At age 30, recently married and with a child on the way, Richard Morris decided to take an interview for a principal’s job in the Chicago Public Schools.
The 1980 alum of the NIU College of Education really wasn’t in the market for that kind of gig, but he was qualified with a master’s degree in educational administration.
Even that credential wasn’t something he planned on.
“I just fell into it. There was a cohort that needed one more person,” Morris says. “I was 25 or 26 at the time. It wasn’t an aspiration of any kind. I never thought about it.”
But four years later, in 1990, he decided to apply for that open position at Chicago’s Burroughs Elementary School. “I went, saying to my wife, ‘I’ll go for the interview. I want the experience. It may help me down the road,’ ” he says.
Morris got the job – and, 30 years later, he’s still there with a three-decade legacy that continues to grow.
His philosophy then, and today, is simple.
“A school should be the most important building in the community,” he says. “I tell parents, ‘This is your school. You send your kids here. It belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to the City of Chicago, or to the Board of Education.’ I believe that a school can change a community, if you give it time.”
Teachers hear a similar message.
“I tell them, ‘It’s children-parents-staff, in that order. You’re third. You’re a close third, but you’re still third. Everything is about what’s best for kids, their parents and the community. We work for the community. It’s never about us, it’s never about me, and you’ve got to understand that.’ ”
Fellow principals who come to Morris for mentoring also leave steeped in that wisdom.
“Sometimes we get lost in a situation, in terms of policies and protocols and all that stuff from the law department, but we have to do what’s best for kids,” he says. “Whatever situation that occurs – and there will be all kinds of situations that occur – we just have to do what’s best for kids. It’s simple, but it works.”
Coaching little league baseball had inspired that choice. “I enjoyed that interaction with the kids, so when I had to declare a major, I thought I’d give it a shot. I ended up liking it, which is a good thing.”
NIU also proved a good fit.
“Your very first semester, you were in the schools in DeKalb. I was in DeKalb for only two weeks before I was in a school. I was in a classroom,” he says. “You knew right away if this was for you. That was a good experience.”
Morris also appreciated the small class sizes and the emphasis on professor-student interaction rather than lecturing.
“Our classes were a lot of discussion. We were in the schools, and we were talking about our experiences, what we were doing,” he says.
“It reminds me of my master’s work,” he adds. “You’re teaching during the day and you’re in class at night, learning things you can apply the next day. We were having very relevant experiences and then talking about them in class, transferring the knowledge back and forth.”
By the time his student-teaching began his senior year, he says, “I felt comfortable. I felt ready.”
Graduating in December, Morris began subbing in January, landed a full-time position in February and started in a different school in the fall, teaching cross-categorial, upper-grade special education in a self-contained classroom.
His NIU preparation paid dividends immediately.
“I remember having a couple kids who did not know how to read,” he says. “I remembered this textbook on methods of teaching kids to read, and I remembered taking that class, and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. I’ve got this.’ I had the resources at my fingertips.”
Starting his career at a school in a tough Chicago neighborhood also made an instant and long-lasting impression.
“Like a lot of beginning teachers, you learn more from the kids than they do from you, at least initially,” he says. “I liked the success the kids were having, and the satisfaction that provide me. I liked the trust they had in me, the trust the parents had in me, and how important it was to provide that opportunity for those kids and their parents.”
Concepts of “opportunity” have driven him since his NIU days in Graham Hall.
“One of my electives – a philosophy class – I heard that you have to know what you value in life. I remember that one of things I put down was ‘opportunity,’ ” Morris says. “Later, I understood how important my job was in that little corner of the world, in a very difficult community. I believed it then, and I believe it today: Education is the key. You have to be educated. It gives you opportunity.”