‘A special place:’ Dodig reflects on his years at Staples
Updated 3:45 pm, Thursday, June 11, 2015
John Dodig these days is taking in the sights and sounds at Staples High School in anticipation of retiring from the principal’s job that he’s held for the past 11 years. Those are the things he wants to remember.
“When I hear the bell ring, I go out and stand in the corridor and watch the kids go by,” Dodig, whose last day on the job is June 30, told the Westport News this week. “I’m absorbing everything from their interaction and the noise in the cafeteria to their expressions at the prom.”
As Staples’ top administrator, the 71-year-old Dodig said he saw his role as a cheerleader who always kept students and their concerns as his top priority. Besides the school’s demanding academic standards, he said that 50 percent of what happens at Staples involves the social and emotional well-being of the students.
Dodig said he focused on two goals. One is that students could look back on their time at Staples and say they liked their high school experience. “I also wanted 100 percent of the student to leave not bearing a scar,” the result of some negative experience or remark, he said. He believes many people carry those types of feelings years afterward.
He related the story of how, while interviewing a prospective teacher, that issue came up. “His eyes welled up and told me he had that scar from something a coach said to him years before,” Dodig said.
He said principals have the power to change the course of a school either in a good way, or they can destroy it, especially one with a mean and nasty attitude.
At Staples, he said, he has tried to foster a culture where students feel supported, understood and loved. “Even during an expulsion hearing we say to the kid out loud ‘You can’t sell marijuana-laced brownies,’ we add, ‘but we still love you,’ ” he said.
Dodig said there aren’t many nations in the world that attempt the kind of education offered at American schools.
Elsewhere, only basic subjects are taught, but “we are unique because we roll everything in,” he said. At Staples, this includes a wide array of academic courses plus pursuits such as pottery, orchestra and other interests the students might have, plus hundreds of athletic games and musical and theatrical performances.
In fact, he said, he first realized how special the school is during what he considers his most memorable moment at Staples. It was during his first years interim principal, a position he took after serving as headmaster at Fairfield High School. “I said, ‘Yes I can do this,’ ” Dodig said. “I just have to keep the place from blowing up until they find someone else.”
Then he attended a performance of the musical “Cabaret” by the Staples Players.
“I thought, ‘How can this be a public school? It’s more like Juillard,’ ” he recalled. “That was my first hint that there is something very special about this place.”
Heading into retirement, Dodig said he has no regrets. “I know a lot of people who have been talking about retiring for the past 20 years because they don’t like their jobs,” he said. “I never felt that way —never, ever,” he added. “I stumbled into something that was perfect for me.”
He had no specific immediate plans after leaving Staples.
“I’m a Type A personality, I can’t sit home,” he said, noting that after two snow days he was typically climbing the walls.
“I don’t golf, play tennis or collect stamps. But I will find something to do,” he said. “I’m not going to sit home waiting for my husband to get home from work.”
Dodig, who lives in Westport, is married to long-time partner Rodger Leonard. “That’s something that couldn’t happen in Alabama,” he said about the acceptance of that relationship in Westport.
As for his replacement, Dodig said one will eventually found. “That person shouldn’t be identical to me, but should preserve what works well and make changes that help the school grow.”
Three finalists for the position have already been introduced at public meetings this year, but none has been hired. The most recent, Shelley Somers, a Greenwich middle school principal, withdrew her name for consideration a day after being introduced at a meeting with Staples parents as the expected appointee as the next prinicipal.
Dodig said he has his departure on June 30 already planned: “I’ll get into my car, put the top down, look back at the school building and wave goodbye.”