Type I Incident Command Team seeking to set up a huge fire camp at my school.
Was the school willing to help out in this time of need? Of course we were! Within 24 hours of the fire’s start, my high school and its sprawling grounds became home to a thousand firefighters with tents, life support services, and all of the other logistical needs for a monumental effort. The classrooms became hubs of activity, with each being assigned to a command staff section or set up as daytime sleeping rooms. Hundreds descended upon the school for daily briefings and press conferences. It was a rapid transformation from the slow buildup that occurs before the start of the school year to an absolute hectic hub of activity in our school.
The end is near, indeed! The start of our school year looked like Armageddon, with dark clouds of smoke blotting out the sun and causing an eerie post-apocalyptic haze to the sky, complete with branches, moss, and ash falling from the plume of smoke 10,000 feet overhead. Air quality was hazardous, and it was just about time for the Montana High School Association’s official start to fall sports practices. On top of the air quality issues, there were tents and equipment on every inch of our practice fields. Two-a-day football practices and the first cross-country runs are tough enough, but the conditions in our valley were beyond the boundaries of safety. It was the most worrisome beginning of the year I’ve had in my career. With all classrooms full of incident command activities, I began to worry that we wouldn’t have our school “back” when the teachers were to report back to duty.
When it looked as though the wildfire was going to rage until the snow started in the high country in October, we caught some fortunate breaks. Wind direction changes, a sprinkle of rain or two, and some unexpected cold fronts helped run the fire away from the low hills filled with homes and ranches, and allowed firefighters to get control of an out-of-control situation. Within three weeks of that fateful Sunday when the mountainside blew up, the Type I Team was gone from our campus and things suddenly became “normal” around Hamilton High School. That break in the weather that blew Armageddon out of the county happily coincided with return of our sports practices, and our forest-fire-smoke season was incredibly short. We had to cancel very few practices last fall due to air quality concerns. In fact, as scary as the start of the season was, it was one of our best years for good outdoor air quality in a while.
As I write this on May 1, it is hard not to think about the sentiment that time flies more quickly every year a person ages. It feels like it was only a month ago that I was worried about how in the world we’d get school started with a campus bursting at the seams with firefighters and equipment, and suddenly the end is near—the end that principals have grown accustomed to during the normal rhythm of their school year, if there ever is a year that can be considered “normal.”
One of the elements that makes being a principal such a rewarding career is the variety of situations that we deal with and how our year is neatly packaged into quarters, semesters, and years. Here’s to another safe and successful year to all of our NASSP members and their students, families, and employees. While this year’s end is near, another beginning will be upon us in the blink of an eye.
How do you embrace the variety of issues you deal with as a principal?
Dan Kimzey is the principal of Hamilton High School in Hamilton, MT, a rural school with approximately 500 students. He is Montana’s 2016 NASSP Principal of the Year, and when not working, enjoys every bit of Montana’s great outdoors.