Principal Gayle Groff plans to retire July 1, closing out 36 years as a Mt. Eccles Elementary School staff member. During her eight-year tenure as principal, Groff has shifted the school’s focus toward students’ emotional development. To Groff, a maladjusted student is a poorly educated student, regardless of how high his test scores are.
“‘Social and emotional learning,’ now, is a buzzword,” Groff said. “People call it a sign of the times that once we used to just teach, but now we’re teachers and nurses and mothers and caretakers and cooks. The schools are seeing to more and more of raising children… But it takes a village to raise a child. That’s one reason our school is as successful as it is: because we’re in this place where people get that, for the most part.”
July 1 is, officially, the last day for Alaska teachers and principals to retire. While Groff will have given up her title by July 1, clearing out the files, teaching supplies and other materials accumulated over a 36-year career may take a little longer. After a year’s careful consideration, Groff finally decided in January that she would retire, she said.
“I want to leave while I still love what I do,” Groff said. “I would like to leave when people still say, ‘Aww,’ instead of, ‘Wow, I’m glad she finally figured that one out!’”
Groff took a winding path to Mt. Eccles, joining the Cordova Volunteer Fire Department as a teenager, training as an emergency medical technician and eventually studying at Stanford — first pre-med, then music. After her 1982 matriculation from Stanford, Groff returned to Cordova, where she began work as a part-time music class aide at Mt. Eccles. Obtaining a teaching degree from Alaska Pacific University, Groff became Mt. Eccles’s music teacher before moving into the classroom.
Groff’s emphasis on social learning can be seen throughout the school, from the photos from class projects hung in the hallways to the character awards program, which recognizes students who exemplify positive character traits like compassion and gratitude.
Some reforms Groff implemented, such as scrapping the traditional A-B-C-D-F grading scale and, with it, the honor roll system, drew a mixed response. Other polarizing issues, such as how to discern bullying from run-of-the-mill mean behavior, gave Groff some of her toughest professional challenges.
“I hope I was able to traverse most of those waters with consideration for all of the people involved,” Groff said. “I know I haven’t made everybody happy, but I also believe I’ve been able to be a part of some great things.”
As principal, Groff had little time for extracurricular activities. Beginning July 1, she’ll be spending more time with family, as well as catching up on organizing her garage and all the other tasks that have built up over the past eight years.
Groff’s replacement will be Stephanie Milner, who currently serves as an assistant principal in Point Hope with the North Slope Borough School District. Milner, who holds degrees in education from Lamar University and Texas Woman’s University, previously taught English with the Abu Dhabi Education Council in the United Arab Emirates.
Groff remains confident that Mt. Eccles will continue to effectively serve students and parents after she leaves, she said.
“I care about every kid who’s gone through this school,” Groff said. “I care about their academic learning and their success in school, certainly. But, more, I care about their character growth and that they feel a connection to school —that every kid has a connection that will help them get through whatever tough times they face in the future. School is a great place for that, and I hope I’ve been able to be a leader in creating an environment where that can happen.”