Former drama teacher gets a second act at Natomas High School
After several years of running an award-winning drama program at Natomas High School, John Eick decided to take on a new role as principal. Since stepping into the job in 2008, Eick’s adapted the philosophies that made his classroom and plays so successful—laughter, pride and unity—and implemented them into the school as a whole. Also notable: Under Eick’s leadership, test scores at Natomas High School, which resumes classes next week, have risen to become some of the highest in the region.
How did you get your start in teaching?
I was living in Santa Cruz, surfing and living the life. I owned a little theater company at the time and was substitute teaching to pay the rent. When I packed up my theater company, I took off for Latin America. When I came back, a buddy of mine offered me a job interview as a stockbroker. So, I’m sitting at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in San Jose, and this guy tells me they would like to offer me the job. I’m looking at this guy, and he’s wearing a suit and tie. I’m thinking, this is the president of this branch, so the best I can ever do is become this guy. I looked at the guy and said, “I think I’m going to become a schoolteacher.”
What is your favorite thing about working with high-school students?
They are filterless. They say the craziest things, because they haven’t grown that adult filter yet. You’re hanging out, talking about something candid, and they roll out what I call “the teenage truth.” They’re hilarious, they’re honest. Teenagers I can read better.
What similarities are there between being an actor and being a principal?
Every time the curtain opens on a main-stage play, you never really know what is going to happen. That is what being a principal is like. Every day I wake up and plan for the day. The only thing that is consistent is the bell does ring, just like the curtain does open. After that, there is no telling.
During your time as principal, test scores at Natomas High have gone from being subpar to among the some of the highest in the area. What do you think you have done to cause this change?
I think we have changed the entire culture of the school. The culture of my drama class was a safe place. It was fun to be yourself and goof around. We had a mission. We believed in ourselves. I did the same thing for the school. We have given this school a belief system and purpose. We have given the students a culture that says, “We believe in something around here.” … It has given kids this rah-rah attitude: “I’m going to do it for my school. I’m going to do it for my principal. We are going to take these tests seriously.” The teachers are invested in collaboration. They are really working with the students. We aren’t letting students slip through the cracks.
What do you do to make school more enjoyable for the students?
We do in-class video announcements every day to help build our culture. We are always doing goofy things. The videos are always partially newsworthy and partly [consist of] little skits and little funny things.
How has the recent recession affected the way you perform your job as principal?
I think one of the hardest things to see is, because of the lack of funding, I think our community questions whether or not our schools are funded appropriately. What it does is [that] every child pulled out of my school to go to a charter school reduces the amount of money we get from the government. It is harder and harder to do what we do and celebrate the kids the way we celebrate them when you are laying off teachers and cutting programs.
How did you go from the classroom to administration?
My second son was just being born, and I was the drama teacher. Things were going well, and my principal came to me and said, “Would you like to be a vice principal? I have an opening coming up.” I said, “Absolutely not.” So I talked to my wife about it, and she said to think about it. At the time, I was working two side jobs, because the teaching gig wasn’t paying all the bills. I thought, “It pays a little more, but why would I want to leave the classroom?” So I started convincing myself that if I left the classroom and went into administration, I could turn the school into a place that was kind of like my classroom.
If you could live in a world from any play, what would it be?
It would have to be [Roald Dahl’s] Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Anybody who knows me knows I have a sweet tooth. I have been in and directed well over a hundred plays in my life, but there is something special about the magic of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.