Sunday, June 3, 2007

Mark Laurrie

Mark Laurrie:

Principal with a Personal Touch

By: Michael Reiff

Mark Laurrie, Principal at Niagara Falls High School, exudes positive energy upon first meeting. His extremely affable demeanor immediately invites input, suggestions, or just a good story. Helming a school of thousands of students is not an easy job, but his positive and professional presence can be felt daily in the halls of the incredibly diverse and complex school.

Laurrie is in charge of “just about anything and everything that needs to be done here to run a high school,” he says. Those duties include things as simple as making sure the lights in the school work, to mediating student conflicts, parent or staff concerns, and everything in between. Laurrie says that “it’s the most demanding job I’ve ever known,” due to the sheer volume of people that he has to interact with, including around 2,400 students and 300 staff members.

To Laurrie, the primary goal of his job is to ensure that “learning is taking place on every occasion.” Laurrie professes that “I make an effort not to sit behind my desk until everyone is gone,” and puts this into practice by often spending two hours out of each day walking the halls of the school and paying a visit to the 135 classrooms in the structure, observing student learning and interactions. Days often stretch into nights for Laurrie as well, as he makes a point of attending student drama productions, concerts and dinners, to further make his presence known in the lives of students.

Laurrie also handles management of community agencies that work with the school, including such groups as the Western New York Arts Institute, and Leadership Niagara, among others, all of which have offices in the High School itself. As Laurrie relates, the most challenging part of his work, and the most important, is, “to remember and always focus that this is an institution for learning.” Among his handful of titles, Laurrie also considers himself the “Chief Learning Officer.” As Laurrie walks the halls of NFHS he is always simply “looking for learning. That’s all I’m looking for. Is every situation and environment promoting learning?”

Laurrie says that he often works closely with teachers who may be having trouble in the classroom engaging students, working gradually to improve their learning environments. Things Laurrie always checks for in the classroom are whether or not a student is engaged in meaningful work, and whether or not learning is taking place in a “multi-sensory, inter-disciplinary, multi-tasking approach,” which Laurrie believes is the best way to learn. To Laurrie it all comes down to the learner at the end of the day. “I’m really looking at the learner,” he relates, “because the learner will tell me what the teacher is doing.”

On the teacher end of things, Laurrie believes dialogue is the best road to improvement. “I want teachers to clearly know what the expectations are,” Laurrie says, “and I want them to know that I monitor it. I want them to know that I have confidence in them to make the corrections,” when those corrections are needed. Often, however, if learning is happening in a classroom, Laurrie will move on to other things, and doesn’t dwell on one situation if it doesn’t require it.

Laurrie began working in education on September 24, 1984. This is his 23rd year in the field. He has worked in a broad range of school settings, from High School Principal, to Middle School and Elementary School Principal positions. He has also had experience as a Vice-Principal in Middle and Elementary schools as well as work in the Central Office. As Laurrie relates, “You can either say that I can’t hold a job down because I’ve moved so much, or that I have the experience and advantage of going from 12 to Pre-K” Laurrie continued in saying, “It’s a real asset because I know a lot of these kids because I was their elementary or middle school principal, so that really helps me with relationships.” And to Laurrie, building and maintaining relationships is always key.

Laurrie believes that “you can disarm or diffuse anything if you know a student’s name. They know it’s personal…they’ll know you care about them.” Laurrie notes that students realize how big NFHS is, and respond to the personal approach that he enacts, and encourages staff members to do as well. “I think it’s the most critical thing we do for school safety and learning, to know every student by name. I can’t know everything about everybody, but that’s what I charge the staff to do.” When it comes to a personal philosophy concerning education, Laurrie keeps it short. He states, “All I want teacher’s to do is instruct every student as your most prized human possession.”

He emphasizes this belief with the educators and staff members he works with, and holds them accountable to this philosophy. To Laurrie, if teachers are following this simple yet crucial idea, he moves on. If they aren’t, then a conversation needs to take place. As an example of this philosophy in action, Laurrie notes that his oldest son will be entering High School next year. Laurrie wouldn’t put his oldest son anywhere he would put anyone else’s child. “If you can do that, we can improve any deficiencies you may have,” says Laurrie.

“High School is a 24/7 job,” Laurrie observes, but he still finds time to work with “not-for-profit organizations such as Boys and Girls Club and Leadership Niagara, among various other groups. “I get to know the community that way, get to know where some resources are that way, and I also get to help, and give back that way.” And when it comes to attending student activities, Laurrie thinks that is equally as crucial in his life. “You have to be everywhere,” when it comes to student activities Laurrie says, noting that going to their outside events is the best way to present oneself to students in a non-traditional setting like a classroom.

Balancing the immense amount of work that comes with his challenging career, Laurrie also has a strong and supportive family. “I have a very supportive wife, and kids who understand. They understand that Dad’s got a big job, they know that I know a lot of kids, they know I’m trying to help people,” Laurrie relates.

While he considers often that he may not be at home as much as he should be due to his work, he believes that he is always sending subtle, and important, messages to his children about integrity and work ethic when he leaves for NFHS every day (his attendance record has been impeccable for 14 consecutive years). “That’s how you teach work ethic, by showing them, not telling them,” Laurrie says. “You’ve got to show them in all cases that you have integrity and honesty, in every movement that you make. I concentrate on that a lot.”

When it comes to hobbies, sports are Laurrie’s passion. “I am a huge sports fanatic. I’ll watch just about any and every sport. Car racing is the only thing I will turn the channel on,” Laurrie says. Recently, Laurrie has found a passion for hockey, as his son has started competing in the sport. Laurrie also loves reading both fiction and non-fiction books, but says he doesn’t spend enough time on it.

Travelling with his family is also a crucial and enriching activity for Laurrie. He devotes at least two weeks a year exclusively to travelling with his family. “I’m so crazy that I need to go out of the country to Mexico or the Dominican Republic where I can’t get to a computer or a phone, and just focus on them,” says Laurrie of the importance of getting away and spending time with his family.

For Laurrie, weekends are also important for family time. “I have to spend as much time with my kids as I can then,” says Laurrie. “I know at this stage in their life this is what I need to do.” Laurrie has three children. His oldest son, Matthew, is 14, and will be attending NFHS next fall. His daughter, Katherine, is 12, a sixth grader, and his youngest son, Michael, is eight, a second grader. “I’ve been married for 18 years,” Laurrie says about his long and fulfilling marriage to his wife, Laurie.

“My wife and I made a commitment, that once we had our second child my wife would stay at home. We always agreed that one of us should be home for the kids, not just when they were babies, but when they hit their teen years. I think their teen years are as important to have a parent at home as any other time. We made a commitment to that.” And while Laurrie may work hard at NFHS, he still notes that, “My wife works just as hard as I do, only she stays at home.” Laurrie continues, saying, “My wife has supported me in my career, every step of the way, and has told me when I’m happy and doing what I need to do, that makes her happy. You don’t find many relationships like that, so I’m a pretty lucky guy.”

Laurrie also “loves to eat,” especially Italian food. However, he doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink much, and doesn’t like beer. However, he jovially notes that he does have one small vice. “Peanut M&M’s, that’s my bad habit, that’s my addiction. I usually have a bag a day. That’s what calms me down,” Laurrie notes.

The people who have positively influenced Laurrie are many, but his main influence was his father. When Laurrie talks about his father he fondly relates the man’s dedication to his family and work ethic: “He was a teacher, a guidance counselor, an administrator. He got cancer at 46 years old… I watched him struggle for ten years, never missing work. I’m sure personally he asked why he was so sick. I watched his personal struggle and the way he carried his life on. It was never anything he told me, it was just the way he lived. He died at 56, far too young.” Beyond his father’s steadfast dedication, Laurrie also learned a great deal about moral fortitude and altruism, as when he relates, “My father got involved in everything he did, and he never did anything half-way, and he always tried to help people—so, huge influence.”

Laurrie’s mother is still alive and lives in the Buffalo area, and is someone who has given Laurrie “a great deal of spiritual relief and support.” Laurrie meets his mother “every morning at 5:30 to pray together, before I come to school. We pray for our friends and family, and we pray for the safety of the students. That’s how I start my day.”

There aren’t many things that irk Laurrie, as his positive demeanor is often hard to ruffle. However, there are a few things that do, such as ingratitude, and the inability to understand disparate people’s backgrounds. “People who take things for granted are what irk me. We are so fortunate to have these wonderful jobs….If you don’t understand where our kids come from, if you choose to teach in Niagara Falls, with a median income of $20,000, you still have to teach them the best you can. We can’t complain about what they don’t have, it’s not their fault; we have to give them every tool we can.”

Laurrie continues by professing that each child comes from different circumstances, that every student is different. To Laurrie, “you can’t use a one-size-fits all approach. If you do, you’re just going to be an average teacher.” Laurrie believes that a teacher has to use their best judgment, and realize that every situation will be different.

Violence also bothers Laurrie a great deal. “Please, don’t resort to force to try to settle something,” Laurrie asks. All forms of violence upset Laurrie, from “the war, to Virginia Tech, to kids that fight on the third floor.” Laurrie advocates discussion and dialogue as a means of working out differences, and wishes more people, not just the students he interacts with everyday, would adopt that policy.

The goals of Laurrie are also distinct. Most importantly, Laurrie says his main goal is, “to be a better father, and to make sure that my children are raised, and can attend college, and do what they enjoy doing. That’s a goal, to give them the path.” Laurrie also strives to stay in shape in his daily life, and entertains the thought of someday learning how to play the saxophone. He says that if he weren’t in education, he would attend mortuary school to become a funeral director. While this may seem an odd choice, it continues the theme in Laurrie’s life-long goal of helping people wherever he can.

The best advice Laurrie can give graduates entering the work force, or anyone else for that matter, is finding and learning from a good mentor. “Get a mentor. Get many mentors. You only know what you know, don’t think you know it all. Find somebody who can mentor you. I have a few mentors,” notes Laurrie. His mentors include his mother, his wife, and his predecessor at NFHS.

Laurrie notes that his strengths play mainly to how he interacts with people on a personal level. “I enjoy being around diverse people. I think I’m pretty liberal in my thinking, pretty accepting of people, all races, political beliefs, sexual beliefs. I’m about finding good people,” Laurrie says, continuing with, “I think people find me approachable, easy to speak with. I think people know that I will follow through. They may not like what I’m going to do, but I will follow through.”

Weaknesses that Laurrie acknowledges are his sometimes overbearing need to control “everything,” as he puts it. “If there is a problem on the third floor and I’m sitting right here, I’ll think it’s my fault, and it’s not; it’s going to happen when there’s 3000 people. Things are out of my control and I have to understand that,” Laurrie relates.

For now, Laurrie will be working at NFHS though, spending his days doing what he loves, working with students, and ensuring that their school environment is as beneficial and conducive to learning as is possible.

Mark Laurrie


Niagara Falls High School