John Alwood builds trust -- in class, at home. Raising children or calming a hostage, he uses reason, kindness
Fairfax, Va. — THIS is a love story. Here's John W. Alwood, principal of the largest school in one of the largest counties of metropolitan Washington, D.C. He's a year away from retirement, after a highly successful, 37-year career. His staff and students have nothing but nice things (like ``extraordinary'' and ``tremendous'') to say about him.
So he's quitting.
John Alwood is going back to something he loves to do. He's going to teach.
Next September, Alwood is leaving the 4,750-enrollment Lake Braddock Secondary School and joining a smaller school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Not as principal, but as a math teacher. Why? ``I'll be getting back to reality,'' he told the school staff when he announced the switch this April.
During an interview in his three-sided office, where he's never closed a door on anyone or had a door to close, the tall, blue-eyed Michigan native talked more about ``reality'' (teaching) than anything else. To him, it's ``the only important thing -- everything else is pretty incidental,'' he says.
Much of the good he has done as a principal, he says, has come from raising four children. ``You don't know how traumatic it is to be cut from a team until you've lived through it as a parent,'' Dr. Alwood says. ``My coaches are required to tell the students face to face when they're cut, and explain why. Then maybe [the students] can learn from it, and come out still feeling positive about themselves.''
This is the kind of careful concern he brings to all of his relationships, says his wife, Betsy -- a woman he met on a blind date in Japan (she was a college student in her junior year abroad; he was serving in the Navy during the Korean conflict).
He supported her recent decision to quit teaching and go into real estate full time, she says, but also supports her in other ways. ``About five years back, he saw that my schedule often ran over the dinner preparation time, so he took over all the shopping and cooking, which makes many of my friends very jealous.''
She, in turn, is both supportive and excited about his decision to teach. ``People think he's giving up status, but it's not true -- to him, teaching is all the status.''
Only one person, in fact, has shown any hesitation about Dr. Alwood making the switch. ``Our youngest told him he was too much of a softy to be a good teacher,'' Mrs. Alwood says, ``and tried to tell him how to keep the kids from walking all over him.''
``He's not as much of a softy as people think,'' says Walt Chernenko, a teacher at Lake Braddock and friend of the Alwoods. He gives this example: ``We had a winning basketball team a few years back, but some of the fans started yelling obscenities at the games. John talked to all the students and said if it didn't stop, he wouldn't allow anyone to watch,'' a ploy which worked. ``But he doesn't lay down the law like that very often -- he prefers to use reason,'' Mr. Chernenko adds.
Reason and compassion are what he used three years ago when an 18-year-old, rejected by his girlfriend, took 10 people hostage in the school with a deer-hunting rifle and held them all night. The boy threatened to turn the violence on himself, Dr. Alwood says. ``I told him he'd made a bad mistake, but he could overcome it and make a life for himself.''
Dr. Alwood was the last hostage to leave, ``and instead of being worried about himself or those waiting for him, he was worried about the boy,'' says Mrs. Alwood. The boy threw out the rifle and came out, alive.
``He has a very strong set of Christian values,'' says Mr. Chernenko, who is active in the principal's church. ``He doesn't push them on anyone at school, but you can see them in the way he works.''
Dr. Alwood, who says he's against prayer in school (``that's more of a rote thing''), states quietly that ``I do believe my life is in God's hands. There's a lot of that, in fact, in this decision to go back to teaching.''
Good teachers are people ``who can build a spirit of trust and respect between them and the student, a spirit which enables them to do skill building,'' Alwood says. But an excellent teacher could probably get by with being either an extremely good relationship builder or extremely good at teaching skills, he thinks.
``His best work is in building relationships,'' says Ann Jaekle, an assistant principal who's worked with Dr. Alwood at Lake Braddock since its opening 13 years ago.
Building relationships, in fact, is one of his goals as a math teacher. He wants to be able to ``look over my class list and just check to see if every student there has some kind of good adult relationship in the school,'' he says. ``Teachers tell me they have no time to do this; I want to see if it's true.''
It's the kind of ambitious expectation that beginning teachers often carry into their work, along with a fresh love for what they do. ``For many of us,'' says Mrs. Jaekle, ``teaching was our first love, but we can't find a way to get back to it. Dr. Alwood will be wonderful at it; I just wish more of us could do it.''
Stopping them are money considerations: In Fairfax, retirement benefits are based on the average of a person's last three years' salary. Dr. Alwood has negotiated a way to keep his principal's pay for this last year.
Alwood will be taking more than his principal's salary with him to his new teaching post. He will take a career full of close classroom observations from a special viewpoint.
``I took over a school in Michigan that was just a mess,'' he says with a grin. One first-year teacher had ``a terrible year,'' he explains, ``and I must have sat in with her for 20, 25 periods, helping her to handle the ruffians and just keep her from going crazy.'' The teacher went on to have a successful career, and now designs math curriculum for a national organization.
Dr. Alwood is planning to try out his own math-teaching theory on his algebra students next year. His doctoral work was done on the low success rate of teaching algebra, and he came to believe that such low achievement is largely a matter of expectation.
``Teachers expect that only the bright students will learn algebra, and the students themselves attribute their failure to their own inability,'' he says. He hopes, instead, to instill an expectation of success in his students.
Instilling such expectations seems to be Dr. Alwood's primary goal in dealing with both students and staff. ``Those of us lucky enough to have worked with him know that he has never not been a teacher,'' wrote teacher Tina Yalen in Lake Braddock's newspaper. Now, instead of teaching teachers, he'll be going back to his first love -- teaching students.
It's a love story with a happy ending.