By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on July 22, 2020
When the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly closed school buildings in late March, First Flight Middle School students and staff members began opening up their mailboxes to find an uplifting and encouraging message waiting for them from Principal Diane Childress.
Childress, who took over the principal’s post at First Flight Middle two years ago and has been a friendly face in hallways ever since, has made it a goal to personally write notes to each of the school’s 742 students and 82 staff members in an effort to bring a smile to their faces during a turbulent time.
A little less than halfway through that task, Childress is still penning the handwritten notes and stamping envelopes in hopes to reach everyone by the end of summer. And some students have even followed Childress’s lead and reciprocated the gesture by writing notes, cards and emails back to their principal to thank her and let her know how they are doing.
For rising eighth-grader Annie Coyle, receiving the letter from Childress was a “wonderful surprise,” she said. “It made me feel happy she took the time to write to me individually.”
Her favorite part of the note, Coyle said, was when Childress explained that she was taking the time to write to everyone. “I thought that was very sweet because trying to adjust and create a new normal has been difficult for everyone.”
Letter writing, the First Flight Middle School principal said, has always been a part of her life and her teaching style. Growing up with parents and grandparents who valued the practice, she inherited the trait and encouraged it among the students she taught. And with so much of children’s focus on digital tools and phones these days, Childress noted that written communication through notes and letters has become a lost art.
“I became a teacher and educator to make a difference in the lives of students, and a principal to support teachers,” Childress asserted. “As an elementary teacher, I had a classroom mailbox and wrote encouraging letters to my students all of the time to model authentic writing.”
Since becoming principal at First Flight, Childress has made it a practice to send appreciation notes with candy to her staff, but had gotten out of the habit of writing students. When students left the building last spring, she decided it was a great opportunity to revive that practice.
“I hope students will know that I [and other adults] care for them and are thinking about them even if they aren’t in the building each day,” Childress said in an email response to the Voice. “Every day that students walk into a brick/mortar school building, they have people [friends, teachers, staff, school leaders] who care for them. Schools bring equity to all. I want them to know I missed them and couldn’t wait to have them back in the building.”
For the recipient, Childress knows that a little handwritten letter can make a big difference in someone’s day.
“Whether it be a long letter or just a quick note to say hello, I believe I’m giving a gift, a smile, a special thought, and who doesn’t love opening up their mailbox to find a letter,” she concluded.