Every morning at Evergreen Middle School for the past six years Principal Dave Feldhusen has told a joke while giving morning announcements over the public announcement system. Sometimes it’s corny. Sometimes it’s a joke submitted by a student. Sometimes it even flirts with the edge of appropriateness – making it perfect for the age group.
Then, he’d end the announcement with his mantra, “Evergreen Middle School is where good things happen. Make something good happen for you.”
This week Feldhusen retired after a 32-year career in education, 25 of them in Central Valley School District and the last 12 at Evergreen Middle School. He taught at a Yakima high school first, then University High School for 10 years, was assistant principal there for three years and then returned to the district after administration positions at Deer Park Junior High and North Central High School.
His years at Evergreen, said teachers, were infused with a humorous style of leadership that endeared him to students, parents and staff.
“He has a great way of presenting that joke. It starts the day off right. The day is not right if he is not on the announcements giving the joke of the day. He is out in the hall, joking with kids. He makes it comfortable for the kids. The students want to be here,” said teacher Amanda Mortensen.
“Announcements are the funnest time in the whole world at that school,” said Liz Lee, Evergreen’s Parent Teacher Organization president. Lee has had three kids at Evergreen but also knew Feldhusen at the beginning of his career because she was on the high school basketball team he coached in Yakima.
“He was enthusiastic, fun and encouraging. We would gravitate towards him,” Lee said of Feldhusen’s coaching style, adding that those same characteristics make students at Evergreen gravitate to him.
“He is so involved with all the kids, he knows their name. He knows stuff about them,” Lee said. “They don’t get upset with him, his reprimand. He is out there with them and involved with them and they like that.”
Teacher Allen Kohler described Feldhusen as involved, interested and personal, with an ability to use humor to disarm students who might be frustrated or angry. “They find it really easy to approach him and they share very personal stuff … they feel comfortable to come him in that way.”
Middle school students, said Feldhusen, want to know who they are and how they fit into the world. “Our job is to help them feel good about themselves and how they fit into the world.”
At Evergreen, Feldhusen said he fit in like a conductor, “orchestrating the staff into playing the best music. “It is not about me. … It is about the kids, teachers taking care of the kids, me taking care of the teachers … . I get to conduct, move it and play with it and make it harmonious.”
Feldhusen said his approach as a principal draws on years of coaching and teaching special education. “As a coach you build teams. In special ed you take care of individuals. … We all have differences but we want the same thing,” he said, noting that everyone wants to be happy and successful but has a different way of achieving that.
According to staff and parents, Feldhusen built an atmosphere of trust and partnership, without micromanaging.
“I learned from him you have to dig deep and work hard and trust yourself. That is easy to do when he trusts you,” Kohler said.
“He leads by allowing each person to develop in their own way. He has a hands-off style which is nice,” said Lee, explaining that he didn’t impose his own methods or style on the PTO. “It doesn’t have to be his way.”
“The motto, ‘we are making good things happen’ – I feel like he starts that and it is just a trickle-down effect,” Mortensen said. “As an administrator he makes me want to be the best teacher I can be. He just builds us up and makes us feel good about ourselves. We start to believe him and perform better because of it … . It is hard to put into words what he means to us. You just want to work here.”
Over the years, Feldhusen said he also learned to trust himself and make decisions by thinking with his head while leading with his heart, an approach he said leads to better decisions.
Sometimes, he said, that means making a decision that doesn’t follow a list of rules because it fits the situation and he feels staff and students need to be given a break.
“He has a great sense for people. As he moves from one professional to another he understands who they are and can adjust how he treats them according,” Kohler said. “He has worked so hard over the years to develop relationships with the people who come through here.”
As he retires, Feldhusen, 55, said he doesn’t know where he will fit next, perhaps as a small business owner. But whatever he does, one thing is sure: He’s going to keep making good things happen.