OTTUMWA— Derek Philips walks miles every day doing his job. He is in his third year as associate principal at Liberty Elementary. His goal to not be in the office takes him throughout the building, observing instruction, interacting with students, and helping to ensure the school is running smoothly.
He strives to be in every learning community every day. It’s part of how he builds relationships with students and staff.
The best parts of his day are when he can get out and see teaching in action. “I love giving high fives to kids in the hallway,” he said.
One of his roles is to help teachers. “As a principal, I know what resources are there,” he said. “If a teacher is struggling with a certain lesson and asks for help, I can say ‘go watch this teacher.’”
He knows teaching is a high stress job from his years as a fifth grade teacher. He is not only an instructional leader and building disciplinarian, he helps with little things too such as helping lower a desk or grabbing a mop and cleaning up a mess if the custodian is busy.
Building relationships with parents are important too. “I try to listen first and not judge,” he said. “And you can’t take things personal. Sometimes I simply ask parents to trust me to make the right decision for their child.”
While he serves as the building disciplinarian, his approach is more preventative. “I try to catch things before they escalate,” he said. “The reputation of a big school is there is a constant line to my office (discipline referrals).” He said that is not the case. Technology, especially cell phones, makes his job more difficult. “There is no need for them” at Liberty, he shared. “We don’t embrace the cell phone (for instructional use). Not all kids have them.”
Being an associate principal is like being a baseball umpire, according to Philips. Lessons learned that apply to work: 1) People are going to get very heated; 2) The job is easy when things are going fine but how will you deal when things go bad? 3) You are not going to make everyone happy. He has also learned to admit when he is wrong. People are more accepting if you can admit you make mistakes.
Philips wears a shirt and tie daily. Shirts and ties reflect the season or his passion for UNI Panthers. Socks can be seasonal as well, including the black socks with red hearts he wore for Valentine’s Day.
Sometimes he finds himself the topic of an assignment. One third grade teacher had her students list words to describe Mr. Philips. Nice. Tall. Funny. Scarey . . . he smiled at that one. That student had just been in his office for a referral.
As the district’s only elementary associate principal, he works in tandem with Principal Dawn Sievertsen. “We work really well together,” he said. “We complement each other. Dawn is good at organizing and I’m a social, outgoing person.” She has mentored him in his first administrative role. “There is a lot of mutual respect.”
While his wife encouraged him to apply for the job in Ottumwa, he appreciates the district giving him the opportunity. “They saw something in me as a young educator,” he said.
He is passionate about his job and the students and staff at Liberty. “At the end of the day,” he asks himself, “did I do what’s best for Liberty Elementary?”