Leader and chief griller
By MARYAN PELLAND
Published March 1, 2007
Ray Pinder remembers being a rookie teacher 14 years ago at Fox Chapel Middle School. Now he's a rookie again at the same school - but this time he's principal.
So far, he says his first year is everything he expected it to be.
Pinder says there are challenges, surprises and satisfactions, and he wouldn't trade the job, which also comes with plenty of headaches, for anything.
Staff members call him "our gentle giant." Pinder says his job is to lead a team that prepares students to go into the community as productive people.
Born in Key West, Pinder went to school in Hernando County. He lives here with his wife, Jennifer, and their 4-year-old son, Austin. He said he became a principal to give back some of the excellent experiences he had as a student at East Side Elementary, Parrot Junior High and Hernando High.
He taught for 10 years in the math and science classrooms of a dropout-retention program at West Hernando and a few years of seventh-grade math. He became assistant principal there and feels his career prepared him to face challenges at Fox Chapel.
"If you've done the teaching and assistant principal parts correctly, in a proactive fashion, there shouldn't be too many surprises as principal," Pinder said.
But, still, the sheer volume of situations a principal handles every day was more than he realized. Some situations are pretty mundane, he says, while others can be dicey - affecting the safety of students and the quality of the school's environment.
He has a reputation for striking balance between being stern and kind, according to front office secretary Maria Elena Origon.
She said, "I've worked for five principals. He has the perfect personality. He'll be around for a very long time."
What may keep Pinder around is his philosophy that not every student who comes through the door is the same. He maintains there are no cookie cutters in education.
He said the most fun as principal is getting to know the kids on a little different level.
As a teacher or an assistant principal, front-line discipline plays a large role. This year he can focus more on positive motivation and building school pride.
For example, an empty concrete tank behind the building will soon become an aquatic habitat. A Lowe's Corp. grant will allow students to research types of sea life that might move, with proper permits, from the gulf to the school yard. When those kids look back, Pinder hopes they'll feel a connection to their school.
And this principal frequently dons a barbecue apron and heads to the courtyard to grill hot dogs.
He invites students who have collected a specified number of teacher signatures, representing tasks well done, to have lunch on him. "I've found people always seem happier when you're handing out food," Pinder said.
Sometimes he envisions his desk piled with papers - and a line of teachers outside his door. Should he really be grilling?
"Yes," he says. "Connecting with students, making sure they know I appreciate their hard work and progress, is exactly what I should be doing."