September 1996. I was in my first month of being a principal. I had just finished doing my morning class observations and was heading back to my office when I saw an older gentleman sitting at the secretary’s desk. Seeing me, she said, “Mr. Cain, this is Mr. Yetter and he would like a minute or two.”
Being trapped and without an obvious escape route, I asked him into my office and said, “What can I do for you, Mr. Yetter.”
He said, “Sean, it’s what I’m going to do for you. I live right around the corner and I was read that this school just got a new principal. You see, I’m a retired principal and I figure I can work for you or I can work for my wife. You pay better.”
I asked, “What exactly are you going to do for me?”
To which he replied, “Your secretary told me you have a substitute filling your 9th grade reading slot. I’m your new reading teacher.”
“Are you any good?”
“Not really, but I’m better than the sub. But that’s not why you are going to hire me.”
“Then why am I going to hire you?”
“I was a Principal for 24 years in two different states. I’ve seen a lot. What I’m going to do is sit in the back of every one of your staff meetings. I’m going to make sure that the back row pays attention. But most importantly, after you say anything, if you are on the right track I’ll nod my head ‘Yes.’ I’ll nod my head ‘No’ if you screw up.”
I hired him on the spot. And he was true to his word. He would nod yes or no after everything I said. Which made me a better and more collaborative leader. Get a “No” from your coach and it is amazing how fast you want and need team input on an issue. And also true to his word, he taught his reading classes better than the sub, but not by much. Which is why I made him a testing coordinator the next year. When I moved to central office (the power of good coaching), I gave Mr. Yetter a flexible schedule and had him float to all of my campuses, mentoring Principal and Assistant Principals.
Mr. Yetter was an inspiration to our little band of urban educators. He was a high school drop out who made good. He earned his G.E.D. in the military. When he was discharged, he went to college to become a teacher and later a principal. Then he was an inclusion principal, long before anyone considered the concept. He would admit that he didn’t educate his special kids well, but would tell me, “It would have been just plain wrong to let those kids say at home.”
That simple understanding that wrong by omission is still wrong, though inconvenient, has served me well.
Earlier this week, at age 78, Russell Harlan Yetter (Harlan to his friends) passed away. His funeral is today. I will not be able to attend. Instead, I’ll be coaching a group of Principals, Assistant Principals and Teachers in a different city. That is how I will honor his legacy. But I will always miss my friend.