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Kelly McGuire, Downtown Principal, Teaches Kids to Embrace Challenges

By Julie Shapiro | November 28, 2011 2:05pm

FINANCIAL DISTRICT — Since Kelly McGuire became principal of a small middle school in Greenwich Village six years ago, the school changed both its name and its location.

The former Greenwich Village Middle School, which occupied cramped quarters in a building shared with P.S. 3, moved to the Financial District in 2010 and became the Lower Manhattan Community Middle School.

The school's spacious new 75,000-square-foot home at 26 Broadway features many amenities that McGuire and the students did not have in the old location, including a dance studio, a music room, a computer lab and a science wing. The move has also allowed the school to grow, adding another class of students per grade.

Through all of the changes, McGuire, 38, has kept his focus on building a diverse community of students who learn not just academic subjects, but also to care for each other and their surroundings.

A Brooklyn resident and father of 2-year-old twins, McGuire grew up in St. Paul, Minn. and has an undergraduate degree in sociology from Minnesota State University, a master's in education from the University of San Francisco and an administration degree from the University of California at Berkley.

He got his start in teaching through Teach for America in Baton Rouge, La., and worked in the Oakland, Calif. schools for six years before coming to New York as assistant principal of Wagner Middle School on the Upper East Side in 2004.

McGuire sat down with DNAinfo recently to share his own memories of middle school and talk about why he likes working with pre-teens.

Q: You went to a Catholic middle school in St. Paul, Minn. What was that like?

We had uniforms and it was pretty strict. But I also recall that in sixth grade, we had Sister Mary Frances as our health teacher, and she taught us all about sex. [At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School] we will basically answer any questions the kids have. Sometimes the kids ask some questions that might make adults uncomfortable to answer. But I remember some kids in my class asking Sister Mary Frances those exact same questions and her opening right up.

Q: What was your best subject in middle school?

I really enjoyed math. I had a very good teacher for sixth and seventh grade who made math a lot of fun and showed how to apply mathematics to the outside world. I remember a project we did where we had to build the city block of the school to scale. We had to not just build the model but also go through and explain all the different mathematics we used to build it.

Q: Do any other memories of middle school stand out?

I tell this one to my students a lot: The first day of seventh grade, I'm in a new class and I know most of the kids but it's still a little nerve-wracking. I'm sitting down in my social studies class, and we're in a really old building, and this huge tile from the ceiling fell out and crashed right over my head. I didn't get hurt, but I was in this chalky dusty mess. I remember for the next three weeks, all the other kids were like, "Hey, aren't you that kid who had the tile fall on his head?" It became my claim to fame.

Q: Did you ever get in trouble?

I did. I remember it very, very clearly, in seventh grade getting in trouble for throwing snowballs at somebody. I think I got four days of lunch detention for that. Another time I got into trouble for going to the wrong location for recess. We either had recess at an empty parking lot or a field. [My friend and I] went to the field and we didn't see anybody there. We probably should have known to go back, but we didn't. We stayed out on the field and played and somebody found out, and I think I ended up with 10 days of lunch detention for that.

Q: How did you decide to become a teacher?

My first job out of [college] was working in a youth center, focusing on kids who were homeless. I also worked part-time at a hospital [teaching] kids who were in there long-term, whether it was for mental health issues or drug and alcohol issues, about wellness and getting along with other people. Then I thought I would want to be a teacher.

Q: What do you like about teaching?

I love the intellectual rigor of planning lessons. Teaching is so difficult. In order to do it well there is a ton of thinking and brain energy that has to go into designing a lesson. It's tricky. But when you do it, it's magical.

Q: Middle school students are often seen as a tough group to work with. What drew you to them?   

I really like getting to know the kids as people. I think they're really funny. They have such energy, such passion about things. It's super exciting when they get energized by something, whether it's something inside of school or outside of school.

Q: What is the most important thing for students to learn before graduating from Lower Manhattan Community Middle School?

Kids need to leave middle school having had positive educational experience. That doesn't mean giving them a cup of coffee and a pillow as they walk in and making everything easy on them. If things are too easy, kids won't have a positive experience. [I want them to learn] that challenge is okay. It's okay to deal with things that aren't easy — and in fact, you're going to, regardless of where you go. But be able to realize that, hey, I can make it through this, and hey, I realize the difficult times are going to teach me something that will help me down the line.