Retiring CHS principal’s parenting advice: ‘Be a good listener’
by Steven Felschundneff | email@example.com
Claremont High School Principal Brett O’Connor still loves his job and the students he helps guide through their important transitional years, but after 38 years in education the time has come for him to step aside. A couple weeks after June’s commencement he will shut the lights off in his office at CHS for one final time and officially retire.
“I’ve been in education 38 years and will be 63 in August and I can afford to do it at this point in my life,” O’Connor said last week. “It’s a very time consuming, difficult job, and I love it. But for 38 years I’ve been working six days a week, it’s hard to live a balanced life.”
His initial plans include exercising more and supporting his wife, Ann O’Connor, who will continue on as principal of Chaparral Elementary School.
“She has been very supportive of my career,” O’Connor said. “When I got my doctorate there were a lot of weekends I wasn’t home. I am sure there will be plenty of things around the house that I will be taking more responsibility for.”
O’Connor lived in Boston until age 12, when his family moved to Los Altos in Northern California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from USC, and then spent a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps counseling youth in the Central Valley town of Porterville. The following year he earned a teaching credential from Cal Poly Pomona and started his teaching career in Pomona Unified before moving to a school in Upland. He spent 12 years working as a principal in both elementary and middle schools in Upland before accepting the job at CHS in 2007.
In addition to his undergrad degree, O’Connor has a master’s in educational administration from Cal State San Bernardino and Ed.D in organizational leadership from La Verne.
He met Ann while both were teaching at Sycamore Elementary in Upland. The couple married in 1993 and have three adult sons, who were all educated in Claremont public schools.
O’Connor said the experience of becoming a parent made him a more empathetic educator, recognizing the challenges that both parents and children face. He also found that being teacher and principal changed the way he approached parenting.
“My wife and I were really careful not to put too much pressure on [their sons],” O’Connor said. “We expected them to do their best in school, to be involved in something on campus. They’re all very different, so we knew you don’t dare treat them the same.”
The oldest, Ryan, 26, worked in public accounting for two years, and now works for a logistics company at the Port of Los Angeles. Kevin, 25, is employed by the City of Laguna Niguel and will earn a master’s in public administration from USC in May.
Collin, 23, works in sales at the GIS mapping company Environmental Systems Research Institute in Redlands.
They stressed the importance of hard work but if their sons were showing due diligence, the O’Connors avoided forcing them to pursue an opportunity or interest, even if the couple thought it was a good choice. Mostly it worked out.
“It was a lot of fun,” O’Connor said about watching his sons grow up. “It was great for my wife and I to be able to work in the community where our sons went to school. We enjoyed all the activities they were involved in.”
He and Ann were good listeners, which was important. It doesn’t mean you always agree with your children, but they were there to hear their childrens’ perspective.
“Probably what I learned the most is that when our children are in distress about something, the natural reaction for a parent is I either want to protect them or fix it. And I think what we both learned is to allow them to feel the pain they are going through when they are in distress while being very supportive of them.”
He said parents need to be comfortable with the anxiety they feel when a child is going through a crisis, to provide a foundation while resisting the urge to make everything better.
“Be supportive, listen to them and give them the confidence that whatever difficulty they are having they are going to get through it. And I think that really does help build resilience,” O’Connor said.
The number one reward about working at Claremont High has been the students themselves.
“I think teenagers are not much different today than when I was a teenager, and they really want four things in their life: they want to have friends, they want to be accepted, they want to be competent at something and, although they don’t say it, they do want to please their parents. And I think if you understand that you will be successful working with teenagers,” O’Connor said.
He also highlighted the willingness of high school students to try something new, whether it’s a sport they have never played, acting in a play, or running for an office in student government.
“Every group on campus, they all have their own unique culture, but the goal is the same with all activities,” O’Connor said. “The activity is just the vehicle used to teach students important skills they need in the 21st century, which is self discipline, interpersonal skills, time management and to face adversity, whether it’s on a playing field, speech and debate tournaments [or] in theater, and how you handle that adversity, and move forward. That has been an absolute joy [to see.]”
The most difficult part of his job has been the rare occasions when a student has died.
“Those are really hard things to deal with because as a principal when things like that happen the number one job is to be supportive to our students because many times it’s the first time they have dealt with death,” he said.
Each individual has a unique way of dealing with the grief, some want to be with friends while others turn to journaling.
“But really they tell us what they need by their actions and to provide resources where they have the space to do it. That is really important,” O’Connor said. “And the balance between not glossing over it like, ‘Oh well time to move on.’ We want them to grieve but we don’t want it to define the school year.”
Lastly, O’Connor wants to thank the Claremont community for being so student-focused and tuned in to the resources the school needs to make sure students thrive, not just academically, but socially and emotionally.
“I am lucky to have worked in a community like that,” he said.