Two longtime Johnson City Schools principals reflect on education career ahead of retirement

Brandon Paykamian • Updated May 9, 2018 at 11:37 PM

More than 40 years ago, Lake Ridge Elementary Principal John Phillips was teaching at Jonesborough Middle School, where Cherokee Elementary School Principal Mary Nell McIntyre was attending school.

Now the two educators with nearly 80 years of education experience between them will officially retire from Johnson City Schools by the end of June. Carolyn “Renee” Wood will take over at Lake Ridge Elementary and Richard Hutson at Cherokee Elementary for the 2018-19 school year.

On Wednesday morning, the two educators reflected fondly on their years of working in local education.

“This will be 32 years of education. I spent 31 years in Johnson City Schools, and then I had a year at Ashley Academy before that. Of those years, I spent 19 teaching and 13 as (Cherokee’s) principal,” McIntyre said. “I’m from an education family, and my dad was actually a principal in Washington County — he was my middle school principal. My mother was also a teacher and librarian, so it was what I knew growing up.”

When McIntyre first took on the role as Cherokee’s principal during the 2005-06 school year, she said the shift from teaching to principalship was a way for her to guide teachers who were new to education.

“I still kept a hand in what teachers were doing in the classroom to see what was going on. I’ve just loved to see kids learning,” she said.

McIntyre said one of her most memorable moments as principal was her appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show with first-grade teacher Andrea Baker, where the school was awarded $100,000 for a dance video they submitted to the show three years ago.

“That was just incredible. We did a little dance as part of a contest for her show that I had seen called the ‘Penguin Shake,’ which we decided to do for our Thanksgiving program,” she said. “Suddenly, they were like, ‘We want to fly you and a teacher out to the show,’ and we still had no idea what was going to happen. It was just surreal.”

When she began working as Cherokee’s principal, McIntyre held the first of a series of charitable student campaigns, starting with raising money for damaged schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, donating socks to people in need after Hurricane Harvey last year.

“Those are the things I like to see kids get involved in because it helps them know they can make a difference, even if it’s small,” McIntyre said.

Through it all, McIntyre said she’s learned that establishing a connection with students is most important.

“I think I’ve learned that talking face-to-face with kids can never be underestimated. Kids crave to have a connection with adults, and that can make a big difference in a kid’s life.”

After leaving the school system, she plans to continue working with children by serving as an educational coach for the Niswonger Foundation and encouraging children to read.

Phillips, however, said he plans to take time for himself after nearly 50 years of working in education.

After teaching in the Washington County Schools system — starting with a career as a teacher at Jonesborough Elementary — the East Tennessee State University alumnus began working as Boones Creek Elementary School’s principal 38 years ago; then he went to work for Johnson City Schools as Fairmont Elementary School’s principal for 13 years before beginning his career as Lake View’s principal in 1998.

“Probably one of the first things (that brought me into education) was that I always enjoyed being around children,” he said. “I had a young daughter, and my thought was that I could have more time with her if I went into education, even though I had to work construction work during the summer to make ends meet.”

When Lake Ridge was first established, Phillips was heavily involved in the school’s designing process.

“It’s a little scary to leave because this school has kind of been my baby. I helped build the building, I picked out every piece of furniture in this building, picked out every color in this building and drew the brick sculpture in the lobby,” he said. “But I think Renee is going to do fine. She has been the assistant principal this year, so that gave me an opportunity to work with her and show her how things are done — not that she has to do it the same way, but it gives her a basis for starting.”

Phillips hopes Wood will continue to nurture the environment he’s worked to cultivate at Lake Ridge for the past two decades.

“I think we’ve all probably had principals that didn’t appear to be happy. I had one principal who carried the paddle in his back pocket — ready to hit anything that moved. Kids were scared to death,” he said. “When I got into education, what I wanted to do was present a more positive role for principalship.

“That’s what I’ve always tried to be — a positive role model.”

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