BAYONET POINT — Mike Asbell hadn't been on the job as principal of Bayonet Point Middle School a day before the staff hit him with the "big question."
"How long are you going to stay?" they asked Asbell, the school's sixth principal in seven years.
"That's hard to answer, and I'm not going to lie to them," he said in an interview. "What I told the staff is, I've always wanted to be a principal and I plan to retire as a principal. I don't have any district-level ambitions. If the superintendent wants me to stay here until I retire, that's fine. If she wants me to be somewhere else, I'm willing to do that."
The main point, he said, is to do right by kids. It's something close to his heart.
Growing up, Asbell said, he didn't have much to call his own. He grew up poor, his dad drank a lot, life wasn't easy.
"He always wanted better for his family," Asbell said of his father, who left school in eighth grade to care for his own family. "Education was the most important thing."
In 1979, his family moved to Brooksville from Miami, just in time for Asbell to start high school.
"It was a very difficult time," he said. "I hated it."
But he met a language arts teacher, Colleen Norton, who made learning fun. She became a mentor, and she told Asbell he would become a teacher. His reaction at the time was that she was out of her mind.
Then a second teacher, Jo Crouthamel, had a similar influence. Both women cared, and they had high expectations, "and you wanted to meet the expectations because you loved those teachers. That is the type of teacher I wanted to be."
So Asbell worked his way through Pasco-Hernando Community College, a year of Palm Beach Atlantic University and, ultimately, completed two degrees at Nova University. He moved back to Hernando County, where he began his teaching career in earnest.
Most recently, he worked as an assistant principal at Seven Springs Middle School.
Asbell said he felt that his personal experiences made him a perfect fit to lead Bayonet Point Middle.
He understands kids who work hard, but also kids who struggle. He sees the need in kids who seem to have everything but someone to listen, as well as those who have family support but not lots of things. He gets that the staff wants stability and compassion as it deals with issues both academic and personal.
"A lot of the things that are going on here I can relate to," he said.
His first week found Asbell hiring teachers, working with contractors to make building improvements and just getting settled. He didn't expect to make any quick changes.
"You just come in and look at the school and the environment and you get a good handle on things before you jump into making any changes," he said.
Whatever plans he makes, Asbell intends to consult teachers. And he won't let anyone lose focus on "what it's all about" — kids.
Even in hiring, his first priority is to find people who love kids.
"You can be as knowledgeable as you can be on a subject, but if you don't love kids, the kids are going to know that," he said.
When he's not working, Asbell's family is his life, he said. He tries to provide as many experiences as he can for his wife and children, so they can have it better than he had it as a child, too.
"I remember my dad saying he had to save for retirement," Asbell said. "Then he didn't live long enough to enjoy retirement. I'm going to make memories while I can."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.