John Blaydes got an early Christmas present this year.
A few days before the start of Christmas vacation Blaydes was in a meeting in his office at McGaugh Elementary School in Seal Beach when the door burst open and a group of third-graders resolutely marched in.
"Poetry break," one of them announced.
Blaydes stopped his meeting, leaned back in his chair and listened while the third-grade students recited and read some of their favorite poems to him. When they finished, he thanked them gravely, and they went back to their classroom.
If it seems like pushy behavior for a group of students to invade the office of their principal unannounced, you don't know John Blaydes--or McGaugh Elementary School.
"They turned the tables on me," said Blaydes delightedly the other evening in the living room of his Brea home.
You see, throughout the school year, Blaydes frequently pops into classrooms unannounced, proclaims a "poetry break" and reads to the students. With the younger ones, he sometimes carries the message with hand puppets he operates expertly. Small wonder then that he stopped his meeting and greeted his third-graders warmly. John Blaydes has his priorities very firmly in place.
So firmly that the word got all the way to Washington a few months ago. On Oct. 9 Blaydes received a plaque, an old-fashioned school bell and the National Distinguished School Principals Award from U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett. He had been nominated by his own peers and selected from among 4,000 elementary school principals as California's top principal.
At 49, John Blaydes is that rare, highly talented educator who has chosen to work at the grass-roots level rather than climbing the ladder of educational administration. He started that climb once, then decided to leave a district administrative job to become an elementary principal again. He has never looked back.
"I started out teaching the elementary grades in Anaheim," he said, "and I really liked working with younger children. So much can be done at that age to build self-esteem. Attitudes can be set that will carry them all the way through school. If they don't get that self-esteem in the lower grades, it's very hard to turn it around in high school."
Some of the programs created by Blaydes to build self-esteem and love of learning in his students are as remarkable as they are creative. Just to grab two:
He believes strongly in the importance of the arts in education and has produced some astonishing results with untrained children. McGaugh, for example, does a Pageant of the Masters Festival every spring similar to the one in Laguna Beach. But McGaugh adds some touches of its own.
The students study each of the painters portrayed "so they know the styles of these artists." They also incorporate dancing with each painting, the product of another Blaydes innovation called the Choreography Club, in which about 70 boys and girls learn professional dance routines after school.
"Every child," Blaydes said firmly, "has a chance to perform in a production sometime during the year."
A program called SOAR--respect for Self, Others, Adults and Rules--hands out awards every month to McGaugh students for all sorts of achievements. Again, Blaydes sees to it that every child wins some kind of award each year.
Sitting with his wife, Mary Alice, in the living room of their warm Brea home full of period furniture and framed copies of old sheet music that she had found among her grandmother's belongings, Blaydes exuded enthusiasm when he talked about his students and the programs created for them at McGaugh.
"School," he said, "can be a refuge, a place where a child, who may or may not experience it at home, can be successful. They don't have to be bright; they just have to feel good about themselves as learners."
That has been John Blaydes' goal since he first enrolled at Cal State Long Beach almost 30 years ago. Born in Hollywood, he met Mary Alice when both were students at Long Beach Wilson High School. She worked while he did a stint in the Coast Guard.
When he got out, they were married and enrolled at Cal State Long Beach together. She dropped out in her third year to have their first child, Scott. It took her two decades to get back. After raising Scott and a second child, daughter Allison, Mary Alice Blaydes completed her degree and is now a librarian at Brea-Olinda High School.
Meanwhile, Blaydes, after teaching and serving as an elementary school principal, started up the administrative ladder. He was personnel director in the the Los Alamitos District for four years--long enough to discover that that wasn't what he wanted.
"I found that the greatest impact I could have was as a principal," he said. "The principal makes the difference in a school--sets the tone, goals and expectations. That's where I wanted to be."