Loudoun County, Va. (August 28, 2014) – David Shaffer, the new principal of River Bend Middle School loves everything about middle-schoolers.
Virtually all of his career has been spent as a teacher, dean and assistant principal at Smart’s Mill Middle School.
“I love middle school kids. Honestly – outside of being an infant – it’s the most critical stage of a child’s life. They are changing, not just emotionally and physically, but they’re learning to interact socially with peers. If you want to make the most impact; you work with middle school kids.”
Shaffer knows every stage middle school students go through in great detail.
“Sixth-graders are scared and nervous as they come into a large building. I started at Sully Elementary and I remember when I moved to Smart’s Mill; just the sheer size of the building was very different. They’re a little nervous with changing classes, having different teachers, different expectations.
“Eighth-graders are settled in. It’s developmentally appropriate for eighth-graders to challenge authority; see what they can get away with. They’re wanting to be adults but, then again, they’re still kids.”
Shaffer also knows that girls mature quicker than boys and students have marked differences in growth. “It’s a different dynamic.”
Harnessing that dynamic into a positive school experience is what Shaffer is all about.
“Our responsibility in working with adolescent kids is really to set expectations and be a little bit flexible. Adolescent kids mess up. When we were in middle school, we would do stupid things. It’s really important for the adults to guide them as they go from being a little kid coming from elementary to a young adult going into high school.”
Shaffer began his professional career as a health and physical education teacher at Sully Elementary and Smart’s Mill. His background in athletics (he has undergraduate majors in health and physical education and sports administration) has shaped his management style.
“I am always the most competitive person in the room and I cannot accept just being good; I want to be great.”
Being great means “buy in” from all the school’s staff.
“As an elective teacher, I always valued different people in the building. Whether it was the custodians cleaning the gym or working with core areas or the tech ed. teacher; I value all the classified employees, bus drivers, custodians…
“I don’t think that I, as the principal, am any more important than the bus driver or the secretary – who, I believe, is the face of the school – or somebody serving lunch. Everybody has an equal part in making this a great place for kids.”
The different roles he’s played at Smart’s Mill gave Shaffer the perspective he needs to assume his current role.
“At every level you see a different picture. As a dean, you see the big picture of your grade level. As an assistant principal, you see the big picture in a focused area. Your focus is special education, testing or the building. As the principal, you’re overseeing everything. I’m not micromanaging everything. I look at my responsibility as building capacity within our building…
“A lot of what I do is developing leaders.”
Shaffer said he’s ready to make the hard decisions that come with being a principal.
“You’re going to have people who love the decisions you make and you’re going to have a couple who challenge you and maybe disagree…
“We do what’s best for our school and our community. You can’t always make everybody happy. If you have a large percent buy in… you’re always going to have naysayers. As a leader, you have to be comfortable with that.”
Shaffer takes over from Ben Lacy, who retired after serving 14 years as River Bend’s first principal.
“Traditions and cultures exist at every school,” said Shaffer. “I’m excited about that. There’s stability in this school and within this community. But I also believe that we live in a changing world, so I’m all about getting learners ready for a world that doesn’t exist (yet). We’re helping them learn different skills for a career that might not even exist now.”
One area Shaffer wants to make sure River Bend keeps up with is the changing role of technology in the classroom. “I have a huge love of technology.”
That doesn’t mean Shaffer will be pushing technology for technology’s sake.
“It’s important as I come in to work with the teachers and see what they’re comfortable with. It’s like when we started with Promethean boards or computers in the classroom; some people will jump on it right away. It’s hard, because the kids are always ahead of the adults…
“Even with my own three kids; I know if they want to learn, if they want to be truly engaged, technology is a tool that helps with that… It’s just a tool, but it enhances learning.”
Shaffer has two sons at Cedar Lane Elementary and a 3-year-old daughter. (Shaffer’s wife, Rebekah, is a stay-at-home mom. “As a new principal, having that support at home is really excellent.”)
“(My children are) all very different; like anybody who has multiple kids (knows). Everybody has a different personality; it’s almost like middle school kids… They’re just very different, different needs…
“The point of being a father with three kids is knowing that every child is different. Every kid at River Bend, every teacher is different. Everybody has different needs. As a leader, it’s my job to really differentiate what we do; our instruction, our approaches to meet the individual needs of everybody in this building.”