Godfrey Saunders fairly dwarfs Belgrade High School Principal Russ McDaniel, a fact that McDaniel jokes about.
The sum of Saunders educational experience could be explained in the same terms: big, dwarfing accomplishments.
Saunders has a 32-year-career as an icon in the public school system. From 1996 to 2009 he served as the principal of Bozeman High School. Now in retirement, Saunders is helping McDaniel work out the kinks as a new principal.
McDaniel decided he could use a mentor as he took the helm at the Belgrade High School. He made a list of potential candidates from around the valley.
Since Saunders isn’t busy with high schoolers of his own right now, he made the short list. His immense list of accolades and big personality secured the partnership.
“I got to hear him speak. It was such a motivational speech,” McDaniel said. “Godfrey has a name like no other in the state.”
Saunders makes the drive to Panther territory a few times a week to chat with McDaniel, get feedback about his performance from teachers and interaction with students.
The pair talk about concrete ways to improve the school, like testing methods for students, and more personal topics, like how McDaniel handles criticism.
“I guess when I reflect back on my own experiences, it was the one thing I wish I had, a mentor, someone I had physical access to,” Saunders said. “I felt so strongly about it that I did my dissertation on it. One thing I found was 95% of high school principals wished they had some mentorship.”
For McDaniel, having a mentor to walk him through his first year as a non-interim head principal is what he needs.
“This is a way as an administrator to have a real-life experience,” McDaniel said. “I just wanted the real deal here.”
Saunders is definitely that. In addition to being one of the valley’s most beloved and remembered principals, he started an academy in Tennessee to train and teach principals. Mentoring, teaching, speaking, it’s all Saunders’ way of paying it forward.
“This mentorship was an opportunity to give back,” he said. “If we all kept our expertise to ourselves, we’d constantly be re-inventing the wheel.”
Money for the mentorship was carved from a small budget Superintendent of Belgrade Schools Candy Lubansky is allotted for “professional development” of principals.
“It’s not a huge budget, but we carve out a little bit for the principals’ professional development,” Lubansky said. “There are different formats for that development, it’s very flexible. It’s intended to be in response to what the principal and I decide will be the best support.”
To be exact, it’s a $3,107 budget. The district is paying Saunders $62.50 an hour for his time. Next year the principal’s development money will be given to someone else, Lubansky said.
Though McDaniel picked the mentorship as his professional development, he worries the community might view it as a sign of weakness.
Saunders tries to assure his protege that part of his obligation to his students and faculty is being the best leader he can, which includes some training. Lubansky agrees.
“For example, teachers have to implement the common core. They would be at a total disadvantage if we didn’t teach them how to do that,” Lubansky said. “Principals also have to be trained and supported. As a district, we need to do more professional development for our principals.”
McDaniel said he took the skills he has to ask for those he doesn’t have.
“I’m good at three things,” he said. “I know how to communicate, how to apologize and how to ask for help. This mentorship is the greatest opportunity for me to grow.”