New leaders learning the ropes along with the students

Scott Mauk and John Patton greet and usher students into South Whidbey High School during the first week of classes. Both are new to their positions as assistant principal and principal, respectively.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Scott Mauk and John Patton greet and usher students into South Whidbey High School during the first week of classes. Both are new to their positions as assistant principal and principal, respectively.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — Old faces, new faces. Newbies navigating new hallways, trying to find their next class. Remembering that locker combination, along with what’s hot and what’s not.

The start of the new school year means a fresh start, but the return of some familiar worries. It hasn’t been just students that have been making some big adjustments this year, though.

For all the first days of school in John Patton’s career, this year’s was unique.

Sure, Patton has had plenty of back-to-school days in his 11-year career with the district. The start of the school year this time has been special, though, since Patton has taken over the helm of the high school as its new principal.

He’s not alone in being new at the top.

Assistant principal Scott Mauk and Langley Middle School principal Eric Nerison also started the new school year as administrators of new schools, thanks largely to the departure of Rod Merrell, formerly the principal of both SWHS and LMS.

Like the students they serve, the new leaders noted the things they’ve gained — and given up — as they’ve advanced to the next level.

Patton spent the past seven years as the assistant principal and athletic director, a position he cherished.

“To me, that wasn’t work, that was always fun for me,” Patton said.

His first week back at school, he admitted his missed the glow of the Friday night lights. It was the first football game Patton missed in seven years.

It wasn’t easy. He tried to stay as connected as possible, consistently text messaging Mauk for updates while the new principal was in Olympia for a family event.

“Ask my wife, I was going through withdrawals,” Patton said.

A new title and new duties didn’t keep Patton away from the field for long. He traveled with the football team to catch their next contest against Concrete. And come what may, he said he doesn’t plan on missing another one.

“The title wasn’t important to me; you’re still going to see me at all the games,” Patton said. “You can’t keep me away.”

Patton began his South Whidbey career as a half-time teacher and half-time athletic director. He remembered watching students meeting with their advisors and recognizing most, if not all, of the students.

“The great thing about the first day is seeing all the kids come back and the enthusiasm with the staff,” Patton said. “You can remember every one of those seniors as a freshman. You just can’t get over how they’ve grown.”

Working with students, teachers, staff, parents and the community are all facets of Patton’s position as principal.

When working with students, he said he will look well beyond the perimeter of the school and, at least, try to understand their social environment and how that impacts their ability to learn.

“A lot of people don’t realize we’re not just working on the academic piece with students, it’s also the social side,” Patton said.

“Those kids overcoming those odds — with the help of our staff — that’s something I’m still going to be a major part of at our school. And something I still think is my number one priority.”

In his 15-year tenure with South Whidbey School District, Mauk has held numerous positions: teacher and director at Bayview School, assistant principal at South Whidbey Elementary School, director of special education and other posts.

On the first day as he welcomed students at SWHS, he saw his son Sage, a sophomore. Mauk has never worked at a school where his son was a student until now.

“That was the dream, in that moment, to be able to work in the place your child goes to school,” Mauk said. “I love that I get to see him, even if it’s only for a moment.”

The rest of the day? Like many of the students, no doubt, he doesn’t remember much.

“That seems like a million years ago,” Mauk said. “That day was kind of a blur.”

Mauk is new to SWHS, and hasn’t worked with high school students in a few years.

His first day was spent wandering the halls with students though as they navigated the walkways to find the right classrooms. For all the bustle and hustle of that first day, he said he was comfortable in the building and working with his new boss.

“It feels like a really good fit working with John,” Mauk said. “I didn’t feel like a fish out of water.”

The athletic side was a new adventure, however.

“All my close friends and I laughed pretty hard when I got this job, because I don’t think any of us ever thought I’d be an athletic director,” Mauk said.

“I’m enjoying the heck out of it. Once I got my head around the job, I started to see myself as a mentor to the kids and coaches outside of the classroom.”

Mauk has already traveled for the sports program he will oversee. He went to Bellingham for the first football game Sept. 2. The team lost, but Mauk said he enjoyed every second of it as he walked up and down the field on the Falcons’ sideline with the players.

“This was one of the coolest moments I’ve had in education,” Mauk said.

“That experience of standing with the kids and not having them ignore me, but knowing enough of the kids that I could connect with them and encourage them. It felt like some of those really high moments in the classroom.”

With students now settling into a routine, Mauk and Patton said they plan to visit every classroom and sit in as often as they can for the next month. By the fourth day of school, the two had been in every classroom.

“The biggest thing that drives us nuts as administrators is not getting into classrooms,” Mauk said. “I’m loving being around kids and I’m loving getting in the classrooms and seeing teachers and kids doing the work. I’m having a great time.”

Being visible to students, teachers, counselors and parents is one of the more important aspects to his new position, Mauk said.

At the end of the school day, he was walking the sidewalk outside the building, making sure students boarded buses properly. Then he returned to his desk for the admittedly unglorified tasks of administration.

Reprimanding students is part of the job, too, Mauk said, and one he chose to view with a wide angle. Rather than focusing on the misbehavior, he wants to examine the causes — from learning disabilities to problems at home.

Four days into the year, and he has already put on the disciplinarian badge. During one of his classroom visits, he noticed a student misbehaving and waited until after class to confront the teen.

“There’s always a fire to put out,” Mauk said.

At LMS, Nerison was well-settled in to his new leadership role. It appears to come easy to the veteran educator, who has 11 years of experience heading schools on South Whidbey. He was principal of South Whidbey Intermediate School for three years, assistant principal at the high school for four years and was a teacher before that.

“We have had a great start to the school year,” Nerison said, recalling how his students showed their Cougar pride by their tribute to 9/11 the week before.

“Seeing nearly 400 middle school students silently walk to the front of the school and plant American flags in the flower beds was quite impressive,” he said.

Like the students who now act like old pros heading from one side of their school campus to the other, the three administrators said they have the same group to thank as the ones who come here to learn: their teachers.

“I wouldn’t trade my staff for any staff in the world,” Patton said. “It’s their school. How they want things to happen is what’s going to take place here.”

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