February 11, 2021
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
Judy Goodwin is a circle living in a square world.
She is a creative spirit “who pays attention to whacky ideas that come through inspiration” and finds that boxes are all too often restrictive and confining. Boxes also come with rules and requirements.
“I have a philosophy that people are either circles or squares,” Goodwin explained. “I was a circle, but I learned I had to fit into a square.”
“I am not a straight-line person. I am that squiggly line person. That’s kind of how my brain works,” she continued. “I would never be able to be an accountant because I couldn’t keep all the numbers inside the little bitty boxes.”
“That's a pretty good analogy — a circle in a square world,” Director of Schools Bill Spurlock, repeated with a chuckle. “Oh me … now that's hilarious, but then you think about it, yeah, I would agree with that.”
Goodwin makes it OK for people to laugh, mostly because to know her is to know she absolutely loves what she’s doing and you can bet Goodwin, now in her 49th year of education and 21st as principal at Barfield Elementary, is doing it with a smile.
That smile brings an ease, a sense of comfort and, of course, laughter heard from all of those who are around her, especially when she’s at Barfield.
Her staff loves working for her.
Parents love knowing she’s with their children.
The kids simply adore her.
And Spurlock recently announced Goodwin’s selection as the RCS Principal of the Year, which means she will now be in contention for this year’s Tennessee Principal of the Year.
“I was pretty much in shock about it,” said Goodwin, who was previously chosen as Principal of the Year in Rutherford County and was a top three statewide finalist in 2009. “That was a wonderful experience, and I was honored and never dreamed I would be nominated again, but I really am excited about it.”
Goodwin’s continued success as an administrator all starts with how intentional she is when it comes to assessing the needs of not only the student body, but also identifying the needs of her faculty when hiring new members.
Much like students come from diverse backgrounds, Goodwin appreciates the differences from one educator to another.
She looks for different personalities and different ways of thinking.
“I don’t want everybody in a cookie cutter,” said Goodwin, who asks herself “Does this team need an older person? Or does this team need a younger person? Does this team need somebody really strong in technology? Or is this a team that needs a certain educational practice? That’s the thing that candidates don’t know when they’re interviewing with me, is I’m looking at all of those factors.”
Perhaps, the interview that illustrates her approach happens to be the hire she did not make, but, more importantly, why she chose not to and what she did afterward.
In Spring 2010, Dr. Jimmy Sullivan applied for the position of assistant principal.
It was a role that ultimately went to Chris Lafferty, who was named principal of Christiana Elementary this past summer.
“It’s the most intimidating interview I’ve ever done,” recalled Sullivan, who is now the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction. “She puts you on a 15-minute timer and you’re in there with her entire leadership team … and you are watching the timer go down in the corner as you are trying to make your first impression.
“She didn’t choose me, obviously. She called me and told me the truth, ‘You are too young for myfaculty, but my assistant principal is going to be the Director of Schools in Bedford County. He is going to have 13 assistant principal openings, so I’m going to recommend you to him with your permission.’
“If it wasn’t for Judy making that phone call,” Sullivan continued, “I’m not sure when my opportunity to get into administration would have started. So, it’s been pretty neat to watch 10 years later, as we have both grown and evolved in leadership. The relationship we still have is genuine and honest.”
Sullivan and Spurlock both noted Goodwin’s best attribute is identifying talent, hiring the best and brightest, and then letting them do what they do best.
The result has been low turnover among teachers and staff.
Even Lafferty only left because after decade as an assistant principal, it was time to step into the role of overseeing his own school, and the biggest lesson he brought with him is the importance of being himself.
“He took the things that he knew adapted to his personality,” Sullivan has observed, “but he is not running Christiana Elementary like Ms. Goodwin runs Barfield Elementary.”
“As a leader,” Goodwin said, “if you believe that you have the best ideas in the building, I’ve always said we’re blocked at the gate. You have to inspire those people to trust their own ideas.”
Goodwin is secure enough to set high expectations and then impress upon everyone the importance of being themselves.
“You have to put the right players in place … where everybody gets lifted up,” said Goodwin, “I know as a very creative teacher, myself, I would not have flourished had I had an administrator who was a micromanager.”
She later explained, “You need to trust the people you hire. You let people know what your expectations are, but you also need to let their light shine, let them live out their inspirations and honor their intuition to do what is best for children.”
Spurlock made it a point to say, “What makes her standout is her ability to relate to her teachers and earn the respect from her teachers, but the most important thing is that she puts her kids first. … She loves working with kids.”
Education has been and continues to be her passion and, more importantly, she feels bad for others who see retirement as an opportunity to finally spend their days doing something they love.
“Oh my gosh, that saddens me,” said Goodwin, who has been doing what she loves for decades, but inevitably still gets asked one of the same two questions.
How much longer?
When are you going to retire?
“That’s another thing,” Spurlock said, “she says she never wants to quit. She’s just as excited about it today as the first day that she walked in … and I think that has a lot to with that analogy of the circle in the square world. She just reconfigures. She looks to see what she’s doing well and then she just changes what’s not working and supports what is working.”
“I finally am just saying, ‘When I die,’” Goodwin joked. “Actually, I told my staff today, I said, ‘I’ll keep learning with you until I don't know who I am, and I don’t know who you are and then just roll me out in a wagon and get rid of me.’
“I am just on fire, still, with all there is to learn and all that we have to offer our children and our families. I’m just still so excited over teaching and learning and coaching.”
PHOTO / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT