DELAVAN — In his two-and-a-half years since retiring as principal of Beloit Turner High School, Mike Kolff and his wife have visited many places; Africa, Costa Rica, China, Iceland.
He’s now coming back to a place he once called home for three years — Delavan-Darien High School.
At a meeting with DDHS teachers Monday afternoon, Superintendent Robert Crist announced that Kolff was hired as the school’s interim principal through the remainder of the school year.
Kolff fills the seat vacated by Dr. Mark Schmitt, who retired Jan. 20 due to health concerns. Schmitt had led DDHS since the start of the 2009-10 school year.
Kolff was an associate principal at DDHS for three years starting in 2003. He came highly recommended by many veteran staff members, Crist said. Many of those veteran staffers gave Kolff a standing ovation when he was introduced at the teacher meeting during Monday’s district in-service day.
“There are only a few school districts I would have done this for,” Kolff said. “It had to be one close to my heart.”
Kolff’s experience as principal and his connection to DDHS prompted Crist to make the offer, which Kolff accepted before even discussing salary and benefits.
“When you talk about a trust hire, this is one of them. That’s pretty cool,” Crist said at the staff meeting. “I have heard nothing but good things about Mike and the Beloit Turner School District and Turner High School regarding the time he was there. I trust he will do a good job for us here. He has experience, a diverse background and knows what’s going on in today’s high schools.”
Kolff was principal at Turner until 2012, a job he held after being an associate principal at Delavan-Darien. Kolff has 29 years of classroom instruction prior to that at Whitewater, Milton and Cassville school districts. He graduated from Milton College with a double major in history and Spanish. He also holds master’s degrees in educational technology (1999, Lesley University) and educational administration (2003, Marian University).
Kolff stands by two main educational philosophies.
The first is having teachers develop relationships with their students to maximize their learning. He told the DDHS staff of how good it feels when veteran teachers hear from former students at places such as weddings and funerals, particularly when told of the impact teachers had made on the student in the classroom.
“It’s all based on relationships,” Kolff said. “Education is not based on the latest Response to Intervention model or the latest standardized test that we come up with to give. It’s about the relationships you forge with them in order to get kids to learn.”
His second philosophy is developing quality relationships with his staff. He follows the example of the late Professor Thomas Sergiovanni, who believed that leaders are to be servants to their subordinate staff members.
“I really do believe that administrators have to be servants to their staff. How do I remove obstacles to allow teachers to do what they do best,” Kolff said. “It may be logistical, financial, training, or discipline. But how can I be a servant to the staff? They are the ones doing the heavy lifting, and they are the ones who the kids come to school for and spend most of their time with. So it’s serving staff members.”
Even though he’ll have “interim” as part of his title, Kolff said he will do the job as if he were staying for the long-term. He plans to be highly visible in the school, at school events and in the community.
In fact, that visibility is one of the traits for which Kolff is known. In 2011, a Janesville Gazette feature article about Kolff recognized his efforts to take photos at numerous school events and provide them to students and families free of charge. He has also offered to take senior photos, free-of-charge, of students in southern Wisconsin who had a serious financial need.
“That was very rewarding,” Kolff said. “I did that for kids who normally wouldn’t have a chance to experience that, and it was very fun.”
Kolff is looking forward to getting to know DDHS and its current students and families. He’ll start the job on Thursday or Friday, Jan. 29 or 30.
“There is a real feeling of connection to DDHS,” Kolff said. “Many staff were formerly students here. The community is connected to the school. There is a great scholarship foundation and awarding those scholarships at graduation is just phenomenal. There’s a really strong sense of community here.
“There is some nervousness, but I am excited about it.”
Both Kolff and Crist have been in education for more than three decades. Although they didn’t cross paths much as educators, they did sometimes on the gridiron in the late 1960s. Both were semi-pro football players — Crist for the Racine Raiders and Kolff for the West Allis Spartans. Crist recalled playing a game for the Spartans as an emergency “fill in” and playing on the offensive line next to Kolff during a league championship game.