(Crystal A. Proxmire, Jan. 12, 2017)
Ferndale, MI – “It doesn’t matter how much you know, until they know you care.”
That philosophy helped guide Ferndale High School Principal Roger Smith through 37 years of education, first as a music teacher, then as an administrator. And as he prepares to retire at the end of the year, Smith is confident that others in the Ferndale Schools District will carry on with the same commitment to building relationships with students, parents, teachers, coaches, school board members and everyone who plays a role in making a district work.
The best advice he would give to his successor, however, is to “take the job very seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. You need to be able to roll with the punches.”
Smith is proud to have spent 34 of his 37 years at Ferndale High School, because he himself was a 1974 graduate. “I was thrilled beyond belief to come here and work,” Smith said. Ferndale was the first place he applied after college, and he’d been passed up because the Principal at the time didn’t want someone who was “too close” to the community. After a year teaching music in Avondale and two years in Pontiac, the job in Ferndale became open again and Smith has been there ever since.
“Three or four years in I was sitting in this office and the Principal at the time, John Dzyacky, said ‘You know, someday you’re going to be Principal of this building,’ and I said ‘no, no, no. I don’t want to do that, I’m a music teacher. But sure enough he was right.”
When asked why he went from teaching music to being the Assistant Principal, Smith said he felt it was the right thing to do. “I’ve been involved in music my whole life. I’m the son of musicians, my wife is a music teacher, my sons are musicians. But I felt like I had more to offer in this building, and it helped to keep younger teachers in the district. I wanted to honor the cycle of teaching and watching them come into their own. It was a win-win for everyone. Clearly the people who have followed me have done an excellent job taking the band, the orchestra and the choir to a new level.”
He will never forget 2004, which was the first of nine Marching Band State Championships that Ferndale has since won. “What made it so proud for me it that it was a process. We had to work as a total team to get there. Staff, parents, equipment people, bus drivers, administrative support – it was a total team effort,” Smith said.
Plus, both his sons were in the band that year, one of whom was a drum major.
“They were nice, talented kids. They took some good natured ribbing with their dad being a teacher at their school, but they both coped very well,” he said. “I loved having them there. I loved watching them grow and mature, and trying to stay out of their business.”
Being Assistant Principal for ten years, and Principal for two also gave Smith much to be proud of. “I feel strongly that social and emotional learning is on par with academic learning. High school is usually the most transformative time in anyone’s life. Think about how many movies and TV shows there are about high school. We have to pay serious attention to social and emotional well-being during these years,” he said.
“I grew up here and was raised here. I had a very good high school experience, but I realize that not everybody does. I like to think the things we do help give these kids a good experience.”
One program is the peer-to-peer outreach. That’s where students are paired up with a special education student for one hour per day. They work one-on-one doing projects that help develop social and emotional skills.
“I can’t take credit for this program, but I’m proud to keep it going. It’s in its third year and it’s fantastic,” Smith said. “It helps integrate kids into the school population. You seem the more active in the hallways, and in the cafeteria. It really helps both students learn empathy, and that relationship component that I talked about.” There are five classes through the day with 10-12 students per class.
Another program is the Upstander Anti-bullying program. Unlike singular assemblies, this is a program where students meet every three weeks to do activities and role modeling. “We all see bullying, whether we’re adults in the workplace or students in school. We know how easy it is to see bullying and not do anything, or not know what to do. Upstander teaches them how to be an active upstander instead of just being a bystander,” he said.
Students are selected from a variety of backgrounds and who may bring something special to the experience, such as having a bold personality or even being somewhat of a bully themselves. “This gives them practical experience and you can see the impact of having students who stand up for each other,” Smith said.
Because of all the connections he’s made, leaving will be bittersweet. But Smith wants the community to know that he’s not going anywhere and there is nothing negative about his decision to retire. “You get to be about my age, which is 60, and you approach life differently. You want to travel while you still can. I planned ahead for retirement and it’s time to enjoy it.”
He is optimistic about the future of Ferndale Schools, including the recent restructuring of the elementary schools that created Upper and Lower schools. “We’re teaching kids at a young age things like coping skills, diversity and tolerance. Let’s get everyone together so there is less of the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have nots.’ I’m a big supporter of that. We won’t see it here at the high school for another five or ten years, but I think we will see the payoff of it.”
Smith continues to work through the end of the school year and said he will be available to help the next Principal transition in. Ferndale Schools Communications Director Bill Good said that a timeline has not yet been set for the hiring process, but that the district will keep the public informed of that process.