The People’s Principal
Meet Dr. Rick Hessman, principal of Belville Elementary School and Brunswick County Schools’ Principal of the Year.
If you’re looking for Dr. Rick Hessman, principal of Belville Elementary School, chances are you won’t find him in his office. Throughout the day, Hessman can be found greeting students in the morning, checking in on classes, strolling through the hallways and waving students goodbye at the end of the day. And if you show up at the right time, he just might be mounting a horse or taking a bus-full of students out for pizza.
It’s no wonder Hessman recently won Brunswick County Schools’ Principal of the Year award. Sporting a big smile, Mickey Mouse tie, navy button-down and slacks, he’s the picture of approachability and authority, and he prizes being visible and accessible to students, teachers and parents alike.
Hessman says there are three key things to know about him: He’s a mega Dallas Cowboys fan, an avid golfer and someone who understands people. “I am not the smartest person in this building by any means,” he says. “I do not know elementary school curriculum like a lot of people in this building, but what I do know is people. I understand how to motivate people, how to be consistent and organized, how to plan well and how people simply want you to treat them fairly. Probably, the most important thing an administrator does is set an example every single day.”
Hessman’s office is covered in Dallas Cowboys memorabilia, golf balls, family photos and plaques. The latest is a framed congratulations poem presented to him by students and staff, with a description for each letter of his name. “E is for Energetic,” one reads. “He walks around the halls, a lot.”
“The kids love him,” Assistant Principal Allison Dixon says. “They’re always high-fiving him in the hallway, razzing him about his Cowboys. Most of the time, he’s in the classroom, and that’s where he should be. That’s where we want him to be.”
Before Hessman started his academic career, he played baseball at Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina, and graduated with a degree in journalism. After two years at the Williamston Enterprise newspaper as a sports writer covering four high school counties and East Carolina University athletics, Hessman decided he wanted to make athletic decisions, not just write about them. He returned to school for his degree in physical education and began coaching and teaching in 1991.
For the first 16 years of his career, he worked as a high school health and PE teacher and athletic director. He loved coaching — “golf was in the spring, basketball was in the winter and cross country in the fall,” he remembers. But his principal at the time, Mike Campbell, encouraged him to consider moving into an administrative position to make the most of his leadership skills. “Your impact increases tremendously when you go into administration,” Hessman says.
Hessman has been principal of Belville Elementary School for three years. This is his fourth principalship in his administrative career, and he has spent a total of 28 years in the public school system.
When he began his tenure at Belville Elementary School, he was given three goals: improve communication with parents, rebuild relationships with staff (who had had three different principals in four years) and increase students’ access to technology for learning opportunities.
In order to improve communication, Hessman had a large LED sign installed in front of the school, which flashes messages for parents driving by or waiting in the long drop-off and pick-up lines before and after school. Once inside the school building, parents and visitors see a large-screen television installed for the same purpose: school information and announcements as well as a regularly updated slideshow of photos of the children learning and playing at Belville Elementary.
Beyond this, Hessman set up a weekly email, phone call and text message to stay connected with parents. Every Sunday at 5 p.m., parents receive an update with the five things they need to know for the upcoming week, as well as any PTO announcements or bus information.
Over the past few years, Hessman has forged quality relationships with Belville’s teachers as well. “He’s a classroom principal,” Dixon says. “He wants our teachers to be successful so our students can be successful. He puts the teachers and the students first.”
Pamela Cannon, also an assistant principal at Belville Elementary, adds, “He’s really good with parents and seeing concerns from their side as well. He tries to involve everyone when he makes a decision.”
Hessman makes time to connect with students, too. For the last two years, Belville Elementary has exceeded its fundraising goals for its book fair, and every time, Hessman promises to do something fun to celebrate. Last year, he kissed three pigs. This year he had planned to jump out of an airplane — but there wasn’t enough room for a proper landing. Instead, he mounted a horse (on loan from a kindergarten teacher) and rode it around the soccer field for a crowd of students.
One tradition Hessman brought to Belville is the student of the month luncheon. Each month, teachers choose one student from each homeroom to go to Pizza Hut with the principal for an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Naturally, the students love it.
Along with improvements in communication and relationship building, Hessman addressed Belville’s deficit in technology. “This school was lacking in technology big time when I got here,” he admits. “We have been able to put up 45 SMART Boards, those nice interactive televisions, in classrooms, and we’re almost 1:1 with our Chromebooks and 1:1 in the upper grades.”
Under Hessman’s leadership, Belville Elementary School’s report card has increased from a C to a B rating, and students’ test scores have risen as well. On a daily basis, Hessman aims to grow students academically and socially and keep the building safe.
Looking back on his legacy, Hessman says he tries to be consistent every day. He’s not sure just how soon he’ll retire. His aunt and uncle were teachers, his sister and daughter work as English teachers at the same high school, and his wife is a retired teacher. For now, Hessman will stick to what he knows best: working with people and bettering education in Brunswick County.