When Robbie Norman took over as principal at Brickey-McCloud Elementary School for the 2004-2005 school year, previous principal Susan Turner handed her a set of keys. Turner was the last principal at the old Brickey Elementary and shepherded the new school through construction and its first year in service.
It was a huge keychain, bigger and with far more keys than Norman’s last posting at Mooreland Heights Elementary in South Knoxville.
But Norman didn’t just see a heavy set of keys. She saw responsibility, “not only as a school leader of children and teachers, but to be a good steward of an outstanding facility. I really was stepping into different challenges with three acres under roof. It’s a huge facility and very beautiful.”
And at the close of this school year, Norman will hand the keychain and the responsibility to another principal, but after 42 years in Knox County Schools, her love of education will stay with her always.
Norman’s path to teaching was a bit different than other educators. Her father was a Baptist preacher, and she moved around a lot, eventually landing at Carter High School for her freshman year. She can’t point to a family member or past teacher as her inspiration to become a teacher herself.
“There were no teachers in my family. Lots of preachers, but no teachers,” she said.
She entered UT first for social work, then became inspired to pursue deaf education after seeing the deaf ministry at First Baptist Church in downtown Knoxville. But when she graduated, she couldn’t find a job in the field. She had also taken certification in elementary education, so she started teaching first grade at Carter Elementary, a position she kept for 20 years.
“I just fell in love with teaching, and I really thought that’s all I would ever do,” she said.
That was, until she went back to UT for a master’s degree and got an endorsement in administration and supervision, the choice that launched her into the position of curriculum facilitator, what’s now known as an instructional coach.
“I follow my heart and hope my head catches up,” Norman said. “I just threw myself into my studies, and it opened up so many doors. I had a chance to make a difference in the lives of a whole school of children and teachers. It became my passion, and I found I enjoyed working with adults as much as I do first graders.”
She served as curriculum facilitator for three years and called it a great experience, getting to watch and learn from five principals before she was appointed principal at Mooreland Heights.
“I was thrilled,” she said. “It’s an urban school, and I got the rural experience at Carter. I just knew I needed that experience. We were able to do a lot of great things there. It’s just a really sweet place.”
And then came the invitation to lead Brickey-McCloud. With a huge school and large student population, Norman leaned into her philosophy of building leaders and building teams, a philosophy that has served her and her teachers well. A quick survey of Knox County Schools today shows more than 10 former Brickey-McCloud teachers as principals throughout the system.
Norman is also passionate about building teachers up and improving student outcomes through collaboration. Building a collaborative culture at Brickey-McCloud has been the work of years, and with seven or eight teachers per grade level at the school, there are plenty of opportunities to share strategies.
She’s also proud of the inclusion rate of students with special needs in Brickey-McCloud classrooms. She said the school has one of the largest special needs populations in Knox County, and with everything on one level, the school is built for it. The benefits work both ways, with special needs students learning classroom skills, “and for our typically developing kids, it affects them the most in the area of empathy and caring for others. I love that,” Norman said.
Norman is also positive when reflecting on the changes she’s seen in education since she started at Carter Elementary.
“The job has gotten more challenging, absolutely,” she said. “But there have always been challenges in working with children. When I was teaching first grade, I had 36 children in my class, and today that’s unheard of with state caps on class size. I have no idea how I taught 36 children. Sometimes, I think they learned in spite of me.”
New methods in teaching and “accountability measures” have also never bothered Norman, she said.
“Along with (testing) we get a lot of information about the way we teach ,” she said. “We have so much more knowledge about what strategies really work with children.”
In retirement, Norman hopes to spend more time on family and friendships. She is married to Jim Norman and has two children and five grandchildren. In her spare time, she enjoys gardening, but she also wants to keep volunteering in education in some way.
And it’s not going to be easy for her to retire.
“I feel called to this job, to this career and feel so passionate about it, so … walking away is kind of hard. This is a job of the heart, of the head and of the mind. I just hope there’s been some good done here. I truly love being a school principal. I get a thousand hugs every day,” Norman said.
While the new principal has not been selected yet, Norman said two sessions will be held at the school so staff and the community can give input for the hiring process. Elementary education director Julie Thompson will meet with Brickey-McCloud staff at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday, May 8, and with the school community at 5:30 p.m. the same day.
“This is a big school and a prominent community, one in which they need to hear what would be best here,” said Norman.
There will also be a retirement reception for Norman 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 3.