As Carla Glawe reflected on her job one summer, she decided that being principal at Olney Elementary School was pretty awesome, but being cooped up in an office was not.
Just like that, she went mobile.
Glawe commandeered an old television cart, with the help of the school’s media specialist, and set it up with a laptop computer, a clipboard and pens, a walkie-talkie and a bottle of hand sanitizer. For a touch of personality, she decorated it with a Redskins theme.
Now, Glawe might be Montgomery County’s only principal who wheels around her school as a matter of routine — dropping into classrooms, striking up conversations with kids, chatting with teachers and staff. She spends so much time on her feet that she carries a change of shoes; at some point every day, her heels come off and her flats go on. In warm weather, it’s flip-flops.
“I want the kids to know who I am,” said Glawe, 42, in her second year as a principal in motion. “Staying in the main office, staying in my cubicle, didn’t work. I wasn’t with the kids.”
Montgomery school officials say Glawe’s approach is unusual but that circulating in schools — and having face time with students and staff — is an important part of being a principal and that administrators are given leeway to accomplish this in different ways.
For Glawe, the concept of on-the-move leadership has proved positive. As a steady presence in school hallways, she is more embedded in the life of the school, hearing and seeing things she might never otherwise come across.
One recent day, she dropped in on Jeanann Bowles’s fifth-grade math class, leaning in to hear two boys explain their thinking about how to add and subtract decimals.
She gave high-fives to kindergartners leaving for a field trip to a pumpkin patch.
She kept an eye out for mischief near a boys’ restroom, where toilets had been clogged lately.
She stopped near a third-grade hallway and was approached by parent Laura Stephens, who happened to be volunteering in the school, and discussed a concern regarding her daughter.
“If she was in her office, I wouldn’t have had that conversation with her,” Stephens said. “I was able to have a conversation off the cuff. I didn’t feel like I needed to make an appointment.”
Glawe says the benefit of spending her days near students and teachers — and the occasional parent — is not about managing crises, which are rare, but being approachable for small things that make a difference.
She recalled that a teacher flagged her down, asking that she come into a classroom. She wanted Glawe to hear her second-graders sing.
“If you were in your office, no one would say that to you,” Glawe said.
Josh Russell, PTA president at Olney Elementary, said that when he was a child, the principal was more distant. “You didn’t really see the principal,” he said, “and when you went to the principal’s office, it was not a good thing.”
At Olney, he said, his first reaction to Glawe’s approach was: “Wow, that’s a great idea.”
“It definitely gives her a lot more insight into the daily operations of the school,” Russell said. “It gives her real on-the-ground knowledge.”
Shortly after Glawe decided to go mobile in summer 2012, a new assistant principal, Cindy Chichester, arrived. She, too, decided to use a cart, hers adorned with a plush, blue dragon in honor of the school’s mascot.
“The kids get to see them, and just encounter them and have mini-conversations with them,” said MaryEllen Bombara, the school counselor. For the administrators, she said, one advantage is awareness. “They are taking the pulse of, ‘How are we doing today?’ ”
Glawe says that most days are pretty busy. But if she has downtime while making her rounds, she answers e-mail on her laptop or does paperwork that she keeps in a file folder. She regularly observes classrooms.
She is almost always on the lookout for classes that are quiet and orderly as they walk the halls on the way to “specials” such as art or music. She hands out paper slips called “hallway compliments” that get entered into an occasional raffle for extra recess.
One recent day, Glawe was at her four-wheeled desk, which was stopped near the kindergarten hallway, as a line of 5-year-olds walked by. One by one, students looked at her as they passed, some smiling, some exchanging hellos.
“Thank you for walking around my office,” she told them as they filed by.
On Mondays during football season, the Redskins are always a talking point. Her cart is accessorized with a Redskins pennant and team-decorated basket, and she is no mild fan. Still, the kids don’t hold back when her team falters.
They didn’t win, Mrs. Glawe, they tell her. Or on better days, they say, we won!
No one has complained about her mobile setup, Glawe said. She manages to work on the move four days a week, leaving one day for office-bound meetings.
But there are trade-offs. She usually doesn’t return calls during the day unless they are urgent; she calls back after school hours. For confidential conversations with students or teachers, she usually slips into an empty testing room.
Perhaps Glawe’s favorite story involves a first-grade boy who approached her one morning as she greeted students stepping off their buses.
“Mrs. Glawe,” the child asked, “didn’t you wear that skirt this week already?”
Glawe laughed. He was right. But she saw the moment as a mark of success.
“For a teacher, you might remember that,” she said. “You see that person for hours a day. But for a principal? It made me happy.”