"I'm really looking forward to working with you. This is such great news." I received this email from my new secretary, Ellen Altis, in 2012 when I was appointed as Principal of Pequannock Valley School. It was my first Principal appointment and one that I was very excited, yet nervous about. That simple email put me right at ease and gave me the boost of confidence I needed to know that everything was going to be okay. For the next three years, I had the pleasure of working with Ellen until she retired in 2015.
Anyone that has ever worked in a school knows that the secretaries are the people that really keep the school running. The job of a secretary, much like that of a teacher and an administrator has certainly evolved over the years. Gone are the days where the Principal’s secretary’s main responsibilities were to answer phones, take messages, dictate notes, organize files, type correspondence and greet visitors. The job of the Principal’s secretary now involves, all those things and more. Budgeting, scheduling, organizing graduation, award ceremonies, managing our Student Information System, the school website, Google Apps for Education, organizing evaluations PDPs, SGO’s, fixing copy machines, maintaining all the purchase orders and supplies, putting in work orders, enrollment reports, registration, assisting with substitutes, handling needy parents (did I say needy), dealing with staff concerns/issues, students forgetting passwords, locker combinations, lunches, notebooks, glasses, and their own phone numbers, stopping bloody-noses, answering doorbells, scheduling meetings, assisting with attendance, writing late passes and calming down the Principal are all thing that usually happen by 9:00am. Through all these changes and these responsibilities was Ellen Altis.
I am fortunate that when I come to work each day I have many “moms” who are looking out for me. Although I may be the Principal and Ellen was my secretary, Ellen was very much a motherly figure to me. She would always make sure that I was feeling okay, I had something to eat, I got my work done, I never missed a deadline, people weren’t bothering me (to the point where she would stand in the doorway or stand on her toes and peak through the window). She always knew when I was upset about something and would give me a moment to calm down and then pop her head in the door and say, is everything okay? However, the thing that I appreciated most was that she never let me miss any of my own kid’ s events. I’m pretty intense when it comes to my work and I get caught up in what is happening at the school. Ellen would always give me countdowns. I’d hear her yell, "15 minutes"……and then "RICH, YOU HAVE TO GO!" She would then essentially escort me out of the building, handing me my coat. Whether it was Ryan’s first special day in preschool or Brooke’s Gingerbread Play, I was often able to steal a few minutes during the day to see them. As a Principal, you often work late nights so any time I can see my children is a bonus. I will be forever grateful to her for putting family first.
In my time working with Ellen, she was one of the strongest women I knew. For many reasons the last few years of her job were not easy. Aside from all the changes that have happened in education, working with a new Principal, two and a half assistant principals, getting the new teachers in line with the PV way of doing things, training new 6th graders and all the other responsibilities that come with her job, Ellen was forced to overcome a personal challenge that tested every ounce of will and determination she had. Through it all, Ellen would show up for work, put a smile on her face and push through it. More times than not, no one had any idea that she just had a doctors’ appointment, radiation, blood work, or surgery. No one knew that she might not have felt well. After surgery she would be back in a few days, at her desk, doing what she loved. Ellen and I spent many times in my office talking about nothing school related. Sometimes, when you go through what we have gone through (cancer treatments), you just need to talk. Those are going to be the conversations I remember with Ellen. The ones where I could see she knew what was coming, she would put her hands on her legs, look at me from across the desk and say, “ I know I can do this.” Right up until her retirement she battled cancer and won.
For the three and a half years we worked together, the main office had a strong sense of camaraderie. The trust that we had contributed to our overall success as a team. We laughed, we cried, we questioned, we supported each other, we cared for each other Through it all we are consistent. When push came to shove and the stress was at an all time high, we knew we are all there for each other. Even when Ellen retired, she would come back and visit, wanting to know what we were all doing and what was going on with the staff and students. Up to a month or so ago we were texting back and forth talking about the craziness of the current school situation.
Yesterday I found out that Ellen passed away. My heart hurts. Unfortunately the cancer that she had beat when we worked together had come back without her knowing. In her usual feisty self, she didn't want anyone in her "work family" to know, she just kept living life. At her retirement dinner in 2016, in my speech to her, I gave her a piece of advice... I borrowed one of the most meaningful speeches I have ever heard and that has a special meaning to me. It is from Jim Valvano, a former basketball coach and the founder of the V Foundation for Cancer Research. He said:
“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special.”
We did a lot of laughing, a ton of thinking, and there was some crying in that main office. We had some great days as we did our best for students. Ellen certainly took that advice during her retirement, spending time traveling, volunteering and spending time with her grandchildren that she adored. Today, I am laughing, thinking and crying as I remember my secretary, my friend.....and "the behind the scenes" leader of our building.
Enjoy every moment you can with the people that you work with. Build those relationships, keep them strong and never take for granted the impact that anyone can make on your life.......personally and professionally. I'm fortunate that my former secretary made a positive impact on both parts of my life.
Ellen, I really enjoyed working with you. You were right, it was great news. Rest in Peace.
Richard M. Hayzler
A life long educator and current Principal of Pequannock Township High School in NJ, Rich is excited to share his ideas and thoughts about education and how we can change the world for our students and our staff.