When Dr. Laurie Mason, Ed.D. speaks about education, her passion and enthusiasm is obvious and contagious. With about 30 years of experience as both teacher and principal, Mason has seen the many changes that have occurred in education over the past decades, both positive and negative. Yet one thing is clear, when she retired as principal from Lawrence E. Jones Middle School in 2015, the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District lost one of its greatest champions.
Mason started her career in education in the early 1970s, working as a teacher for the Oak Grove School District in San Jose. After taking a hiatus from teaching to work in construction for almost 15 years, she returned to education, working as a court school teacher for the Sonoma County Office of Education in 1989. She eventually advanced to principal for the 13 court and community schools in Sonoma County – alternative schools for students seriously at risk who are experiencing difficulties in traditional schools or for incarcerated youth and juvenile wards of the court. It was this early experience that really formed who she became as an administrator.
“It [that experience] was really helpful because I learned tools that allowed us to reach and teach kids who are at risk that you can also use for kids that are not necessarily at high risk,” says Mason. “Part of that was working a lot with your hands and doing projects. It really got me into project-based learning early on. It also introduced me to restorative justice. We were working with our students on that - how you recover from mistakes. It really formed who I was as a person, a teacher, an administrator and as an educator.”
In 1999 Mason accepted a position as principal for Mountain Shadows Middle School in Rohnert Park, and felt she “came home,” staying there until the school closed in 2010. She formed a close-knit group with the faculty at Mountain Shadows and many of the staff followed her when she became the first principal at Lawrence E. Jones Middle School in Rohnert Park in 2010.
“I find when you get your faculty to work together and are consistent, it provides a great experience for early adolescents,” says Mason. “My philosophy has always been that you treat teachers as professionals, listen and try out their ideas and encourage some risk taking.”
She credits many of the unique and successful programs she and her staff started at both middle schools to this philosophy. At Lawrence E. Jones Middle School, for example, the staff implemented the “LJMS Cornerstones” of integrity, perseverance, discovery and service, as well as a merit program that rewarded students for good behavior and gave them a chance to recover from mistakes. This system, coupled with integrating consistency and routine (lessons learned from her time in the court and community schools), helped students understand expectations and consequences for their actions and gave them the tools needed for future decision making.
As Mason puts it, “We all make mistakes, it’s how we clean them up. There’s a consequence. We learn from our mistakes – that’s what learning is about. Learning is not about being perfect all the time.”
Mason describes herself as a “middle school person.” What many educators consider to be the most challenging years in a student’s academic career, she relishes, from getting to know the students’ families, to seeing them come in as children in 6th grade and grow and blossom into young adults by the time they are ready to move on to high school.
“Middle school early adolescents are curious, they’re compassionate, and I think they’re really courageous,” says Mason. “I really like [this age] because their humor starts to come. 6th graders are pretty literal but then you can see when they move from 7th to 8th grade, as their brains start grasping more abstract ideas, their sense of humor gets better.”
At the same time, she empathizes with parents and as principal often worked one on one with parents to support them and give them the tools for navigating through this often difficult time period. Mason has seen a lot of changes in our society over the past decades and witnessed how these changes affect students and their learning environment. Use of texting and social media by kids, as well as cyber bullying, are all concepts that are new to today’s parents and ones they need help guiding their children through.
Despite these challenges, as well as others such as funding issues and politicians instead of educators dictating what our children should be learning, Mason delighted in her time served in the education system.
“I enjoyed it tremendously,” says Mason. “I enjoyed the people I worked with in Cotati and Rohnert Park – they’re great people, great parents and great kids. I always chose people before paper. I loved getting to know the kids – they are some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.”
Not one to sit idly in retirement, Mason received training to work as a coach to school administrators through the Sonoma County Office of Education. She draws on her experience in providing a safe and supportive learning environment and teaches them how to build and support a team that will ensure the joy of learning to the students. She gets connected to a new administrator and meets with them twice a month to give them support and, as she puts it, “act as their life preserver.”
“After you’ve done so much it’s nice to be able to give back to somebody and help them,” Mason says.