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‘Once a Grizzly, Always a Grizzly’: Outgoing Principal Tim Devine Reflects on 9-Year Tenure

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Payton Principal Tim Devine (left) stands next to Assistant Principal David Adamji at the school’s 2020 drive-through graduation ceremony. (Photo by Ms. Greer)

By Will Foster ‘20

For months now the halls have been quiet at 1034 N. Wells. 

When Principal Tim Devine announced on February 11 that he would be leaving Payton at the end of this school year, citing a desire to return to teaching, few could have expected that the coronavirus pandemic would upend nearly every facet of daily life in the coming months. On March 17, Payton students began learning remotely. They have not returned to their school buildings since, beyond brief stops in early June to pick up supplies they left behind. 

“I love coming to school every day, and having 1,221 students and 124 adults, and we just mash up and do our things. That gives me so much joy,” Devine said from his office on a mid-May afternoon via Google Meet video chat. “We all understand what’s going on and the necessity of the school closure. But it does something to the soul when you can’t be with the people you love.”  

It’s an unfortunate ending to an illustrious tenure — the longest of any Payton principal since the school opened in 2000. After serving as Social Studies Department Chair at Northside College Prep for over a decade, Devine came to Payton in 2011. In the time since, he has presided over some of Payton’s biggest evolutions, most prominently the construction of the school’s west building, completed four years ago. Devine also added the enrichment period to the Payton school day; instituted the current block schedule; hired roughly two-thirds of Payton’s current faculty members; added 25 new courses; and implemented new projects toward racial equity. 

When asked about his favorite part of being Payton’s principal, Devine laughed. “Oh man, that’s like asking a kid in a candy store, ‘Which kind of candy do you like most?’” he said. “‘All of it’ is the answer.” 

“There’s a wonderful ethos, a spirit about the place, that is truly life-giving,” Devine said. “There’s a forward spirit of optimism about our community. There’s a togetherness of our values that permeates everybody.” 

“I thank the Payton community for all the love you have given me for nine years,” he said. “Once a Grizzly, always a Grizzly.”

By the time Devine began his tenure at Payton on July 1, 2011, Payton was already considered one of Illinois’ best public high schools. Still, Devine wanted to make it even better. “I knew it to be an energized place, but I also knew it to be a place that needed some growth and evolution,” he said. “At this point, nine years hence, we have developed systems that are really student-centered. We have brought student voice into so many aspects of important decision-making I inherited a special place, and I think we leave it even more special and more dynamic in so many ways.”

Devine’s tenure has not been without its challenges. Over the years, he was forced to deal with allegations of inappropriate behavior levied against multiple faculty members, ultimately resulting in the removal of the offending teachers. Meanwhile, Devine constantly struggled to secure adequate funding for Payton to maintain its numerous programs and course offerings in the face of what he called “radical budget cuts.”  Payton often must rely on significant private fundraising to supplement its government funding. 

“Prior to four years ago, when our west building opened up, we had 18 percent fewer teachers on campus than when I started in 2011, because of those budget cuts,” Devine said. “So the teachers’ class sizes, steadily over the first six years of my administration, were tiptoeing up every year until we hit some tipping points where I was literally yelling at the mayor, yelling at the governor, saying, ‘This can’t happen. This is not equitable.’”

“We made it work,” Devine said. “Every one of my budget appeals was ultimately fruitful. But to get those appeals accomplished, it took about two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of my time, nearly full-time work, asking for 400, 600, 950 thousand additional dollars each year that were cut — asking leaders to replace those.” 

“That’s a lot of time,” he said. “I have a cost-benefit analysis, or opportunity cost, mindset. What else can I be doing with my time? So focusing so much energy on those budget appeals every year for so many months means that in the aggregate of nine years of budget appeals, I’ve spent probably the better part of a year and a half of my life just arguing for budget appeals. They’ve been successful, we’ve made them work, but it’s mind-numbing to think how else I could have been spending my time to support students.”

Indeed, even as his tenure as principal neared its end, Devine continued to work on the school’s finances: he said he had a call with someone in Springfield about next year’s budget after the Paw Print interview was over.

Devine’s Payton tenure was bookended by two lengthy Chicago Teachers Union strikes, in 2012 and 2019. “Strikes are inherently disruptive,” Devine said. “It was stressful for teachers, it was stressful for parents and stressful for students, and it was my job to help people through that. So that was very challenging.” At the same time, Devine expressed solidarity with Payton’s teachers. “We get along so well,” he said. “There was no tension between us and the teachers.” 

Devine reached over to grab a book from his shelf: a copy of Walter Payton’s autobiography, Never Die Easy. “After the first strike, the teachers came together and presented me with this book and all of our faculty signed the inside of it, sending love and all of that for my support of them during the strike,” he said, holding up the inside cover. 

Devine is generally well-liked among the Payton community, and when his email letter announcing he would be stepping down — with the subject line “Evolutions” — arrived just after school let out on February 11, sounds of surprise and disappointment from students could be heard throughout the library and first-floor atrium. Already, Payton’s Director of Student Engagement Erica Bauer had left to work for the Chicago Bulls, and Vice Principal David Adamji had announced he would be leaving to pursue a new position as English Department Chair at Glenbrook South at the end of the year. (Devine has said the departures were unconnected.) 

Before Devine left, however, it was expected that he would get a final few months to savor the Payton experience. But all that was upended by the pandemic. “We had so much coming this spring to help students continue to live the vibrant lives that they lead, and we had so many ideas and plans with our faculty about evolving our curriculum and our pedagogies, and I was looking forward to that,” he said. “And our athletic teams … I’m sad that they’re missing an entire season of a sport they love.” 

Senior events, too, were mostly canceled. Graduation normally takes place at Navy Pier; this year, graduation was drive-through, and Devine delivered his commencement speech in front of a video camera in an empty room. “I’m so saddened for our seniors that we won’t have that in-person series of events — senior lunch, graduation, prom, all of that — to celebrate together,” Devine said. “Those things that are typical in the lifeblood of the Payton spring are so exciting to me. And I’m just really sad we’ve missed out on all of that.”

Devine’s successor, selected by Payton’s Local School Council in early May, will be Melissa Resh, currently an assistant principal at Lake View High School. When asked what advice he has for Resh, Devine’s answer was simple: “Make Payton even better.” He recalled something former Northside principal Jay Lalley had said to the Northside faculty at his retirement party in 2007. “He said, ‘I’m coming back to Northside in 10 years, and I better not see a lot of you here, and Northside better be a very different place,’” Devine said. “Here’s somebody who took nothing — Northside was nothing, it didn’t exist in 1999 — and he built it to one of the top high schools in the United States in eight years’ time, and he was saying, ‘I want it to change.’ And that is my greatest prayer for Payton, that it continues to evolve.” 

Devine noted that while Payton is by many measures an extremely successful school, it still has plenty of room to grow. 

“Extrinsic data tell us we’re doing everything right,” Devine said. “Our graduation rate, our college matriculation rate, our AP scores, our SAT scores for every group from our entire student population … are all higher than any other school in the state of Illinois … We should be proud of that. It’s a lot of work for you students to engage meaningfully and well in rigorous honors and AP curriculum, and it’s really hard for our teachers to teach that well.” 

“But inside of Payton we all know that it’s a complex human organization, and there are things that can evolve and we can do better with,” he said. “That’s part of the nature of any human organization — it’s constantly looking at what are our successes, where are we strong, [but also] let’s have the courage to really unpack those areas where we need to continue to grow. We’ve had that courage over the last nine years, and I fully expect that the community is going to continue to do that. Ms. Resh will lead the community through those evolutions. And when I come back to Payton 10 years from now, I want to see a place that is different than where we see it right now in 2020.”

The Payton of 2020 is certainly different from the Payton that greeted Devine in 2011. Courses offerings have expanded significantly. “There are 31 percent more courses — like Biotechnology, AP Gov, Dance — that didn’t exist nine years ago, and we started those,” Devine said. “We found budget, we hired people, we trained people.” 

The current block schedule also did not exist when Devine arrived. “In the schedule that I inherited, every Monday and Friday was an eight-period day, Tuesdays and Wednesdays were block days, and Thursdays were mostly seminar days,” he said. “It was awful, because most of the quizzes and exams fell on Friday, on that eight-period day, so students would literally have four or five, six, seven quizzes and exams in one day, which changed the culture of seminar day from being this chill, relaxing, fun day to, ‘I’ve got to go home at 12:30 and study for all these exams.’ So we changed that.” 

Now, Payton alternates “blue” and “orange” days, with seminar days every other Wednesday. Non-seminar days conclude with an enrichment period for clubs and teams to meet, which Devine instituted a year into his tenure. 

“We’ve evolved this community in so many positive ways, that I truly think Payton is better now than it’s ever been,” Devine said. “By any metric [such as] the faculty we have. One of the great honors of my life is being able to have hired 69 percent of Payton’s current faculty … We have hired some amazing people.”

Now, Devine is doing something his school’s seniors do each spring: move on. “25% of you have the gross audacity to leave us every year — you graduate,” Devine said with a laugh. “And it is painful. Graduation night is one of the most mixed-emotion nights I always have as a principal … People I’ve come to know, respect, and care for are leaving my daily environment … So some people wonder, why would anybody want to leave Payton? Well, again, 25% of our students leave us even though they love it. So it’s okay for us adults to leave something we love.”

“It has always been my interest and intent to graduate myself from Payton when the school is as strong and as healthy as it could be,” Devine said. “And now is that time.” He added, “Yes, there is more to do — there is always more to do in any human organization. But we’ve climbed many mountains.” 

Devine said that shortly before the teacher strike last fall, during a rare moment of free time one school day, he decided to take a walk around the building and observe some of the classes in progress. “I popped into random classes — about eight or nine different teachers’ classes,” he said. “When I walked into these rooms for just a handful of minutes, just to stop in, I saw teachers who were dynamically and energetically engaged with students, and the students were learning, and you could just see the kinetic learning going on.”

“I went home that night and my lovely wife asked me, ‘How was your day?’ And I said it was honestly one of the worst days I’ve had in nine months or nine years, because that used to be me,” Devine said. Although Devine still taught a section of AP U.S. Government in addition to his duties as principal, it was just not the same. 

“I used to be that type of teacher, engaging with 140 students every day, lighting their brains and minds on fire … And I said to my wife, ‘I want that back in my life,’” he said. “So, what am I going to be doing next? I’m going to be returning back full-time to the social studies classroom.”

Devine has not revealed where or when that return might take place. In the short-term, he said he will be engaged in some political work related to the current U.S. presidential race, as well as “working with some foundations that are starting up.” Devine insists, however, that he plans to find a teaching job eventually. 

“It’s an odd trajectory for a principal to go to the classroom,” he acknowledged. “Some people see it as a demotion. But if we truly believe that classrooms are where the student growth occurs most because of that relationship between teacher and student, then any educator worth their salt should want that to be where they spend most of their time. So, I would argue principal is a demotion from being a teacher.” 

“Society doesn’t see it that way because we’re an upwardly mobile group,” Devine continued. “The principal of Payton is naturally supposed to go to Central Office and be an advisor to [Chicago Public Schools CEO] Janice Jackson, or to go work for the mayor or something,” he said. “I worked for [former Mayor] Rich Daley for a number of years — I was a policy and budget advisor. I’ve lived that big life, I’ve done those policy things, and I loved every second of it, but where I want to write the next chapter of my career is in the classroom with students, [although] I will also continue to do things outside of education.”

Now, Devine’s successor Resh is going through the same transition process he did nine years ago after being offered the principal contract by the Local School Council. On the day of the Paw Print interview in mid-May, Devine had met with Resh for five hours. They were set to meet again a few days later.

“I know, transitions from one leader to another, that’s a big thing for a community,” Devine said. “I could not be more honored to pass the principalship off to someone like Ms. Resh, who will be fantastic for our community … She’s bright, she’s value-centered, and she’s going to continue to take Payton into new, uncharted territory, which will be great for our community. She’s got me as her biggest cheerleader.” 

Payton will doubtless feel very different without Devine. For nearly a decade, he has been there for every major event in the Payton community — the good and the bad. “There have been some tragedies unfortunately in the last nine years,” Devine said. “I’ve had to help lay to rest two Payton students who’ve passed away. That’s heart-wrenching. But our community bound together. And that sense of community is what carries me.”

“When I think back on my nine years, that’s the memory. Just what a powerful, loving community,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to take with me.” 

Mimi Hamada ‘20 contributed reporting to this story.

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