David Stirrat, 47, stepped into the principal’s job at Petaluma High last week, bringing experience as a public school teacher and administrator as well as an appreciation for the twists and turns life takes.
He earned degrees in international relations at American University and journalism at Northwestern University and worked at the Washington Post before switching to teaching.
He earned a teaching credential at Sonoma State University, and taught kindergarten at Stuart Hall for Boys in San Francisco, elementary grades at Montessori de Terra Linda in San Rafael, and English in Brentwood and at Casa Grande High School.
Stirrat has been assistant principal at Petaluma High since 2008.
Did you know you were going to be a teacher as a college freshman?
It’s interesting to look back at the paths we select in our 20s that guide us to where we are in our 40s. At the heart of it all, when I was in college, I was interested in making the world a better place. I chose international relations as my major. I had grown up in Jamaica and was looking for ways to connect the U.S. with the Third World.
How did you go from international relations to teaching kindergarten?
There was a job opening, and I had a car payment. It was fun, and I found that education creates better minds. It’s creative and rewarding. I made a career of it because it was fascinating to see minds grow and because working with other teachers, parents and the community is an endlessly rewarding experience. Well, most of the time.
When you first became a teacher, did you ever see yourself as a principal?
In 1980, I was a freshman at a tiny college in western Massachusetts. My roommate was a burly, fresh-faced guy named Buc who said he was from a place called Petaluma. I had only seen Petaluma on ABC Wide World of Sports during wrist-wrestling shows.
Later, in the 1990s after I had moved to San Francisco, my wife and I drove up to Petaluma where she was applying for a teaching job at La Tercera Elementary. We loved the picturesque downtown and the ranches and farms nearby.
At the time, I had no idea I would teach in Petaluma or become the principal of Buc’s old high school. Buc is now a physicist with a Ph.D., smashing atoms at Stanford. There’s no way to predict how we’ll turn out. That’s why we all need a few chances in life.
How do schools in Jamaica differ from ours?
I attended school there K-12. The system is certainly different. One of America’s distinct strengths is its goal that all citizens achieve at least a high school diploma. In Jamaica, the exam taken during what would be the fifth grade categorizes students; only a certain caliber move on to the secondary world.
In America, the challenge of high schools is to educate all in an equitable manner when the range of ability is wide. Sometimes, comparisons to other countries do not take into account the difference in who is being educated and who is being tested.
Heavyweight boxers never seem to know when to hang it up. How about teachers?
The vast majority of teachers do stellar work throughout their careers. Students and parents keep us all honest, and it’s pretty obvious if a teacher is letting the team down.
It’s always interesting to see the young energy of a first or second year teacher interact with the wisdom of a 20-year veteran; together, they move mountains. I have benefitted from working with the energy of a young colleague as well as the insight of a veteran.
Unlike boxing, there are no last big paydays waiting for us.
— Sheldon Bermont