Q & A: New principal at Sacandaga likes to get out among students

For Ann Comley, a school without children is a sad place. While not everyone at Sacandaga Elementary

For Ann Comley, a school without children is a sad place.

While not everyone at Sacandaga Elementary School is delighted that September has trumped summer pool, pizza and pajama parties, Comley is glad school bells are ringing once again. The longtime teacher and administrator is beginning her first year as principal at Sacandaga, in the Scotia-Glenville Central School District.

Comley, 55, began her education career in Schenectady in 1982, as a teacher at the former Linton High School. She also taught at Hamilton and Elmer Avenue elementary schools before accepting a job as assistant principal at Dorothy Nolan Elementary School in Saratoga Springs in 1997. In October 2000, she landed the principal’s job at Lincoln Elementary School in Scotia, where she stayed through the 2010-11 school year.

This fall, she’s getting to know 375 new students in kindergarten through fifth grade. While kids are in their homerooms at 8:25 a.m. and dismissed at 3:10 p.m. Monday through Friday, Comley’s days on the job are a little longer. She talked about kids, parents and the enduring fear of childhood — the trip to the principal’s office — during a Daily Gazette question-and-answer examination.

Q: How has the new school year been so far?

A: It’s been good. I started in July and got the chance to look through everything. The school was very quiet in the summer because there were no children here. People have been very nice, helping me finding things. I have to learn all the children’s names, that’s going to be different. I knew the kids at Lincoln, now I have to learn all the names here.

Q: What are the first couple of weeks of a school year like?

A: Teaching the children the routine, teachers getting to know the students, setting up, modeling exactly what they expect of the students. For kindergarten . . . teaching them how to line up, how to take attendance, how to sit for a morning meeting, getting to know each other. At every other grade level, teachers have to teach the children exactly what their expectations are this year, getting to know their new classmates because it’s never the same, children mix around each year.

Q: What times does the principal’s day start?

A: I get here about an hour before the kids do, just to get the day started, about 7:30. On Friday, I think I left at 5. I like to try to be able to leave by 4:30 but you know, you put in the time you need to put in to get it done.

Q: Are you in the office for much of the day, or do you get out?

A: I don’t like being in the office. For example, in the morning I go out and greet the buses and say “Good morning” to the kids. And then I come down when the bell rings and do morning announcements because I think that it’s important the children know the principal is in the building. So we say the pledge together as a school family, read off the lunch, wish them a good day.

Then I come back in, see what’s come into the office, see what’s going on, are there any messages, any phone calls that need to be made. I have a daily bulletin and I like to get into the classrooms, so I drop off the daily bulletin to the classes and the kids get to see the principal. I just pop into the classroom, put it on the teacher’s desk, it probably takes me 20 seconds. But again, it’s that visual that the kids have of the principal so if they get sent to me if something’s wrong they already know who I am.

Q: Do you have many conversations with the kids or get many questions from them?

A: I will say things to the kids. If they have a shoe lace untied as I walk by, I’ll say “Shoelace failure, left foot.” One little boy said to me, “Mrs. Comley, he’s new here, they don’t know what that means yet.” They might ask questions, why you can’t do something, and if you explain the reason behind it, “We don’t want you to run in the hall, we want to keep you safe because you could slip and hurt yourself.” I think sometimes kids need to hear the answers so they have a better understanding of why something is set in place.

Q: The principal can be seen as an intimidating figure. How do you handle that part of the job?

A: I’m pretty friendly with kids. What I say to them is, “I would rather have you come and see me just to say ‘Hi,’ rather than coming to me if you’ve made a poor choice.” But I can be firm when I need to be firm. When I have students for detention, I like to have them in my office where it’s a little bit more quiet. But if they’re sent to the principal’s office, I contact the parents and they both [students and parents] need to know they made a poor choice. The goal is not to be punitive, but to get them to correct their behavior.

Q:What kinds of poor choices will send a student to the principal’s office?

A: That might be hitting somebody out on the playground, being disrespectful to a teacher, being disrespectful to a student in the class, maybe throwing food in the cafeteria. I’ve had that on occasion.

Q: Do the kids ever try to explain?

A: I will look them right in the eye and I’ll say, “Look, just tell me the truth. You made a bad choice, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. We just need to get past this, but please tell me what you did.” Generally, they will tell me. If they can’t look you in the eye, it sometimes means they’re not being honest.

Q: How have kids changed in the last 30 years, since you started teaching?

A: I think their family lives are a little bit different. I think it’s harder for families now, with the economy the way it is. And the video games . . . and they’re very tech-savvy.

Q: What funny things can you tell us about school days?

A: When I was teaching, I knew that I had always made a difference when they started calling me “Mom” or “Mommy.” But I drew the line when, many years ago, one student called me “Grandma.” I think she was being raised by her grandmother. I kind of looked at her and said, “I’m not your grandmother.” My favorite number is 24, so I always tell the kids I’m 24, and the younger they are, the more they believe you because clearly, I’m not 24. And they say, “Gee, my mom is 23,” or they say to you, “Oh, my mom is 28.” They just don’t quite get it, so stuff like that is cute.

Q: How does the principal work with teachers?

A: You work with the teachers on good things and difficult things. Sometimes, we have parents who might be mad at a teacher and I’m always happy to sit down with the parent and the teacher and kind of get to the bottom of it. It could be a simple communications misunderstanding. We work together as a team. I like to think that’s my style, it’s more of a team kind of a style than “This is the way it has to be done because I’m the principal.”

Q: Do you see a lot of sleepy kids this time of year?

A: I’ll say “Wake up and smell the coffee,” especially on a Monday. They have to build up their stamina, we all have to get used to getting up and having people at you asking questions all the time.

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