BRIDGEWATER, NJ - He went a circuitous route to education, including stops in the National Guard and a sales career, but for newly hired Bridgewater-Raritan High School principal Charles Ezell, working in a school is where he belongs.
Ezell joined the district as of July 1, following the retirement of current principal Mark Morrell.
A graduate of Watchung Hills Regional High School, Ezell said he has always known of Bridgewater-Raritan, and used to swim against them. But he was never initially enamored with school in general.
“I was not a natural educator,” he said. “I have dyslexia, and growing up, I had a real aversion to school. It would not be too gentle to say that I loathed it.”
But a history teacher in high school changed his outlook.
“Whether he realized it or not, he convinced me that I wasn’t dumb because I was afraid I was,” Ezell said. “I admired him a great deal and said I want to be like that guy, I want to be a history teacher.”
“It changed my view of myself and my education,” he added.
After high school, Ezell joined the National Guard, and was a paratrooper in an infantry unit.
“I learned about teamwork and what strong leadership looks like,” he said. “I never deployed anywhere, I just trained.”
When he got out of the National Guard, he went to Raritan Valley Community College, before transferring to Rutgers University, where he was a dual major in history and philosophy. And then, for a short time, he tried sales.
“It wasn’t great,” he said. “I was successful, but I didn’t enjoy it.”
“I discovered that I’m a bit of a patriot, and I like the idea of civic service, whether in the military or through educating children,” he added. “That’s what got me up in the morning.”
After going alternate route to get his teaching certification, Ezell taught social studies at Orange High School for 11 years, and he also ran a peer leadership program that was some of his proudest work.
“It informed a lot of my view of the world in the sense that if you don’t tell people what to do, but you give them a target and provide them with support along the way, they will tend to execute better than you would have expected, or maybe better than they expected,” he said. “And if you are tolerant of failures and provide people with support so they don’t make the same mistakes twice, people tend to learn and grow.”
At the same time, Ezell said, he had assumed some informal leadership roles in Orange, and he decided that administration motivated him more than classroom teaching.
“What I enjoy about education is the ability to create conditions for success, which is my thing now,” he said. “That is what motivates me now, for students, for adults and for the community.”
“I thought about how I would achieve that and how I would have more impact, and I thought I could help by being in the administration,” he added.
Ezell went to the College of Saint Elizabeth for his masters in educational leadership, and then got a job as an assistant principal at James Caldwell High School.
“I learned a lot about administration, and about the nuts and bolts,” he said. “The systems were well-established, and as a result, it was fertile ground for learning.”
From there, he got a job as the assistant principal at Columbia High School, in Maplewood.
“The greatest thing I learned there is that good will matters,” he said. “People tend to be well-intentioned, and if you give them the opportunity to grow or explore, or say sorry, they will. But I also think people are scared of change, and Columbia High School helped me learn how to navigate that.”
“Change is never easy,” he added. “It’s not something that you can take lightly or be flippant about.”
Ezell said he has always admired BRHS, and when the principal opportunity opened up, he knew he had to go for it.
“I feel very fortunate for the route I have taken, and there is not a thing I would change,” he said. “Along the way, I’ve been able to foster relationships with people so I always have a deep well of people to call on. I will find someone who has dealt with any challenge.”
Being so new to the district, and with his tenure barely started, Ezell said he can’t yet speak to the challenges that the school will face in the coming years.
“But the school’s greatest strength is its tradition and its continuity,” he said. “The school is admired, and that is because it is a symbol of consistent strong execution at every level.”
Ezell said that all communities are facing constant challenges, and BRHS is not unique in that way.
“The ones we face are the challenge of change, and there tends to be a complexity of different interests,” he said. “I would say the changing demographics of the communities and responding to and being proactive in the support of changing communities is big.”
At this point, Ezell said, the nation is in a debate over the role of public education, who is educated, why and how we do it.
“That is our biggest challenge as a nation, and it’s at the individual school level, that we have to prepare our children for a world we don’t necessarily understand now, and certainly won’t in the distant future,” he said. “That’s a big part of what we have to do, we have to complete the mission of preparing our kids for life beyond school, but teachers are not trained in changing structures or changing the way we deliver education.”
“The other part is that there are no easy answers, and none of us are particularly tolerant of failure because we are talking about our children and their futures,” he added.
And on top of all that, Ezell said, is the social and emotional health of the students, and the epidemic of violence in schools.
“In my view, it is usually not people who are disconnected from school, for the most part it’s the community members and children who feel disconnected emotionally,” he said. “That’s where our work is.”
Ezell said communities can engage in political discourse, but his role is to serve the community.
“I am sensitive to who our children are, and making sure we are looking for the child who may not feel connected or loved, and make sure we are addressing that,” he said. “When you evaluate things and take them seriously, there tends to be resolution. The mistake is to downplay and minimize things.”
Ezell said he is a believer in the old adage of, “See Something, Say Something.”
“I’m not one who believes in hyperbolic stuff,” he said. “But if a child is engaged in conduct that would suggest they are having thoughts that are dangerous to themselves or others, let’s act on it and elevate it. If we are wrong, we say sorry.”
“But in my experience, I haven’t been wrong yet,” he added.
The way to do that, Ezell said, is to help families, teachers and students recognize what it looks like when kids are not connected to the school.
“And every time we do a drill or train or an after-action report, we have to have an honest report about what we didn’t do well, not because we want to get in trouble, but so we can do it well the next time,” he said. “That’s where the military was really good in that way, because it’s always about our performance.”
Ezell said he doesn’t believe it is difficult to connect with the students.
“The world has changed, but we haven’t,” he said. “Kindness is repaid, and I think kids are receptive to the ideas that you care about them, and you punish the act, not the actor.”
As he moves to BRHS, Ezell said he is excited to be part of a new community of people.
“I know they are great people, and I know I’m going to have fun,” he said. “I know there will be challenges and we will overcome them. And every day is going to be good.”
This story also appears in the July/August issue of The BReeze newspaper, out now!