PSU College of Education alumnus put students first and became Oregon Middle School Principal of the Year
Author: Jillian Daley, College of Education
Posted: May 3, 2019

For most people, the phrase is “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” But Portland State University College of Education (COE) alumnus Greg Harris sees a different option: all of the above.

 It’s a new way to interpret leadership in an evolving world. Essentially, Harris gives his faculty and students the direction they need when they need it, shows them the gifts that they have to chart their own course, and steps out of the way to let them explore those gifts. Simply put, Harris is a different sort of leader, and perhaps that is why he earned the title of Oregon Middle School Principal of the Year. Harris said the benefit is that this honor will cast a bright light on the good works of his school.

“I think my teachers are doing a lot of the work, and I’m facilitating the work, but a lot of that work is in the background,” he notes.

The Oregon Association of Secondary School Administrators (OASSA) and the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators (COSA) announced in April that they had chosen the Wilbur Rowe Middle School principal for the top honor. COSA serves more than 2,300 school administrators, and an elected board runs the organization, pulling representatives from COSA’s four departments, including OASSA. The OASSA Executive Committee chooses an awardee from a pool of nominees.

“It’s been a little bit surreal,” Harris said. “I definitely did not expect it, but I know our school is doing incredible things.”

Harris was a teacher for nine years before becoming an administrator and had also received two bachelor’s degrees from Oregon State University, one in English and one in education. Having taught in a Hawaii middle school for two years and then at Forest Grove High School for six years, he went back to school himself at the College of Education in 2011. He then taught at and led an alternative high school while spending just one year getting his degree.

After graduating from COE in 2012 with master of education, educational leadership, Harris joined the North Clackamas School District. First he spent three years at Rock Creek Middle School in Happy Valley as the assistant principal, and for the past four years, he has guided Rowe Middle School in Milwaukie as the principal. Meanwhile, he is finishing up his final credits for the Continuing Administrator License Program at the COE.


Harris has led Rowe effectively. Individual student progress was on target as of 2017-18 at Rowe, according to an Oregon Department (ODE) of Education Report Card for the school. Set in the North Clackamas School District in Milwaukie, the school in 2017-18 had a minority population of 44 percent, 24 percent of students had disabilities, and 69 percent of students were eligible for the free- or reduced-price lunch program, the ODE Report Card stated.

Harris said that he chose to be a leader because he has an ability to motivate others. He just respects the teaching profession too deeply to see himself as solely an evaluator of educators.

“They’re the ones that have the greatest impact,” he explained. “I just think: How can I give them what they need?”

Rowe counselor Stephanie Dreiman said that Greg Harris is a community-focused leader.

“He tries to meet people where they are at and include people,” Dreiman said.

His students at Rowe certainly give Harris a positive endorsement about his leadership.

Seventh-grader Zander Clemens said the reason why Harris leads this way is “he cares about his students.”

 Eighth-grader Aubrey Miller would agree with that, adding, “He helps people.”

Sixth-grader Brandon Goff explained that Harris always makes time for him, stopping to talk to him in the hall.

Seventh-grader Jo Joe Mella called Harris “amazing,” noting that she has worked with him personally on school projects.

“You can see how hard he works to make the school and the community a better place,” Mella said. “You can see how hard he works to make Rowe a better place for all of us.”

As an example, Harris took a moment on an April morning to stop and talk with eighth-grader Cyril Mack, who had a copy of Hamlet tucked under his arm. Harris and Mack talked a little about some of Mack’s concerns, and then Harris asked how the reading was going, and Mack admitted that much of the Shakespearean play “didn’t make sense.”

Harris said everything would come together for Mack if he saw the play performed, so he suggested watching the movie and then trying to read the play again. As he walked to class, Mack flashed a grateful smile over his shoulder.


Sixth-grade math and science teacher Tim Hays said that Harris is so gifted that Hays followed him from his position at Rock Creek to Rowe.

“I would work with you in any building,” he told Harris last week. “He has that kind of leadership — the way that he thinks a school should be a community.”

And it isn’t just Hays following Harris. It is also the other way around. The leadership Hays is talking about is how Harris always takes the time to listen to him, his ideas and concerns.

“As a staff, you never feel like it’s Greg’s way,” Hays explained. “It’s our way. You always feel like everything he does is good for kids, and I love that.”

Sixth-grade English and social studies teacher Tammy Brown said the way that Harris does that is by creating the structures and systems to make success possible for others.

Karol Otto, who advanced from teacher to dean of students to assistant principal in the time that Harris has led Rowe, said that Harris receiving this award is thrilling news and it is no surprise to her.

“He is a thoughtful and considerate listener and supports his staff in what they see and need to improve the education of all students in the school,” Otto said. “The teachers and community are celebrating right along with me, teachers have been pulling me aside letting me know how proud they are of Greg and of being a part of the Rowe family. This news is just part of the positive happenings at Rowe.”

Stepping Out of the Way

In the years he has been at Rowe, this Viking alum has transformed the school into a successful and rigorous academic setting, where the emphasis is “on educating the whole child, engaging families, and employing an equity mindset to implement innovative techniques that are results-oriented,” according to the award announcement from COSA.

 “Greg Harris is exactly the kind of school leader that aspiring principals want to become,” Lincoln High School Principal and OASSA President Peyton Chapman said in a statement. “He knows every student by name, plays his trumpet with the band, shoots hoops with students in the gym, and he closely monitors individual students and all school data to ensure all of his students are growing and meeting academic benchmarks.”

Harris explained that he wants to know all of his students, but he does not yet know every pupil by name at Rowe, where there are 850 students in grades 6 to 8. Yet, what he has created is a place where every student can walk into the school and feel known, be called by their name and not just be a number.

“It’s not just about me,” he said quietly. “It’s about the entire staff knowing them.”

All of the Above

When Harris isn’t leading, following or stepping out of the way, he is bringing the whole community together to help kids. Harris said that aligns with Rowe being a part of the national program Achievement Via Individual Determination, which includes an elective program for students who may need an extra boost toward college and career.

To make a diverse school a cohesive whole, Harris unites groups of people at Rowe to offer resources and support. The students have their own YouTube channel, Shamrock News, with an advisor who was the Oregon PTA Teacher of the Year, Lucas Dix. Rowe offers opportunities, such as on-site after-school organizations: Math Engineering Science Achievement (MESA), a pre-college academic program that PSU provides STEM opportunities to underrepresented students; Boys & Girls Club; and National Honor Society. Rowe also boasts the Madres de Corazon (Mothers of the Heart), an advisory group of Latina moms “who just feel like the more presence they have in a school, the stronger the home-school connection is,” Harris noted.

“Greg is an outstanding middle-level leader who has built a climate of success for each student,” according to a statement by Matt Utterback, North Clackamas Superintendent and 2017 National Superintendent of the Year. “He has achieved this by having high student expectations coupled with academic and social-emotional supports, employing culturally relevant teaching practices, and by removing barriers that often impede the growth for traditionally underserved populations.”

Harris will be lauded during the: 2019 COSA Annual Conference this June in Seaside, National Association for Secondary School Principals this July in Boston, and High School Principals Conference this October in Bend.

Students like Miller say they are certainly happy to see their principal receive such an accolade.

“He deserves it,” she said softly.

Photos: From left to right, Rowe teacher Tim Hays, Principal Greg Harris, and teacher Tammy Brown pause to chat about PSU alum Harris’ state-level accolade.

Students at Rowe Middle School congratulate Greg Harris, a PSU alum, on being Oregon Middle School Principal of the Year.

Rowe eighth-grader Cyril Mack asks Principal Greg Harris a few questions about the classic Shakespearean play Hamlet.