CEDAR RAPIDS — Some things on Jason Martinez’s to-do list are crossed off quickly. Other items seem to live forever, appearing day after day on the white sheet of paper he prints every morning at McKinley STEAM Academy.
“It’s a living document that never goes away,” Martinez said in his office, going over the list about 8 a.m. one Monday. Already, he had met with his assistant principal and sent a reminder to teachers to update students’ report cards.
Before noon, he would catch up with the school’s on-site police officer, pop into five classrooms, meet with an athletics coordinator and double-check with the building engineer that wheelchair-accessible doors would be unlocked for the school musical later that week.
“It’s actually a pretty light schedule, to be honest with you,” he said.
Martinez has been principal of McKinley STEAM Academy for four years — four years of to-do lists, laps around the middle school’s three floors and juggling the needs of staff, parents, students and district administrators.
“Things that others need from me — and they’re relying on me to get that information or those resources, whatever they may be — those definitely are highlighted, underlined, circled” on the list, he said. “Those take priority. ... Things that I need to do for me, I find myself doing those after-school, at home or after everyone’s gone.”
Walking the hallways with the school’s roughly 450 sixth- through eighth-grade students, Martinez said he knows he has to carry himself a certain way in front of students and their families — both inside and outside of McKinley.
Because he’s the boss, he said won’t go out with staff after hours. Most of his spare time is spent quietly with his wife and four grown children.
“What people don’t realize is this can be a very lonely job,” Martinez, 45, said.
Managing students in middle school — who often are starting to consider and try on their adult selves — can present interesting challenges, said Roark Horn, executive director of School Administrators of Iowa.
“They’re developing in a way that is unique and foreign to them,” Horn said. “That comes with a lot of difficult conversations, I think, about themselves and maturity and who they are as people.”
In his development as principal, Martinez feels like he’s found a balance between a hard-line administrator and an adult who also enjoys some of the things his students do — in his office, he displays several superhero figures on student-made shelves.
Days when he has time to observe classrooms and check in with students are his best.
“As a principal, there’s nothing worse than having a kid wonder where you are and say, ‘Where have you been?’” Martinez said. “You want them to know you’re doing more than sitting in an office.”
Setting the right priorities can be the difference between a productive principal and one who burns himself out, Horn said.
“There’s so much coming at them that if they try to treat everything as equally important, that can become pretty overwhelming,” he said.
Martinez took an unconventional route to administration.
After dropping a full-ride scholarship to play baseball at Southeastern Community College, Martinez — who had long, dark hair and several facial piercings — and his wife, Norma, had their first child when he was 20.
“I made some decisions that 18-year-olds make,” he said. “I wasn’t focused.”
After being laid off from a factory job in 2000, he went back to school to study elementary education. He was proud to call himself a teacher — even to a bank teller who, when he said he worked at the school district, asked if he worked nights.
More than a decade later, as one of Iowa’s few principals of color, Martinez said it’s one of few comments he’s never forgotten.
After five years of teaching, he went back to school and earned a degree in curriculum, instruction and assessment, where he was intrigued by principles of personalized learning.
“Things everyone does now,” he said. But back then, he felt like he had a wealth of information to share, but no one who wanted to listen. He started to look for roles in administration.
He plans to stay at McKinley for the foreseeable future, where he’s building up a more diverse staff and working with teachers to give students more control of their pace of learning.
Leading the school, he said, “really is non-stop.”
“I don’t think people realize that,” Martinez said. “But it’s that way for teachers, too. ... From the time we get here to the time we leave, teachers, administrators, paras — we’re going, going, going.”
NEXT IN MCKINLEY MATTERS: How the school and the community are working together to resolve and prevent student conflicts.
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