“One of the reasons that recess, I find, is the best time to meet with students is that they’re free. You know, you’re not interrupting a lesson. For a lot of kids, it’s the time when they’re the most comfortable — especially when they are doing athletics or playing with friends. And they’re very creative at recess, too, especially the younger ones. They like to create games.”So explained Mike Muir, the new principal at St. Anastasia School off Manchester Avenue in Westchester, on a cold morning in early January. The 45-year-old father of three is a veteran Catholic educator, with teaching stints at St. Francis de Sales School in Sherman Oaks and St. Cyril of Jerusalem School in Encino, plus principalships at Incarnation School in Glendale as well as St. Cyril’s.“A lot of pressure is put on kids these days; I think more than I experienced when I was a kid growing up in Sherman Oaks,” the self-described “Valley Boy” continued. “It’s tough, you know, between all the high expectations for good grades and then to get into a good high school and then get into a good college and have a good job. I think parents — and kids — are more keenly focused on that. So to see how students are feeling is really important to me, and recess is a great time to do it.”Approaching a group of three boys and a girl batting a volleyball among them, the principal asked, “So this is like a combination of volleyball and four square? Is that what you guys got going here?”“‘Four Square in the Air,’” a boy answered without missing a beat. “I came up with the name,” the girl volunteered.The principal said, “I like that name,” grinning. “That’s a good one. All right!”Before he’d walked another five steps, a little girl came running up. Bending down, he inquired, “How’s it going?” “I’m good,” she said.“Good,” he returned with another smile. During the next 15 minutes on the asphalt playground, Muir met with the third grade teacher, Pat Hedge, to talk about getting an advisor for the A/V (audio/video) club. The principal said he was going to ask his dad, who had worked at KCET for many years, to help out.The outgoing administrator also got around, with a visitor in tow, to talk to second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders playing tetherball, kickball and other games before a loud bell rang for a makeshift outdoor assembly led by an upper-class student over the PA system. It included a prayer, birthday announcement and the “cool fact” of the day — that there are 430 ghost towns in Texas.“The girls tend to be much more likely to come up and visit,” Muir reported, going back to his office. “Some of the boys do, but I usually walk right into the boys’ games and start talking. In any case, I find that talking to the kids at recess and lunch is a great way to keep track on their emotional health and how they’re doing.”Challenges became joysMixing with kids informally during break times and lunch is also one of the best ways to meet the biggest challenge of being a new principal at a school — just getting to know everyone, said Muir. First of all, of course, there’s learning not only the names of teachers and staff, but also becoming familiar with their backgrounds and life stories. And then there’s the daunting task of learning the names of St. Anastasia’s 282 students. He’s found that the best help is to study last year’s yearbook, memorizing names, and then going out at recess and lunch to put names with faces by introducing himself. So far, he knows about half of the kids’ names at the Westchester parochial school “right off.”On a broader level, there’s the whole issue of change for a new principal, and when to make it. “A big challenge is not to act too quickly to things, and to listen and reflect,” he said. “As an administrator, my philosophy very much is ‘don’t change anything until you’ve seen it in action.’ And then you use your experience and you talk to people and you plant some seeds of change, and then you move forward on them a little bit at a time.”One of the people Muir talked and listened to the most was outgoing Principal Rosemary Connolly, who served at St. Anastasia for 22 years. It was her advice that the PE coach, who also taught math part time, was in fact a “great” math teacher. So he asked “Coach Greta” Manzano to become the fulltime math teacher for sixth-through-eighth grades. “I always feel like outgoing principals are great for advice because they’ve got nothing to lose — and in this case it worked out great,” Muir said. “The parents were overwhelmingly thrilled.”The new principal also “jumped on” two programs that were already in the works. First was the further adoption of the Department of Catholic Schools’ “Common Core” curriculum structure that’s based on international versus state standards. Second was the “STEP Map” inclusion program for students with learning differences and disabilities. Many of these kids in the past were labeled “Special Ed” students and not usually accepted at local Catholic schools. All of these efforts, however, actually became joys for Muir this school year at St. Anastasia, especially the STEP Map. “I met with some kids who had real learning differences and their parents before school started, and saw the pain that they had gone through,” he said. “And you talk to them now and the parents say, ‘I’ve noticed such a difference in my child, and I no longer have to worry about having to find another school for him or her because they struggle so hard with learning.’ “We’re for all, and we should not be leaving kids out whose families want a Catholic education for them. So including them to me is just a huge joy. But it’s a real challenge, and it’s going to take us awhile. The teachers are enthusiastic, but they’re also apprehensive. There used to be a time when teachers thought of themselves as ‘I’m a Special Ed teacher’ or ‘I’m a regular ed teacher.’ Now if you work in a Catholic school, you’re both. “And I love the Catholic school environment, putting God first and then everything else will come from there,” he pointed out. “Also spending time with the kids, you know, teaching things. I think of myself as a principal-teacher. And I love bringing the academic decathlon to St. Anastasia and being the team’s first coach.” Observation ‘the key’Later that Thursday morning, Muir, wearing a pea green sweater now that matched his slacks, visited the science lab on the school’s second floor. He walked over to eighth-grader Vivian Boyer, who had her head practically buried in a book almost the size of her desk. “What are you studying?” he asked.“The Periodic Table,” said the 13-year-old.“Oh, that’s one of the things members of the decathlon team need to cover.”Vivian looked up. “Really?”“Yeah, so that’s great.”After talking to some other students in the lab, he walked into a nearby classroom of seventh-graders studying Spanish, going over to a group of five kids who had their desks together. Bending over a boy’s shoulder, he said, “So you’re doing some translating here?” Heads nodded all around before the students explained exactly what they were doing. He listened carefully, asking half-a-dozen more questions. The principal wandered over to other groups in the room, too, before returning to his small first-floor office. The desk was semi-covered with files, a folded newspaper and box of tissues, along with three coffee mugs. A laptop sat on a separate side table. Late morning light came from windows behind the desk facing the playground. A basketball sat on the floor and a crucifix hung on the plain walls. But Muir preferred to sit at a nearby round table while he talked about the importance of classroom observation.“I’m in and out of classrooms all the time,” he reported. “I think it’s the key. It’s the only way to really know what’s going on. So three times a week I’m actually sitting down in three or four classes using my iPad to do script taping and just write everything students and teachers say. “And then later you can sit down with a teacher and analyze it and say: ‘OK, who got called on? Was it all boys or girls? Was it just kids with their hands up? And what sort of variety of learning opportunities and styles do you see in the classroom?’ When you script it all, it’s great. You can go back and look at it any time you want.“Now the kids don’t even stop; they just keep right on working when I come into a class and sit down. They don’t feel like they even have to sit up straight. And that’s what I want — ‘just be yourself.’ But I think being in the classroom shows everybody how important I think what they’re doing is. “For me, there’s one reason we exist — and that’s for kids. You know, to help kids grow and learn,” he stressed. “To help kids become disciples for life. That’s really what a Catholic school is all about. So I want the kids here to know that they’re number one. I tell them that all the time. And I want them to know they’re in a welcoming and secure place for learning — that they’re emotionally and physically safe here.”When the lunch bell rang, Mike Muir didn’t head for the teachers’ lounge or playground. Putting on his teacher’s hat, he headed back upstairs to the seventh-grade classroom. And this time it wasn’t to observe, but to coach St. Anastasia’s academic decathlon team. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0201/olaprincipal/{/gallery}