After 40 years of working in education, including the past 26 years as principal of Red Mill Elementary School, John Caporta is retiring in June. We sat down with Mr. Caporta earlier this week to talk about his career, the changes in education over the years, and what he will miss most about working in a school every day.
Q: When you started your first teaching job, did you have expectations of this kind of career?
A: No. Not at all. When I started teaching in Slingerlands in 1979 I was a young teacher and really never thought I’d go into administration. The principal in the building, though, became a mentor to me. And my brother-in-law, who was a teacher in Guilderland had decided to go back to school for administration. At the time, I was in my mid to late 20s and he convinced me to take these courses with him. I thought ‘I probably won’t use this until I’m 45 years old’ and didn’t think much of it.
But when I finished my internship at Slingerlands, one of Bethlehem’s elementary principals needed to take a leave of absence for a short period of time. They asked me if I would fill in for her. I thought I would be there for 5 or 6 weeks and she ended up having, unfortunately, complications and I was there the rest of the year.
I put in an application for East Greenbush and another district, Middleburgh, during that summer just to get some experience with interviewing, and as luck would have it, I ended up at Genet and it happened way faster than I expected.
Q: When you filled in for that principal or when you began working as an assistant principal at Genet, did you immediately enjoy that work and feel like it was a good fit?
A: Yes. I did know that that was something I wanted to do. And I saw myself as an elementary person. That was my whole background. So when I went to Genet Middle School, while it was only a grade 5-6 middle school, it was set up like a middle school with 800 students and I thought this might be a harder transition. But the 5th and 6th grade students were similar to the elementary school students I had always worked with.
Q: What’s it been like to work at Red Mill these past 26 years?
A: I’ve seen a lot of change at Red Mill. Many of the students that I started out with back then are now parents and their children are in our school so it’s nice to see that next generation of students at Red Mill.
It’s always been a community that I refer to as a sponge. Whatever you threw out there, they would absorb it, support me, support the school and the teachers here.
I’ve said to people along the way, I’m a lucky guy. I’ve been at the right place at the right time. I don’t necessarily think that I do a lot of things well, but I’ve had a knack for surrounding myself with a lot of quality people throughout my career and it’s made an amazing difference. We’ve worked well together to make a positive difference over the years for kids.
Q: What is your proudest achievement as principal of Red Mill?
A: Wow, after all the years here. You know, one of the things that I would say I’m proud of, is the number of students that come back to the school and share their experiences here that were really positive in their lives. The fact that they feel so positive about the school that they come back, and then when they grow up and have children, that they end up staying in the community and buying a home in the Red Mill zone. They want their kids to come to school here and have a similar experience.
Q: What has been the biggest change in education since the start of your career?
A: Definitely the technology. Way back in the early 80s in Slingerlands, computers were just becoming the thing. Each classroom had one desktop computer and it was shared by everyone. Technology is not my strength, but to show you how far it’s come, back in the 80s, I was the technology guy for the building. But over the years, the amount of change in technology and how important it became in day-to-day education has only grown. Who knows where it will end.
Q: Is it difficult to keep up with technology as a school and as a staff?
A: Technology is very important to me. I know that it’s so important for the kids to have these tools and learn with these tools so I’ve been very supportive of technology and wanted us to be on the leading edge of that. And I’ve been fortunate to again, surround myself with the Peter Goodwins of the world and the Lisa Mahars of the world so you always have the most knowledgeable people with you to help move the school in that direction. That’s been great.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to a person starting out in education, what would that be?
A: I would say to them that when I came into education I thought that you had to know the curriculum inside and out, that you needed to know what was being taught at each and every grade level, but the reality is that these jobs, whether it’s an administrator or a teacher, they’re people jobs. You need people skills more than anything else.
These jobs are about people skills – communication, being open and honest with people – I really think it’s 90 percent people skills and communication. That has served me extremely well over the years. I’ve always been an administrator that doesn’t have people make an appointment to see me on my turf. I always go to them in their classroom so they’re in a place where they’re more comfortable.
And take the time to get to know people outside of school, too. It’s important to know that someone has two children and if they have a sick child, you ask that week, “how’s your daughter feeling?” That sort of stuff goes miles and miles.
That’s the advice I would give. Don’t get wrapped up in the day-to-day stuff. Get to know the people, because they’re the ones who make it happen. It’s the teachers and the staff that make the school run effectively. You want them all on your team.
Q: How did you decide this was the right time to retire?
A: I really believe being a principal is like managing a baseball team. And everything has a shelf life. And while I still feel energized and I’m in the game, everything needs to come to a conclusion. I just think this is a good time – 40 years in the field, 30 years in administration, 10 in teaching – and I want to do some things in retirement, travel a little bit, it’s the right time. But I do want to stay involved. I don’t want to just retire completely. I’m hopeful to work a day or two a week with SAANYS or CASDA, so I’ll probably stay involved with the field but it’s time to pass the torch on to the next person.
Q: Do you have any plans for retirement?
A: Yes, we’d like to do some traveling at some point, but just to do the basic things like taking hikes and bike rides that you put on hold. Day trips, be more free to do spontaneous things. I’m looking forward to it but on the other hand it’s going to be different.
Every year, the day after Labor Day, I’ve gone to school. If you think about it, 40 years in education, then all the school years going back to when I was five years old, so since I was five years old, I’ve gone to school every Tuesday after Labor Day. And this will be the first Tuesday after Labor Day that I won’t go to school. That will be different.
Q: What will you miss most about Red Mill Elementary School?
A: Without a doubt, I’ll miss the people – the students, and the relationships with the staff as they’ve come and gone through the years. Just working with people in the school for the common cause of providing what you hope to be a really positive education for students. That’s what I’m going to miss.
When you think about it, it’s hundreds of people that you have contact with every day. I always see this job as sprinting throughout the year and then on the last day you just stop. There’s no wind down. And for me, it will just stop. I haven’t really given that a whole lot of thought because you’re caught in the moment, you’re just doing it. But at some point that’ll happen and it will stop.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add?
A: I’ve been fortunate. I’ve really had a long run and worked with so many quality people over the years. And I’ve been fortunate to be in such a supportive community. The Red Mill students have been really great kids. It’s been fun to watch them grow up, come back as adults with their own children, and it’s been a lot of fun in recent years to see that next generation turn over.