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Outdoor lover, zen seeker, middle-schooler hope-giver

Meet Your Principal: Bill Cataldo

Bill Cataldo is the new K-8 principal for Cedar Springs’ new Red Hawks Online virtual school this year. The district decided to establish Red Hawks Online this summer in response to the increasing number of requests from families for virtual learning amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

As RHO’s K-8 principal, Cataldo manages the online curriculum and serves as the support and communications person for both RHO teachers and the families that have chosen online instruction. This allows the elementary and middle school principals at each school building to be able to focus on the same responsibilities for their in-person students, families and teachers. (Cedar Springs High School Assistant Principal Jeremy Verwys is filling the role for the RHO high school.) 

School News Network sat down with Cataldo – who is also still serving as the middle school dean of students and athletic director – to get to know him better in this edition of Meet Your Administrators. 

What is your work background in teaching or other education positions? “My first seven years in education I taught in Chicago Public Schools, at the Walt Disney Magnet School on the north side of Chicago. I taught self-contained eighth grade, so I taught roughly 30 eighth-graders math, science, social studies, reading and writing. I also held an athletic director position there. I loved my time in Chicago, but when my wife and I had our first daughter, we decided it was time to come back to Michigan, where we’re from.” He was hired as the district’s cognitive and instructional support coach, a position he held for three years, then was an eighth-grade science teacher and middle school dean of students/athletic director.

What is your education background? The 2005 graduate of Michigan State University holds a bachelor of science degree in general science, with a minor in history. He earned a master’s degree at MSU in 2008  in educational technology with a focus in math and science. In Chicago, he was part of a cohort at DePaul University, where he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership in educational leadership.

What jobs have you held outside education? “I was raised by an Italian dad who had the mindset of, ‘You will work right away!’ … At age 12, I started working at a local garden center in the Suttons Bay area; I also pulled tarps for cherry harvests for three years. I was a busboy at a restaurant called Windows, and a server at Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, where I learned a lot about customer service and relating to people. In college at MSU, I worked at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center as a banquet server. One shift I worked 27 straight hours because I was in college and I wanted a challenge to see if I could do it!”

What would you like to share about your family? “My wife and I met at MSU; we have been together for 15 years and married for 10 of those. We have two daughters, ages 7 and 4. We just love being together and being outside.”

Hobbies, interests, little-known talents? Cataldo loves being outdoors. “I go running in the morning – I have to go for a run, or I’m not a nice person to be around. It centers me. As a family, we love camping. I also love hunting or fishing: it gets me outside, away from things, and it’s a way to decompress. I’m usually very busy, and as much as I like being busy, I need to have those moments of zen where I can unplug and unwind.” 

Bill Cataldo, eighth grade

What kind of kid were you in middle school? “Suttons Bay was a small town; I loved the schools, loved the people and I had a lot of great friends that I’m still connected with today, but I really struggled with trying to find my identity. I had a lot of self-doubt, and I built myself a reputation for trying too hard to fit in. I was great academically, but I was that kid that would run and slam into a locker just to do something out of the ordinary. (Actually, many of my staff members who read this would probably say, Yeah, that’s Bill!’) But I think that’s why I love the age group, because I understand the uncertainties of it. I understand now that you can develop a reputation at that age and, if you’re moving through each grade with the same group of kids, you might never lose that reputation – even if you, yourself, change. 

“So I always want to be the voice of that child trying to find themselves. I want to give them hope that their bubble now is not going to be the bubble that they have when they leave high school. You get to choose new things for yourself, so don’t give up on yourself or let this time be what determines who you are forever.”

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from students? “I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned – and it’s still one that I need to work on the most – is that we need to be patient and understand that everyone brings different baggage. A kid may genuinely want to tell us something that we know nothing about. And if we can peel that back, we can truly build a relationship. It can be easy to lose our patience, but we’ve got to see that this kid is crying out for a reason, and you should be patient with them because they need you to be there for them and help guide them. At some point it’s going to click for them, and when that happens they’re going to have someone in their life who supports them and really gives them that ‘shift’ moment where they gain confidence in their abilities.”

If you could go back in time, which grade would you choose to return to, and why? “I’d say my junior or senior year of high school. When I think about the pandemic situation right now, I really feel for those kids who are in the later years of high school, because that was such a great time for me. I was a young adult and loved playing sports; I was finally able to drive and have some freedoms there; I didn’t have the restrictions and the responsibilities that I have now. I could pick up and go do what I wanted and have fun with friends. And I was a good kid in high school, so I’m not saying I want to go back for bad reasons! That Italian upbringing scared me! It’s more like the world was your oyster at that age, and I thought someone who was 21 was old. Now I look at myself, at age 38, and I’m like, ‘I thought THAT was old?’”

What is the #1 potential positive change for schools that you hope comes out of this pandemic? “I think the overarching theme is that we’re all here for each other. I’m seeing staff do so much to help out, offering all hands on deck at all levels. Asking how can we make this right for kids and how can we be a support for one another. These are the times that bring us together to unite for the common purpose. And with all this work, we’re learning best practices and new skills that are going to go a long way in making us better educators. I think we’ve also rediscovered the basics or the fundamentals of education that are best for students. And by focusing on those things that really matter, by getting really good at them, those are the things that are going to last a really long time and benefit our careers as educators.” 

How do you see your role as an online principal working? “My intent is to try to keep everyone connected as much as possible. I want to visit the Red Hawks Online teachers as often as I can, to see how things are going and ask what needs they have. I still want to have fun with the kids – I’m going to do my best to ‘Zoom-bomb’ or drop in on the online classes and hopefully make them feel like they’re connected to us, wherever they are. All of our kids are Red Hawks no matter where they’re learning, and it’s very important to us that they know that they’re still part of this community. And then also I’m making myself available to parents and supporting them the same way an in-person principal would be, just virtually.”

If a theme song played every time you walked into your school building (or logged onto a class) … “I think I’d have to go with “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC. In college I loved going to hockey and football games, and that song was awesome to get the crowd amped up. We also played it at our wedding when we introduced our wedding party. So I’d love to walk into the building or appear in an online class with that playing, because it would charge me up and put a smile on my face. If I’ve got a smile on my face, I’m able to handle anything.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio or email Beth.

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