Woog's World: Ability to connect separates this Westport educator from the pack
Published 4:52 pm, Friday, February 20, 2015
Karyn Morgan loved her job. A special-education teacher for 19 years in Bridgeport, she was energized by daily contact with students. She helped them overcome enormous obstacles, gain confidence, make their way in the world.
When she was asked to become an administrator -- to solve a shortage -- the former Teacher of the Year said no. But then she realized it meant a chance to impact even more students.
A summer assignment as assistant principal threw her into the fire. Every day, she handled disciplinary issues. She thrived.
In 1998, she was named special-education coordinator in Westport. Three years later, she added pupil services and guidance supervision to her role. She supervised 56 people -- and impacted thousands of youngsters.
When Staples High School restructured its administrative staff, giving each grade an assistant principal to follow students through all four years, she was intrigued. She's now on her third "class"; they're currently juniors.
Morgan calls this "the best job I've ever had." The love and respect between her and her students is palpable.
The Connecticut Association of Schools has taken notice. Recently, Morgan was named High School Assistant Principal of the Year.
Last week, she reflected on the honor.
"I love my colleagues. We're like a family," she said of Staples. "(Principal) John Dodig has been a great leader.
"He's implemented all the `affect' and kid parts of education I believe in. That's what education is all about."
As assistant principal, Morgan helped develop the innovative Bridge program. At-risk eighth graders are assigned mentors, who help with study skills and strategies. Attendance and grades improve dramatically.
"It's phenomenal," Morgan said.
Overseeing the art and theater programs has provided Morgan with "a whole new perspective." The introduction of rubrics and Advanced Placement courses has aligned the arts with the rest of Staples' 21st-century vision.
"We're really putting the `A' in STEM" -- science, technology, engineering, math. "So now it's STEAM."
But Morgan's heart, she said, "really belongs to the struggling kids."
There is no typical day. At 7:15 a.m. she may have a meeting to discuss the re-entry program of a student who has been hospitalized. That may be followed by a meeting with parents about grades, discipline or family issues. There are meetings with Dodig and the other assistant principals to discuss school and individual concerns; placement and educational plan issues for special-education students; meetings with students sent out of class by teachers; emails and phone calls from parents and teachers; observations of teachers and follow-up reports; cafeteria duty; -- and much more.
"It never stops," Morgan said. "I love it all." She pauses. "Well, maybe not the paperwork."
But the planning and execution of strategies to help students; the opportunity to see youngsters seize those opportunities -- those truly make her day.
She calls the four-year, four-assistant principal model "the best I've ever seen. We get to know kids and their families. We can really modify behavior.
"The assistant principal, grade-level assistant, guidance counselor, nurse, psychologist -- we definitely are a team. It helps make Staples special."
Morgan remembers nearly every student. But to illustrate the joys -- and heartaches -- of her job, she chooses one.
Roger Muchnick joined her first four-year group -- the class of 2008 -- as a sophomore from Fairfield Prep. He was, she said, "a pain. He was constantly in and out of my office. He always gave me this immobile stare."
One day she told him, "I can play that game too."
She challenged him to a staring contest. He lost.
From then on, she said, "we became very close. Together -- and with his dad -- we worked around a lot of issues."
At graduation, Muchnick picked Morgan up and swung her around. For the next several years -- first at Eastern Connecticut State University, then as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps -- he wrote her letters. He described the friends he made, the work he did, the leader he was becoming.
On March 18, 2013, Muchnick was one of seven Marines killed in a weapons training accident in Nevada. Morgan was devastated. She led a contingent of Staples administrators and teachers to his funeral in Massachusetts.
"He was pivotal to my growth," Morgan said. "He made me understand it's not about grades and colleges. It's about the bonds we develop, between educators and kids. He taught me how to listen. He made me a better person."
Her award as Assistant Principal of the Year is a wonderful tribute. But Morgan downplays the honor.
"It's lovely. It's humbling," she said. "But what means the most to me is that my colleague, Rich Franzis, took the time to nominate me."
Many others could have. Morgan has countless fans: other administrators, teachers, especially students -- many of whose lives have been changed by that once-dreaded "trip to the office."