A crying first grader added to the noise inside South Wayne Elementary School's office Thursday morning as bus drivers arrived to take students on trips to Fox Island and the Helen P. Brown Natatorium.
Dixie Garner stood amid the bustle, grasping a hand-held radio – a symbol she was the school's leader for the day instead of Principal Brenda West.
“We're having quite a time with that,” Garner said, referring to the upset student.
Garner was visiting as part of Fort Wayne Community Schools' annual Principal for a Day, which was held virtually last year.
Of the nearly 40 participants, Garner's expectations likely best matched reality. The other guest principals represented the FWCS school board, businesses, churches, service organizations and community groups, whereas Garner actually was South Wayne's principal.
She retired at the end of the 2006-07 academic year after leading the elementary school for about 15 years, overlapping with West's time as a teacher.
Garner said she stepped into her old role at West's invitation and noticed differences almost immediately. For example, she said, the morning announcements are “way, way out of my league” now that they are conducted via Zoom – a COVID-inspired change – rather than through the public address system.
West guided Garner through the four-story building – taking her up and down the stairs the retired principal hasn't missed – and paused at the bulletin boards dotting the hallways to explain the learning on display.
West said her knowledge about the lessons would likely surprise many visitors because there's a misconception principals spend their days in an office.
While she is a manager, West said, she is also the school's instructional leader.
The former coworkers visited multiple classrooms, starting with kindergarten. When kindergartners flocked to give West a hug, the principal encouraged them to hug Garner as well.
“I saw you on the screen,” one kindergartner told Garner, referring to the guest principal's participation in morning announcements.
“Me too,” another girl said.
It didn't take much for students to warm to Garner. Third grader Jeziah Reinders showed her how to find books digitally through a ThinkPad device.
“You definitely have to try it out,” the boy told her.
The one-to-one technology was new to Garner, who said students seldom used computers during her time at South Wayne because there were so few devices per class.
In another third grade classroom, Garner watched students engage in friendly competition while answering questions about fractions via their computers.
“This kid's leading the pack,” Garner said, gesturing toward one student.
Garner described the activity as a “marvelous” way for the teacher to get data about her students' progress.
“I am very impressed,” she said.