Looking back, new Bryant Elementary School principal J.J. Lamb said he struggled in school and that his trajectory didn't point to eventually leading one.
But the teachers, coaches and friends who supported and empowered him set the foundation to make it possible.
Now he’s trying to serve that same role for the students at Bryant school, and pay tribute to his teachers along the way.
“In a way, I’m trying to repay them for what they did for me,” Lamb said.
Lamb was chosen last spring to replace former Bryant principal Nick Radley, who transferred to fill the vacant principal position at Four Georgians. A committee of parents, teachers and district administrators chose Lamb from a candidate pool of over 40 people for three open positions.
Looking ahead, Lamb aims to build the pride of Bryant school, bolster the already strong community and help students set goals that make the benefits of education tangible.
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Lamb is a fourth generation Helenan who attended Four Georgians elementary, C.R. Anderson Middle and Capital High schools before majoring in education at Carroll College. He said the roots he has in the community will help him be a better principal because he knows the background.
“I know about Bryant, I know about the Sixth Ward and I know how important this area is to the people that live here,” Lamb said. “The Sixth Ward is just a special place.”
He started as a part-time teacher at Helena High and got his first full-time education job at C.R. Anderson as an eighth grade industrial technology and sixth grade art teacher.
Then Lamb and his wife moved to Boise, Idaho, where he worked at a middle school. After two years, family brought the couple back to Helena and Lamb started teaching fourth grade at Warren elementary, where he would stay for the next decade.
Lamb said Warren principal Tim McMahon ended up serving as a kind of mentor for him.
From McMahon’s perspective, Lamb was a compassionate teacher who built relationships with students inside and outside the classroom. He exhibited what McMahon called a “true desire” to help children succeed.
“There’s a difference between saying you’d do anything for a kid and really doing it. And he’s one of those guys that really does it,” McMahon said.
Lamb studied under the principal and eventually began acting as the administrator on call if McMahon was out of the building.
Being able to work with every student and helping every kid appealed to Lamb, so he started looking for principal jobs. Eventually he found an assistant principal position in Billings at Orchard Elementary and he began his position there in the fall of 2014.
The school sits on the edge of Billings, and Lamb said it was the only elementary school in the district that had a vice principal to help run operations in the difficult and diverse environment.
About 400 students attended Orchard, and 100 percent of them qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch.
Lamb said he and the principal were in the classrooms interacting with students constantly, working to cut down on bullying and other behavior issues. They reached out to parents and strove to foster more parent involvement and a sense of community in the school.
Lamb took children to the shop at a nearby middle school, where each of the kids built a skateboard. The board gave the kids a tangible object of pride and accomplishment, along with providing them a fun mode of transportation to school every day.
Attendance started to improve, and at the end of the year some parents were telling school leaders it was their child’s best year ever.
For Lamb, the year was challenging but rewarding. It showed him the challenges and joys of working in a school with a high percentage of students who qualify for free or discounted lunch. Lamb said he grew as an educator and a person over the year.
“It really taught me not to judge people,” Lamb said.
“It’s up to me to say, ‘You’re going through a tough time. I’m here to help you and I’m here to help your kids,’” he added.
It was made more difficult because his wife and children lived in Helena. So he would work in Billings during the week and then commute home to Helena on the weekends.
When the principal positions in Helena opened, Lamb leapt at the opportunity to move back.
At Bryant, Lamb wants to build relationships with students. For kids going through a tough time, he hopes to build relationships with them by pulling them aside to fly a toy helicopter or some other fun activity, then use that as a door to discuss goals for the student.
Once they identify a goal, he can share the importance of education in reaching that objective.
“Pretty soon the kids understand that importance of … school,” Lamb said.
That’s the benefit of being a principal, Lamb said, he can work with any student that needs help.
“I’m just excited to be able to work with these kids, work with everybody and carry on the Bryant tradition,” Lamb said.
Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or email@example.com