Weston Voices: John Gibbons, Weston Middle School Principal
On a beautiful Wednesday morning at the Middle School campus, the Owl was able to get out and about with John Gibbons, Weston Middle School principal extraordinaire. Mr. Gibbons (it is impossible to call him John when my kids refer to him as Mr. Gibbons) is completing his 29th year in the Weston school system.
We visited the redbud tree planted by Tree Advisory Group in 2014, wandered the Nonesuch Brook streamside which now proudly holds the Class of 2027 trees, walked through the trail to the high school, viewed the forest of garlic mustard near the bus pass-through, and finally wound up near the Middle School garden. While we talked and walked, middle school and high school students came out on mask breaks or clutching clipboards on their way to do whatever clipboards do. It is a campus filled with energy, hope, and laughter. Lucky us.
As background, Mr. Gibbons came to Weston in 1987 as a sixth grade English teacher and held that role for 9 years. He briefly got stolen away by Northborough to be their principal but came back in the 2000-2001 school year which makes this twenty years of principalship (-ism?). In the fall, Mr. Gibbons will start his thirtieth year working with Weston–I guess he likes us. We like him too.
You were a 6th grade English teacher at WMS for 9 years (1987-1996). Did you teach the same books then as are taught now?
English was taught differently then, partially because there were fewer sections of students. We also had “leveling” in English–so I might teach different books to different levels. And teachers had a little more leeway in selecting books–you could figure out what classroom of kids might be more attracted to which books, and which voices it was important for everyone to know. I think the only book that is taught now that is the same as back then is Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. I taught The Yearling back then, and that’s definitely not on the list anymore. We also had more time in the curriculum to allow kids to do a reading choice at the end of the year.
What do you miss most about teaching?
I still consider myself a teacher…just more “macro” now than I used to be. Principals see more of the big picture, but I always try to go with the students on the trips and be a part of their day at the middle school. I guess what I miss the most are the day-to-day changes in students that you see as a teacher. You can see their confidence grow and their minds expand when you see each one every day. Now I can’t see that every day but I get to keep my instructional leadership current by working with the fantastic faculty here in Weston.
You left Weston to take on a Principal role at Northborough. How did that come about?
That was part of an evolution in my career. As well as teaching English, I became the Grade 6 House Leader. At that time, the principal at Weston was Doc Harris, and he encouraged me to get my Master’s Degree with an emphasis in administration and supervision, which I got in 1992. And because Weston was well-cared for by Doc Harris, there wasn’t room for me to be a principal–and so I interviewed at a bunch of school systems, and was offered the role at Northborough. It was a great challenge for me–there were 850 students in the school (grades 5-8), many faculty retirements, and no assistant principal. I considered that a “builder principal” role–eventually the fifth grade was moved back to the elementary level, an assistant principal came in, and we were able to hire and move the right faculty into place. There are phases in running a school–after “builder principal” comes “sustaining principal” and everything goes along until the next wave of retirement or change happens.
How did you get back to Weston?
When Doc Harris announced his retirement in 2000, he called me and encouraged me to consider coming back to Weston. I jumped at the chance to work in Weston again. It’s a place where the community really invests in faculty–and I’m not talking only about salary. There are always opportunities to try new things–as temporary Superintendent Brackett said, “just start”. New ideas work or they don’t–and you get learnings from that, too.
What is your favorite thing about teaching/administrating Middle School?
It sounds trite but I love that no two days are alike. Every day brings new opportunities and new challenges. From childhood, I was always encouraged to have a job that was fulfilling to me–and I’d thank my schools for that [Ed.: Mr. Gibbons grew up and attended school in New Haven, CT, the Nutmeg State, which may also be where the Owl is from. The Owl, however, did not attend Catholic school]. I even considered the priesthood. I am so fortunate: there is never a day that I haven’t wanted to come to my job. Not once.
What has been your greatest challenge during your 20 years as Principal?
Well, obviously the answer will be this year, the year of the pandemic. The challenge was how to lead a school which has the mission of being together as a community–and you’re completely blown apart. How can you build community from afar? I will say that the support from the greater Weston Community was so appreciated and I really felt we were working all together. And now as we come to the end of this crazy year, I can find silver linings–and I hope others can, too.
Before Covid, and continuing now, there has been another challenge which is student emotional well-being. With all that is available in terms of news sources, and yes social media, how do you help students parse what happens in the world? How do you educate in the face of societal events–not just Covid, but school shootings or racist attacks? The schools cannot avoid addressing these issues–kids see it and they need to process it. Our goal has to be to make sure our students are emotionally okay.
What do you want to tell the eighth graders as they move on from a strange final year at the WMS to a new school and new challenges?
First and foremost, I want to tell them how proud we are of their accomplishments and progress. In spite of significant losses this year, I want them to know they can accomplish anything if they look for opportunity. I’m still playing around with the theme of my eighth grade “Moving on” speech — I change it every year. I think it will also be about challenging them to take time to listen to others, to understand other perspectives, and avoid making assumptions. I hope that they all have found their voices and that they feel empowered to do something or say something that they wouldn’t have before passing through these doors.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
You may not know this but I’m a hockey player–I play in a men’s league and pick-up games [Note to WEEFC auction leaders: how about a bidding war for taking shots on Mr. Gibbons?] I love to hike and walk with my wife, many times on Weston’s trails. I also love fishing.
What’s your favorite book or books?
I’m not sure I have one overarching favorite. I do like to read Walden and Civil Disobedience by Thoreau every year–that gets my thoughts going. I have found different books important in different stages of my life. I loved The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien) books as a kid. I guess now I am more of a practical or maybe it’s a “purposeful” reader. I did read a lot of anti-racist literature this year, with a standout book being Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, by Emmanuel Echo. One other book I’ve enjoyed time after time is The Hidden Lives of Owls, by Leigh Calvez. I also tend to read a lot of articles and books on leadership.
Tell us about the Middle School Garden
The Middle School garden started out as a J-term project [Ed: June term–a weeklong project with different subjects and themes] for the class that is currently sophomores at the high school. They decided the location after studying space and shade. The following year’s J-term group built it–this was all completely student-driven. Some of the older raised boxes were built in years before in shop class and just moved to this location. The students decided what vegetables or trees (there are two peach trees) were placed. This year we have a Garden Club that meets on Saturdays from 10 am-12 pm. And none of this would be possible without the funding from WEEFC, so a big shout-out to them for two grants–the original one, and a second one to replenish and re-stock with new sprinklers and new soil. Last spring it was just me taking care given the pandemic, and it was great therapy.
Anything else you want to share with us?
We have the best middle school faculty anywhere. The challenges of the last year would have been much harder without the amazing team that we have here. I am honored to work with them every day.
And now for the inevitable subjective view of the Owl as the mom of two eighth-graders. Weston is so incredibly lucky to have John Gibbons here–personally, I think the middle school team is so good that I feel sorry for those who have missed out on sending their kids there. If you have not seen Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Oates lead a Principal’s coffee, with the energy and fun and the absolute clear love of what they do, well, you haven’t lived. Happy 20th anniversary of being our principal, John, and happy cusp of 30 in Weston schools!