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The City Journals

Riverton Elementary Principal earns "distinguished" honor

Mar 08, 2021 10:13AM ● By Jet Burnham

Students greet Principal Joel Pullan with the secret wave he taught them. (Photo courtesy of Joel Pullan.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

When Principal Joel Pullan was transferred from Oakcrest Elementary to Riverton Elementary in February 2020, he had no idea that just a few short weeks later the staff and students would be sent home to learn long distance for the rest of the year. The qualities that earned him the Distinguished Principal of the Year Award by the Jordan Association of Elementary School Principals this year are the qualities that enabled him to successfully meet this unprecedented challenge.

“His ability to analyze the needs, whether it be academically, socially or physically, is his greatest strength,” said Theresa Christensen, who worked as an assistant principal to Pullan for two years. “He is always thinking one step ahead and planning for the future. Even in the most difficult situations, he has the ability to calm the situation, eliminate the emotion, discern the steps needed and move forward.”

And that’s what Pullan did, addressing, first his faculty, which was grappling with a sudden transition to distance teaching that was frustrating and difficult. He met with them frequently as a group to support them in the technical aspects of teaching online. He met them in grade-level teams to get to know their strengths and challenges. He also checked in with them individually to see how they were doing emotionally.

“That surprised many of them,” Pullan said. “Many commented and expressed their gratitude to have a principal that, not just cared about the academics for kids and the educational growth but also cared about teachers who are providing that in a very difficult situation.”

Donna Filion, who previously taught at Oakcrest and is now a fifth grade teacher at Riverton Elementary, said Pullan is the best principal she’s ever worked for. She said he is never too busy to stop and listen to someone and is genuinely interested in what they have to say.

“He is a fantastic listener and mentor,” she said. “He has made me feel like I can accomplish anything and he has validated me. I love going to work. I love the challenges that he gives us, so that we can learn and grow and become better than we were the day before.”

Pullan said the most important skill he uses as a principal is “the ability to see in others what they can be and to appreciate the talents and abilities that they have now.”

“I believe that if I'm successful in any way, shape or form, it's because of the great people who are around me,” he said. “So, receiving this award is a credit to every teacher and team, every community and every student that I've worked with over the years.”

Pullan taught in the classroom for eight years before becoming principal at Herriman Elementary for five years and then at Oakcrest for a little over seven.

As a principal, he strives to build positive relationships.

“When the relationship between the principal and teachers is positive, that goes all the way to the kids,” Pullan said. “When we have that strong relationship and confidence and trust in one another, then we can work together to do amazing things.”

Pullan also values collaboration to create an environment of learning for students, staff and administration.

“He was constantly pursuing more information and knowledge to better himself and his school,” Christensen said.

Tracy Davies, a teacher at Oakcrest, said Pullan was a great principal because he provided staff with growth opportunities.

“He encouraged us to become and do better,” she said. “The opportunities for professional development were given based on our interests and classroom needs. He listened. I feel this greatly contributed to relationship-building with faculty and staff.”

Pullan also builds relationships with students, greeting them in the hallways, the classroom or the playground with his signature thumb-wave.

“It has great meaning for us when we see each other,” Pullan said of his secret wave. “It symbolizes me being a friend and them being a friend and that we're in this together.”

Davies said Pullen values students’ input and has always been supportive of the student council’s ideas.

Pullan also values the input of leadership teams as they work together to improve student growth as well as their overall well-being.

Three years ago, there was a disturbing upward trend of suicide risk assessment requests at Oakcrest Elementary, and the leadership team identified student behavior as an impediment to emotional, social and academic success. Pullan introduced methods to improve students’ emotional health.

“Kids deal with trauma at different levels every day, and they bring that trauma every day to school,” Pullan said. “By recognizing the emotional state of kids when they come in, we are better able to support them socially and emotionally in that process and to help them feel that security and safety.”

Teachers began to greet each student by name before class, to make an assessment of their emotional state, to follow up on concerns throughout the day and to send students home with a personal comment or word of praise and an expression of excitement to see them again the next day.

“We received encouragement to really inquire about each student daily,” Davies said. “Before students step foot into our classrooms, we know how their basketball game went the night before, what they had for breakfast or how much they are looking forward to a family vacation next weekend. We are well aware of their struggles as well, and are able to address them effectively.”

Pullan said within months of implementing these practices, suicide risk assessment requests dropped drastically.

“Kids understood that school was a safe place, that they had a friend there,” he said.

When this school year began with many feeling anxiety about attending school during a pandemic, the primary priority for Pullan and the staff at Riverton Elementary was to create a positive, predictable and safe environment for students. Pullan asked teachers to implement the morning and afternoon personal interaction routines that had been so successful at Oakcrest.

“This is an amazing addition to the classroom because it allows me to say something to each student right at the beginning of our day and it sets the tone of the classroom,” Filion said. “Then at the end of the day, they leave me knowing that I will miss them, that I hope they have a great night and how excited I am to see them tomorrow.”

Pullan is an educator because he cares for kids. So, when the demands of his job become burdensome, he heads to the kindergarten classroom.

“Kindergartners are great, because they say the greatest things—they're uninhibited learners,” Pullan said. “I go there to get centered and refocused when I need to reaffirm my why I went into education.”