William S. Bernhard wanted to know the inner workings of the school he leads as principal, so he pledged to “guest teach” classes in every subject offered at P.J. Gelinas Junior High in Setauket over the course of the 2015-16 year.
He taught a lesson on Aristotle in English, played Frisbee in phys ed, spoke about immigration in Social Studies and even pounded a chicken breast to make an Italian dish in Family and Consumer Sciences.
The 41-year-old administrator, in his second year as principal at the 900-student school, said it was his way of dealing with a personal learning curve, as well as a window on what faces students in grades seven through nine.
“The transition to principalship, albeit wonderful, had its challenges because I’m a classroom guy,” he said. “I love the classroom setting, and that brought me to ask, ‘How am I going to make the principalship fit me and our academic goals?’ ”
Bernhard — a former math teacher who previously served as math chairman at Ward Melville High School, also in the Three Village district — started his initiative in the fall, rotating each school day among classes. He continued on a less regular basis in the second half of the year.
Most of his classroom experience, he said, has been at the high school and college level. He lectures at Stony Brook University.
Teaching the junior high classes “gave me a better perspective on traditional middle school development,” Bernhard said. “For me, it was about seeing how younger kids learn. Good teaching is good teaching — but there are some methodologies that you need to adjust for adults versus younger children.”
For example, instead of breaking down concepts for the junior high school students, Bernhard found the opposite approach worked well.
“Younger kids can pick up concepts quicker in some cases, and you actually don’t need to break it down the way you do for adults,” he said. “It is kind of a paradox. Their brains have not completely matured, so you can almost teach classes more quickly than adults.”
He taught a joint math-art lesson on fractals. He taught a science lesson on radioactive decay. In math, where he felt most comfortable, he taught a variety of classes, including Algebra 2 theory, geometry theory and verbal problems in Common Core algebra.
“It is really easy for me to connect with math because that’s my language,” Bernhard said. “But I had promised that I wanted to feel how it is to be a kid again, so rather than just focus on one area — the kids have to learn all these different areas — I wanted to have a throwback to junior high.”
The most challenging was cooking. He made a practice chicken Parmesan dish the day before his in-school debut.
Family and Consumer Sciences teacher Janet Broadhurst was impressed with Bernhard’s newly honed skills as he led the class of ninth-graders late last month.
“So far, he’s learning,” she said as the principal measured out flour. “It’s great he is learning culinary skills. He sees what our department entails in teaching students how to learn a life skill.”
For Bernhard, guest teaching fits with his idea of how to run the school. He also has swapped places with a student for a day.
Ninth-grader Maya Pena-Lobel, 14, was in both the math class he led and in international cooking.
“He really did a fantastic job,” she said, adding that Bernhard connected with the students. “I think it was a great idea . . . It makes it a better environment for learning.”
Bernhard said much of what he heard in discussions with students concerned how to make the school a better place.
“Ironically, the No. 1 comment I got was that I need to change the mashed potatoes,” he said. “They don’t have enough taste.”
Classes end June 13 at Gelinas, and Bernhard didn’t quite fulfill his pledge. He said he plans to make the same effort next year — focusing especially on the subjects he didn’t get around to, including music and foreign language.
“I think every administrator should be teaching,” he said. “I don’t see why a principal shouldn’t have a class every couple of years, just to keep us in what this is all about.”