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People Talk: A conversation with Robert Clemens

Principal Robert Clemens doesn’t use the word “throwback” to describe his disciplined style of running an elementary school. Instead, when he tries to explain why his Buffalo P.S. 81 on Tacoma Avenue consistently earns the state title of “School in Good Standing,” Clemens simply calls himself a dinosaur.

He maintains order and academic excellence among almost 800 students who come from families living throughout the district. His system of rules and procedures formulated during 15 years at the school are designed to maximize focus. You can hear a pin drop in P.S. 81, said one parent, who marveled at the school’s quiet halls.

The father of a high school senior, Clemens grew up in North Buffalo and graduated from SUNY Buffalo State in 1978.

One would think that the classroom was a natural choice for Clemens.

People Talk: At what point did you realize you wanted to teach?

Robert Clemens: I had no desire. I hated school. I never dreamed I would go into education. It was one of those things that evolved.

PT: You may have hated school, but were you a good student?

RC: I didn’t always work up to my abilities. I always did my homework but I was a last-minute kind of kid. And I was kind of shy. I caught on in college. I was a much better student than I realized when I was working toward something.

PT: So how did you end up in education?

RC: I ended up going into special-education. My mother was a teacher, and I lived with an uncle who had Down syndrome. I ended up working at United Cerebral Palsy Association, and then I went to the autistic program at the Cantalician Center. I got my master’s in behavior analysis working with the severely handicapped, and I started at the Occupational Training Center (P.S. 42), which had at the time students ages 18 to 21. I did that for a while and then went back and got a degree in administration.

PT: It sounds like you did it all.

RC: I started as a teacher’s aide, so I sort of have done it all. I was a coordinator, assistant principal. I was first hired as a principal in 1999 at the old Riverside Academy, but they were closing that school. It’s hard to close a building. Some people were attached to it, and really wanted to stay. My feeling was it was an old, dark, dank, ancient building. I was in a strange role.

PT: You have achieved academic excellence at your school.

RC: In 30 years this school has only had two principals and it’s always been a school of good standing. We’re proud of that. People always think it’s the neighborhood, that you’re in North Buffalo so it’s the population. But we take whomever they send me. We’re like the Ellis Island of schools. We take them all.

PT: Would you like to be superintendent?

RC: Never. I reached my evolutionary peak here. I’ve been in education for 35 years. It’s a long time to be on the school schedule, but what I mean is that Sunday-night anxiety. You get the knot in your stomach starting in the afternoon. You just start thinking about everything you have to do.

PT: What else contributes to your Sunday angst?

RC: It’s not a job that when you go home, you’re done. If you try to do it right, it’s a job that keeps you humble. You’re always evaluating yourself. Whenever anything occurs in your school you’re constantly replaying it. A lot of people think principals are egotistical, but the ones I know who are getting things done are not. Because the moment you think that everything is going well, something will come along to knock you down to size. It keeps you on an even keel.

PT: Do you practice yoga?

RC: No. I try to run a little and I try to play basketball. I need all that. They keep telling me my blood pressure is too high.

PT: You thrive on a schedule.

RC: Maybe, but I’m sort of a dinosaur when it comes to education because I’ve been around so long. I really believe strongly in order and structure. I really believe that kids can’t learn unless you have an environment set up where kids are focused in class and you’re maximizing the teaching time. So I have a lot of rules in the building and a lot of procedures that are in place to ensure the day is very structured.

PT: Give me an example, please.

RC: When we do change-of-class for our junior high students – the seventh- and eighth-graders – it is conducted in silence. There’s no talking allowed, and some people think that is a very weird rule. Our philosophy is – that when the bell rings and a child goes from class to class – if they leave one class calm and enter another class calm, the instruction starts right away. If a teacher has to tell the kids to be quiet, that teacher is wasting time. It all carries out. It’s the theme of the day, that your focus is not playtime and fooling around. This is a school. People look at it and think it’s punitive, but it’s not.

PT: What is punitive around here?

RC: There’s an alternate-education room – detention, really – but that’s a half-day. Suspensions if they’re deemed appropriate. Parent conferences. Telling children straight out what they need to do – clearly. We have enough systems in place where kids can go talk out their issues, too.

RC: I usually go home and make dinner for the family. They say I’m a good cook. We have a supper club and get together with friends. I’m not very exciting.

PT: What is your most important tool here at school?

RC: Observation, not observing teachers per se, but knowing what’s going on in my building on every floor in every room.

PT: Do you have a favorite teacher from childhood?

RC: I really don’t remember one teacher, unfortunately. I think I was such a shy kid that I just tried to get through school. I think that’s important though in the sense that I always think about that middle student. You have your really good students who take your AP class and do well, and then you have your struggling students. Then there’s that whole population of middle kids that we sometimes forget. Not having a special teacher left me with the feeling of being that kid in the middle.

PT: How do you re-energize? Do you have a routine or ritual?

RC: I’m full of rituals. I’m a very obsessive-compulsive person. I want kids to learn and I want families to be happy with the school. I learned a long time ago that I can’t win. There is no decision that will please everybody. So you make the best decision for the building and you live with it. I try and think everything out so when I do it I’m pretty well prepared for everything.