Alisa Gatlin believes education should be a tangible thing, an exciting thing, a tactile experience where learning becomes more than words on a page.
"When it (learning) becomes real for students, when we can do that, the world becomes a much more exciting place," Gatlin, 49, said Wednesday.
The former assistant principal of Palm Harbor Middle School and then Forest Lakes Elementary has nurtured this teaching philosophy over a nearly 30-year career as an educator — first volunteering to teach dance as a performing artist, and later as a social studies teacher in Pinellas County.
She said she hopes to continue with that philosophy at her latest post.
Gatlin moved in to her new office at Largo Middle School on Monday. This time, into a principal's office with her name on it.
After a year under the leadership of Antelia Campbell, a principal whom one parent called a "proven failure," Pinellas school officials saw fit to remove Campbell and promote Gatlin in her stead.
The challenges are waiting for her.
Largo Middle, like many middle schools, suffers from discipline problems with some students, but remains in good shape academically. Last year, the 1,100-students collectively garnered the school a "B" grade based on FCAT scores.
Gatlin said she hopes to improve Largo Middle with positive leadership and a community-focused approach.
"I know there have been some concerns about discipline," Gatlin admitted. She said that issue is on her list of things to tackle head-on.
"I'll work to make this the safest, most positive environment possible," she said.
Pinellas officials have voiced their confidence in Gatlin's ability to do so.
"Ms. Gatlin is an outstanding administrator, who is committed to work with the staff, students, and community to create a positive learning environment at Largo Middle School," wrote area superintendent Barbara Thornton in an announcement July 25.
Gatlin, who received a master's degree from Columbia University Teacher's College and is nationally certified in teaching middle school social studies, said she never imagined herself in the principal's chair when she began her career. But the chance to impact an entire school — not just one class at a time — was too much to pass up.
"My heart was in teaching, but we need 'teacher teachers' to be administrators," Gatlin said. "I'm very excited to be able to make a difference and support an entire school."
As for what Gatlin thinks parents should know about her before they have met her: "I want them to know I am going to care about their kids. We are always going to be here to help them through their challenges."
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.