Person of the Week
Melanie Whitcher: Math Smarts + People Skills = Career in Education
Daniel Hand High School Assistant Principal Melanie Whitcher previously worked as a math coordinator for the school and as a math teacher and coach in Branford. She has a master's degree in teaching and a sixth-year degree in educational leadership. (Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Melanie Whitcher’s career path to become Daniel Hand High School’s new assistant principal began in a rather unusual place—in college as a business major with a focus on accounting.
As a student at Quinnipiac University, she was adept in math—so adept, in fact, that her GPA was very good and she told her guidance counselor that math electives were “easy courses” that gave her an easy A.
“I enjoy them,” she says. “So, my counselor at the time goes, ‘I think we need to hone in a little bit on that, if that’s a strength for you.’”
But she resisted the suggestion of her counselor to pursue an actuarial path or any numbers-crunching career for that matter, revealing instead that she wanted to focus on building relationships and working with people.
So, the counselor thought for a moment and came up with a solution: pursue education instead.
Melanie took that advice and never turned back.
She finished her bachelor’s degree with a major in math, graduating magna cum laude in 2005. She completed her master’s in teaching in 2006, and then earned a sixth-year degree, major in educational leadership, from 2012 to 2014. She finished each advanced degree with an honors distinction from Quinnipiac University.
Even as she pursued her post-graduate studies, she plunged into her career with the same dedication, working as a math teacher at Branford High School from 2005 to 2015.
A resident of North Branford with Billy, her husband of 12 years, and their two young children, she taught Branford students “everything from freshman algebra to AP statistics as a senior course.”
“I loved working in Branford,” she says. “I had great relationships with my kids and the families there.”
She later worked as a math instructional coach at Branford’s Francis Walsh Intermediate School from 2015 to 2018.
When Daniel Hand High School announced an opening for a math coordinator, she jumped at the chance, making certain that the opportunity was worth leaving a job in Branford she already loved.
“It was truly for career advancement,” she says. “When I went back to school to get my degree for administration, I took a few years to try to figure out what exactly I wanted to do with that. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave the classroom yet.”
“The Madison school system has a phenomenal reputation,” she explains, “and the community relationships are similar to what I’d experienced in Branford. So, it was an extremely attractive district when they had a position open.”
She got the job and worked for a year at Hand as a math coordinator, a position that gave her a chance to work inside a classroom for “two periods a day, and then do sort of their administrative roles the other periods.”
“I got the job as the math coordinator, and immediately knew that I was in the right place. My first year here was amazing,” she says.
Next Stop: Assistant Principal
In her interview for the math coordinator job, Melanie remembers the inevitable probing question, “Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?”
She recalls her response, “I said, ‘I would love to be an assistant principal. That’s part of the reason why I’m looking to make this career move now, so that I can be better prepared when I’m ready to make that shift to an assistant principal.’”
That opening came a bit earlier than she expected.
About six months into her position as math coordinator at Hand, Cynthia Schneider, one of the two assistant principals, announced her retirement, and the position was opened to both internal and external applicants.
The prospect was too good to pass up. She applied for and landed the job.
She spent as much time as she could with Schneider to learn the ropes during her transition months.
Now fully acclimated to her new responsibilities, she is gratified that her working relationship with both Principal Anthony (T.J.) Salutari and Assistant Principal Brian Bodner has been collaborative.
“When we get a chance to actually eat lunch, we will have most of the time a working lunch where we will just run through things that are going on in the day,” she says. “We’re always constantly in the loop with each other. And that’s nice. It’s nice to have a support.”
Hit the Ground Running
The two assistant principals at Daniel Hand share responsibilities by alternately taking charge of each of the four levels of high school. With the responsibility for the sophomores and seniors falling on her shoulders, Melanie knew she had to hit the ground running and jump start her relationship with the students and their families.
She called in seniors individually to her office, not for disciplinary action, but to spend a bit of time to get to know the students she felt she needed to focus on. She did the same with the parents, albeit by phone conversation.
She laughs when she relates that some students are taken aback when they are called to her office. But when they find out that the intention is not to mete out a punishment but rather to start a conversation, the response immediately turns positive, with many students appreciating her effort.
“You start to see their guard go down a little bit,” she says, “and for some of those kids, it took weeks of that.”
She also realizes that reaching out to the students is even more urgent when problematic or unhealthy issues are involved, such as vaping.
With vaping reaching crisis levels, experts have expressed concern about its long-term effects. Melanie knows that students at Daniel Hand and their parents should be vigilant.
The issue hits home with her.
“It’s heart wrenching,” she says. “I think about it as an assistant principal because we’re giving some really harsh consequences to some really good kids who are just making bad choices. I think about it as a mom, because I know the challenges that my own kids are going to face. All of us administrators—Assistant Principal Brian, Principal T.J., and I—we all have children, and we say the odds are stacked against our kids.
“You know, there’s a social component to that, where they can’t break the cycle because socially, they’re all around it together. ‘My friends are all doing it.’ Then there’s the true physical addiction of it. It’s unfortunately too easy to get,” she says.
While students who vape may face consequences, Melanie explains that “if a student comes to us and says, ‘I am addicted to using these products, and I need help to stop,’ they’re not going to get a discipline consequence. We’re going to help them. We’re going to get in touch with the support that they need.”
Like other teachers and administrators working in the school, she has an authentic regard for the students’ health and safety. She regards the teenagers at Daniel Hand akin to her own and she feels genuinely concerned for their wellbeing.
“I have a really strong desire to [help] build good character…to spread kindness to people,” she says. “Being in leadership sometimes is tough. We have to make some really tough decisions...but at the end of the day, I want them to be able to say, ‘She really did have my best interests at heart.’
“There are so many good educators and administrators who would tell you the exact same thing,” she says. “We are in this because we’re in the business of helping kids. That’s what we want to do every single day.”
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