SWANSEA — No one can accuse Brian McCann of phoning it in.
McCann, principal at Joseph Case High School, is retiring at the end of the current school year after 18 years on the job and 35 years working at the school. In that time, he’s gone viral for his parody music videos, acted in productions by the school’s theater department (he’s fresh off a run as Elle Woods’ father in “Legally Blonde”) and has begun each day, for years, by standing outside and saying good morning to students as they come in, greeting most of the school’s 540 students by name.
“I’ve always been about relationships first,” he said.
In 1987, McCann had recently finished earning a master’s degree in journalism when a vice principal from the high school, his alma mater, called him offering him a job as a substitute English teacher, a role that became a long-term substitute and later a full time position.
McCann said he never planned to become a teacher, but he loved it right away. He remembers being disappointed when the weekend rolled around each week. He wouldn’t be done with school at 2:30, instead coming back at night to direct their theater productions.
“You know when you just know something’s right for you? It was just right,” he said. “There were tremendous possibilities each day for making a difference, making a connection.”
After 12 years as a teacher, he spent four years as assistant principal before becoming principal.
McCann has garnered plenty of attention over the years, in part because of the effusive energy he brings to his position. One of the parody music videos he’s starred in, about a snow day announcement, earned national media attention.
Oftentimes, schools are featured in the media because of something bad, like an on-campus threat, he said, or because of sports teams and little else.
“Joseph Case High School is taking control of how it tells its own story,” he said.
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Positive sign Thursdays
He also helped launch an international social media trend with #positivesignthursday.
Six or seven years ago, McCann explains, he saw something on social media about a principal near Chicago who stood outside holding a sign with a positive message to greet students.
Inspired by that idea of starting students’ day with some positive affirmation, McCann stood outside one Thursday morning the following September with a printed 11-by-7 sign that read “you are fabulous.” He felt vulnerable, and thought maybe students would roll their eyes, he said.
But instead, the reaction was positive.
“The kids got off the bus and they smiled at me and said ‘thank you,'” he said, adding that parents were honking and waving at him. “The following Thursday, kids were saying, ‘Are you gonna hold the sign today?’”
He started doing the same thing every week, cycling through signs with messages like “you sparkle” and “you are strong.”
“It costs no money, yet it had an enormous impact on school culture,” he said. “It says we are student-centered, we are a positive place, we are risk-takers… we’re not afraid to tell kids how important they are.”
Other principals as far away as Canada and Israel have picked up on the trend of spreading positivity every Thursday morning. It shows the role that school leadership can play in fostering a positive environment, he said.
“We’re from a little town here. But, we have a national footprint,” he said.
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Navigating the changing education standards
One big challenge for him early in his career was navigating the school accreditation process, which comes every 10 years. He came aboard as principal shortly after the school received a “devastating” accreditation report with a “laundry list” of changes that had to be made, he said.
Much of it was related to changing education standards. The school had to navigate new standards that would mix students of various academic levels in the same classes, for example. Some schools simply did nothing to meet the standards, but Case worked out its own model to get it done, he said, a point of pride.
“Most schools couldn’t figure it out, but we did,” he said.
McCann said he’s baffled when people ask him if he’s relieved to be retiring soon, or if he’s “winding down” as he enters his last weeks after nearly two decades in the school’s top job.
“I’m not only not winding down,” he said. “I’m thinking of ways to be more fabulous next week.”
As much as he loves his job, he feels it’s time to move on. The pressures of the pandemic certainly played a role, he said.
“There were a lot of people demanding things,” he said.
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What the future holds, for Case and for McCann
But mostly, it just feels like it’s time. Current Vice Principal Chris Costa is poised to step up as principal.
McCann, who will be 60 in September, said while he’s not sure what he’ll do next, he can see himself staying in the field of education. He loves speaking at conferences and leading professional development, and he’s recently heard from a book publisher.
“I’m looking for my next adventure,” he said.
McCann has lived in Rehoboth since the 1990s. But he’ll be back in Swansea at some point, for football games and theater productions. After all, it would be hard to stay away.
“Everything that’s good that’s happened in my life happened through Joseph Case High School,” he said.
Audrey Cooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.