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Assistant Principal Vincent: More than the man behind the computer
February 3, 2022
Assistant Principal Willie Vincent came to Grady High School in Aug. 2010. Since then, he’s worked tirelessly year-round, creating students schedules, sending mass emails and helping the school run smoothly. When he’s not behind his computer screen, he’s working hard to cultivate a positive community between staff and students.
A typical day for Vincent starts at 2:30 a.m. (his quiet time), then to the gym at 4 a.m. He gets to Midtown at 6:30 a.m. to answer emails and prepare for the day ahead. When he’s not working, Vincent can be found at the recording studio, pursuing his music hobby.
“It’s a fun life, but then again I do a lot on weekends and holidays because I like to give students the impression that I don’t do much,” Vincent said. “When people see me in the hallways and the cafeteria, people think that I’m just chill. But, students are not supposed to see me in my office — they’re not supposed to know where my office is because I am supposed to always be accessible here. Most people don’t know [where my office is], and that’s how I like it.”
Prior to Midtown, he worked at several schools in Alabama and Georgia including George Washington Carver and Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, AL and North Springs and Riverwood High School in Atlanta.
Vincent was born in Montgomery, AL in a predominantly Black neighborhood, sheltered from racial diversity. His parents were strict and did not allow him to leave the house other than for school and church, partly because of concern from threats of the Civil Rights Movement.
“The civil rights issues of that time were very much alive and well,” Vincent said. “My parents assumed you would be killed every time you left the house in Montgomery.”
Growing up in the country and being kept from clubs and sports led Vincent to view teaching as an exciting career choice.
“Everyone either farmed or taught school, and I tell most people to look at me, and you’ll realize I probably didn’t have the proclivity for farming,” Vincent said. “School teachers in the country drove really nice cars and lived in nice ranch-style houses, so I said, ‘You know what, I think that school teaching thing might work.’”
Vincent was an A-plus student throughout elementary and middle school. It was not until high school when he started to face issues academically.
“I was just a nerd — I was socially awkward, very introverted, but I liked school because it got me out of the house,” Vincent said. “By the time I got to high school, I started experimenting with that group of people who were not excelling.”
Though he struggled some during his freshman year of high school, Vincent found that his personality and public speaking abilities alone were enough to excel.
“I bounced back, pulled myself up, and then I realized I didn’t really have to work hard,” Vincent said. “I’m a talker, and as [Midtown principal] Dr. Bockman says about me, ‘Mr. Vincent will make up an answer even if he doesn’t know it.’ That’s one gift I had — I remember having to do book reports and the kids would struggle, but I didn’t even have to read the book. I would just look at the back of the book, and I could stand up and pontificate.”
Vincent glided through school and attended Alabama State University. He has degrees in education, ministry and music. There, he went on to teach as an adjunct instructor but later quit after realizing high school students were more enjoyable to work with than college students.
He continued his education at Auburn University-Montgomery where he got a degree in Secondary English. The culture and environment of Auburn was a shock to Vincent.
“That’s where my eyes opened up to diversity because I had always gone to all-Black schools and to be in a classroom with people who were not from my neighborhood, at the Masters level, freaked me out,” Vincent said. “Just the conversations that I wasn’t ready to contribute to, the level of vocabulary that somehow I missed.”
The transition from smaller schools and universities to Auburn, a large state school, was a surprise to Vincent, providing a challenge and forcing him to work hard in ways he had not needed to before.
“I remember hearing one person use the word ‘quagmire’ and I thought ‘What’s a quagmire?’ So I would just write on my little sheet of paper, every word that I would hear and not readily recognize, go home, look it up and make it a part of my working vocabulary,” Vincent said.
One of Vincent’s biggest role models growing up was choir director and Alabama State University professor Dr. Kay Pace, who taught Vincent to push himself to work to be the best teacher, and later administrator for all students, not just those who needed it the most.
“Dr. Pace took the kids nobody believed could produce, and she got propitious results,” Vincent said. “She took all the kids from the hood, and they all wound up singing with scholarships, singing with the opera — I’m one of Kay Pace’s students.”
Beginning of Administration
After teaching music for a little bit, Vincent went back to school to pursue a degree in Secondary English after finding out that teaching music was not what he wanted to do.
“I was standing in a class during my student teaching, and I asked the students at that high school to read something and the reading levels were really deplorable,” Vincent said. “I decided that day that I would go back to school to become a Language Arts teacher. I actually taught music, music theory, keyboard and high-school English simultaneously.”
Before becoming an administrator, Vincent was strongly against the concept of administration as a whole. He did not even consider it as a career until he was thrown into a situation on the fly one day.
“I never wanted to be an administrator,” Vincent said. “I was a part of that coalition who saw administration as the dregs of education, the real problem of education. I was so happy as a teacher.”
Vincent had gone back to school for several other degrees including a masters level Educational Specialist (Ed.) and leadership certification (Ed.) which qualified him for administration duties.
“I had the certification, and there was a problem at school that day,” Vincent said. “The principal wasn’t there; there were no administrators on-site, and two counselors were having some kind of problem getting along. They called me down there and sat in the principal chair, and we resolved the issue, and I thought to myself, ‘Huh, maybe I could do this’ and that’s how it started.”
In 1996, Vincent was offered an Assistant Principal job at George Washington Middle School in Montgomery, AL, but was turned off by the seemingly perfectness of the school. Instead, he found himself working at Robert E. Lee High School, where diversity was much more prominent.
“Lee offered something that almost looked like what Grady used to exemplify, where you had children from all backgrounds and ethnicities,” Vincent said. “I had the gang-bangers and the kids from the hood with the children who lived in million-dollar houses, all in the same school.”
He enjoyed the challenge and tackled problems head-on at Robert E. Lee High School.
“There were a lot of gang-problems,” Vincent said. “I had never applied [for the Assistant Principal job], but the principal offered it to me on the fly the week before school started, and was like ‘What are you going to do with all the gang-bangers,’ and I was like ‘Mm, okay, we’ll figure it out as we go.’”
Church and Music
Along with school, church was one of the only activities Vincent was allowed to attend as a child. There were no school dances or sports, so he committed himself to playing piano, the organ and singing for church.
“I started playing piano in church when I was five years old,” Vincent said. “I played by ear, and I didn’t learn to read music until I was in sixth grade, and they forced us to play the recorder.”
Vincent credits church, where he is an ordained minister, and piano for his development as a person and as something that keeps him grounded.
“It gives me an outlet so I am not always consumed by school — it gives me that something else,” Vincent said. “As an ordained minister, I had to go through my own counseling and learn how to deal with my own issues. What we learn is that if we don’t deal with our issues, we preach our issues to a congregation. We assume that since we’re struggling with it, it is everyone’s struggles.”
Along with affecting him as a person outside of school, Vincent thinks that church has changed him for the better as an administrator.
“It made me a different kind of administrator,” Vincent said. “I remember being an administrator pre-seminary, when I was in Fulton County versus post. It is about connecting to the heart before you can connect to the head. Children really do need to know that you care about them. It’s knowing that not everything needs to result in a punishment.”
Reverend Richard Winn, who has known Vincent for over 16 years through church, thinks that his ability to resolve issues and connect with his faith is one of the reasons he makes such a good administrator, teacher and minister.
“I think that he is so connected with his spirituality and that never leaves him even in his work, his church or his personal life, and it makes things good,” Winn said. “If I had a major issue in life, he would be the first person that I would go to, because he listens well, and I’ve never seen him mad either, I need to make him mad sometimes.”
Along with church, Vincent’s best friend of over 35 years and Montgomery Public Schools music teacher, Henry Terry thinks music provides an outlet that keeps Vincent going.
“With the daily demand it can become somewhat cumbersome at work for things that you can not immediately fix,” Terry said. “Music is so inspirational; it’s therapy, and it’s just a way to relieve a lot of the pressures of a full day of work and helps to gain the momentum to go back and tackle the problem or work. Music is like a daily vitamin, something you have to have.”
Not only does Vincent play piano for church, but he also plays during graduation ceremonies and occasionally with the chorus program. Midtown registrar and friend Chinaester Holland has worked with him on graduation ceremonies over the years.
“We work together on graduations because I am the announcer, and he is the graduation coordinator,” Holland said. “When you hear him play that piano and sing, it’s just melodies from heaven.”
Other teachers agree that Vincent’s skill on the piano is impeccable, and his connection to church adds to his persona at Midtown.
“As a man of faith, Mr. Vincent draws strength from his service and participation in his religious activities,” Social Studies teacher Mary Van Atta said. “Church and playing the piano are the ‘gas’ that Mr. Vincent puts in his tank to keep him grounded in what is truly important, and he is able to give back to his vocation as a school administrator. He gets such joy from playing piano and participating in church, which enables him to be joyful for the rest of his life.”
Impact on Midtown
Since arriving at Grady in 2010, Vincent has witnessed many changes. Before he arrived, there were particular challenges with scheduling, a task that Vincent now takes on almost completely on his own.
“In my first year, we were still leveling classes and changing schedules the second week in October,” Vincent said. “Kids would just be sitting in line waiting, and because I had worked in North Springs, I saw scheduling done very well at a school with more than 2,000 kids. We would do all of the scheduling over the summer so that students had a perfect first day. The first day at North Springs everybody was in class, nobody was in the hall, and nobody had a hole in their schedule. So, we brought that mindset to Midtown. We were going to be able to pass out books on the first day and teachers will teach on the first day — we are not going to have children waiting in line.”
Though a lot of work, Vincent sees the process of scheduling more as a one man job.
“My rationale for doing them myself is that people are really busy, and I want them done when I want them done,” Vincent said. “I want everyone to have their schedules May 1st or something close to that, and the only way that I can guarantee that that happens is if I get here at 4 o’clock in the morning, work holidays, work all of spring break and weekends, because it is important to us that those things are done.”
Science teacher Jormell Cofield believes that since Vincent arrived, scheduling has changed in a positive way, making it easier for students and teachers.
“He does scheduling without any kind of angst, which is a huge undertaking,” Cofield said. “Of course, he has some partners that assist him, and they work as a great team, but I remember when he took over scheduling and the master schedule, things were very streamlined, and we became more efficient.”
Aside from creating the schedules, Vincent also took charge of diversifying AP and Honors classes.
“I think one of the biggest things then that bothered us, not just me, is that we could walk down the halls and look through the window and tell an honors class from an on-level class based on race,” Vincent said. “That was one of the first things that we all tackled.”
Those changes were solidified after Principal Dr. Betsy Bockman arrived in 2016, and created a system to have as many students as possible in honors and AP classes.
“Dr. Bockman came in, and she sealed the deal,” Vincent said. “She’s a numbers person — back in those days, teachers would decide who went to honors and who went to on-level, and I remember looking at that first sheet thinking, ‘Those are some of the kids who I know should be in honors.’ Dr. Bockman said ‘Let’s just make it a number,’ and that just made it clean and took away the sort of randomness.”
Now, out of the 1,530 students at Midtown, 811 are enrolled in at least one AP class, a number much higher than before.
Many staff and students agree that one of Vincent’s most defining traits and a reason why he makes a great administrator is his constant positivity.
“He always has a positive attitude, even when he is tired or stressed,” AP Human Geography teacher Chris Wharton said. “Somehow, he manages to handle all of his tasks with grace and thoroughness — and that Mr. Vincent charm.”
Others acknowledge that Vincent’s specific style of administration stands out because of the lack of punishment and abundance of care.
“He understands how to build relationships where you feel like you have that support that is just true support — nothing will ever be punitive with him,” Cofield said. “It’s about the greater good and how do we get to the end goal, which is student achievement and supporting students.”
Sophomore Owen Cummings agrees and believes that Vincent’s character makes him approachable.
“I’ve never had a long conversation with him, but if I ever needed to go to an administrator about a problem, I would go to him,” Cummings said. “He’s always outside during lunch and very approachable.”
Junior Sophia Wang agrees and thinks that Vincent’s willingness to help students solve problems is one of the aspects that makes him stand out.
“Even if he doesn’t know exactly how to help, he has referred me to other people who can help, and it was always really easy and nice,” Wang said. “Whenever you need him, you can email him, and he’ll be really fast, and he’ll just help you.”
Vincent thinks one of the most important parts of working at schools is strong student-staff relationships.
“I think it’s all about forging those positive connections — that’s why I get really excited every time the bell rings,” Vincent said. “I’m standing at the door letting kids in the building, because that’s just a chance to show administrators as more than being the people you see when you’re in trouble. I pop into classrooms all the time, just to see kids at their best and continue to show people that I care about them at their best, and I will do everything I can to facilitate them reaching their optimal level.”
During the 2020-2021 school year, Vincent’s tenth year at the school, when Midtown was primarily virtual, he had a hard time connecting with students, and even teachers, outside of the building.
“I was zooming into classes, trying to say that I visited classes — it was torture,” Vincent said. “The very first time we were introducing students, I knew there was a lot of fear from staff, but I was just so excited. It took all I could in January, when some students came back in-person, not to go into classes, and to not stop kids in hallways to have conversations.”
Terry recognizes Vincent’s commitment to students’ success and sees it as an inspiration for his own teaching career.
“He’s a phenomenal person, a great administrator, and he’s very passionate about what he does,” Terry said. “He goes out of his way to make things happen for the students, all students, he loves them and sees their potential. He sees things that they don’t even realize. I think his ability to see a student five years from where they are is one thing that keeps me in awe with him.”
Another aspect of student life that Vincent sees as crucial is exposure to as many clubs, sports and programs as possible. This comes from Vincent’s own experience in high school, where he was sheltered from a lot of opportunities.
“It’s important to me that all of the students get all that they can,” Vincent said. “On the 9th-grade pathway form, there are connections to all clubs, videos and sports. It’s informed that every child finds his or her place because nobody helped me do that in high school.”
Math teacher Gina Robinson recognizes Vincent’s hard work and dedication to the school and thinks he is the perfect representation of what Midtown is at its core.
“What I admire most about Mr. Vincent is his dedication to the growth and wellbeing of the students here at Midtown High School,” Robinson said. “He sees the potential of all students and encourages them to be their best. His genuine concern for the students is obvious, so they trust him and feel that they have an advocate here at the school. Mr. Vincent is often the first person to arrive in the morning and the last one to leave. He attends most sporting events and is instrumental in ensuring that major events like schedule distribution and diplomas are distributed. He is Midtown.”
History and theater teacher Lee Pope agrees and sees Vincent as a backbone of Midtown.
“Mr. Vincent is a worker — he is efficient and motivated, and he is truly here for the good of the students and staff,” Pope said. “He does the heavy lifting and makes everyone’s life easier. We often get emails from Mr. Vincent in the wee hours of the morning where he is still working on one of his many projects. To me, one of the most important things about him is that he does it all with a smile and friendly word. He is one of the most helpful and caring people, with whom I have had the pleasure of working in my 25 years of teaching.”
Even after more than 10 years of working at Midtown, Vincent still finds excitement in going to school and seeing teachers, students and staff every day.
“My positive attitude just comes from the fact that I am doing what I love,” Vincent said. “Everyone can’t say ‘I wake up every morning at 3 o’clock excited about kids, excited about the energy.’ I still get a rush every time I walk in a school building — there’s something crazy about that.”