The words “goofy” and “high school principal” are unlikely to follow one another in a game of free association. For Margaret (Peg) Regan, who will resign as principal of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School this month after nine years in the job, that’s been part of the problem, particularly recently. Sitting in her office last week she explained why it is time for a break.
“For the past several years, I’ve felt I can’t be my natural self,” she said. “I’ve been kind of carved out as principal. I need to go back and remember the person who’s more goofy and creative and funny.”
As spokesperson for the Island’s largest institution, Mrs. Regan has been on constant call. She remembers an incident on the Fourth of July several years ago when a group of students were blasting passersby with super soakers and pelting senior citizens with candy. She was telephoned for comment.
“‘What do you think of kids pelting people with hard candy?’ I was speechless,” she said, “‘I don’t approve! ... It’s July 4, I don’t know what to say!’”
Particularly in a close community like the Vineyard, it can be difficult to get away from the job.
“You puff yourself up to become that person and it’s hard to puff back down,” she said.
Mrs. Regan has gone back to school every September since 1955, when she was five years old. She went into education as an English teacher straight out of college — in 1973 — and will complete her nine years as principal without having missed a fall semester.
“I think every 34 years you should take a year off,” she said with a smile, paraphrasing the old study tip, “even if you don’t feel you need it.”
This year Mrs. Regan presided over the first instructional cuts in the high school’s history, closing down courses in the drama and music departments. As a result of the cuts, one teacher from the music department will either have to resign or work on half salary. It was an example of what has been the hardest part of the job for Mrs. Regan — juggling the needs of the school with those of individuals. If a teacher loses their job on Martha’s Vineyard, she points out, it is hard to commute to a new one. Add that to the high cost of living and an ailing economy and it means that losing your place at the school can be tantamount to having to relocate.
Among the paintings and plaques bearing her name in Mrs. Regan’s office is a black and white poster of Mahatma Gandhi, in meditative pose. She has been a practicing Buddhist since the 1980s.
“I want to reacquaint myself with longer periods — even weeks — of meditation,” she said. “It needs a lot of silence. This is not a quiet job.”
In fact, Mrs. Regan does not come across as the silent type. Though clearly considered, she is prone to eruptions of laughter and appears to always have a next thought waiting in line.
She was able to make her start with no teaching qualifications, as an English major just out of college.
“I knew my subject, but I knew nothing about teaching,” she said. Though it was a difficult year, it established her love for teaching and her 35-year career as an educator. “Back then we were caught in this thing where the teacher was the center of the universe — you chose what was taught,” she said. “And then we moved to the accountability thing where the teacher’s a cog in the wheel of education. I think we’ve swung too far the other way. And there’s a middle way which would work for students.”
She sees a similar imbalance in MCAS, the state’s standardized testing system, as in the No Child Left Behind program.
“I wouldn’t want to go back to the pretesting environment. I believe in MCAS,” she said, “but that minimal standard has become what we aspire to. There’s so much more to be done in education than meeting the minimum standard.”
Though she admitted it will be “a little weird” come September, she has yet to suffer from any separation anxiety, and doesn’t predict she will until at least after the senior graduation ceremony on Sunday.
“I’m still really in the game,” she said. “A little while after graduation I’ll feel that, ‘Okay, I’m not really having to be in charge of the entire school.’ Mr. Nixon is stepping up to the plate a lot lately for next year.”
Assistant principal Steve Nixon will become principal on July 1. “I think he’s going to be wonderful,” she said of Mr. Nixon. “He’s very, very bright. He’s a thoughtful man and slower to action than I am, which is a good thing. When he represents material he’s going to do it in a very studied way. He’ll do all his homework and have all his I’s dotted and his T’s crossed. I tend to be more of a springboard and more extemporaneous. More on the stage kind of thing. [Mr. Hart] will be that student activity, open door, out in the public kind of person. You want complementary personalities because thinking alike is antithetical to learning anything.”
As for what she will do next, it is still a list of possibilities, according to the principal. She may look to return to journalism — she wrote a regular education column from 1985 to 1994 for the Cape Cod Times while teaching in Barnstable. She has discussed a possible project in New Orleans, an idea which came to her in the months after Hurricane Katrina.
“A year ago it seemed more dire, that they needed teachers to flood in,” she said, “though I’m a little reluctant, as a northerner to go to the deep south and say, ‘This is how you do it.’ I don’t anticipate they would like that.”
Working with teachers is a priority; a consultancy — or perhaps some kind of teacher training sanctuary — is something she appears to be considering.
“I’d like to work with teachers to talk about how you get beyond the finish line [of standardized testing],” she said. “It’s a little Buddhist, in the sense that there’s no real finish line. It’s taking a little bit of my studies in Buddhism and putting them into the whole idea of becoming a master teacher.”
Though she repeatedly spoke of a need for quiet reflection, she also said she thrives on the stimulation of teaching adolescents. Her husband, Jack, teaches second and third grades in the Chilmark elementary school, but Mrs. Regan says she is too high energy to teach at an elementary level.
“I like to be challenged and these students always do that,” she said, of the high school. Whatever she does next, it is likely that Mrs. Regan will not be away from school for long.
“This is lovely place to be,” she says, gesturing to the hallways outside her office, “there’s a great beehive kind of sense. Everyone is going at it, buzzing around, then — whoosh! — the day ends and everybody disappears.”