For Jessica DeFord, principal of Belle Terre Elementary School, her job has one main focus: looking out for the students, teachers and staff at Belle Terre.
“This is my dream school,” she said. “I love the teachers and the students here, and the staff.”
It is easy to see, especially where "her" kids are involved. She makes it a point to try and greet students in the mornings with the other teachers and staff and then see them off in the afternoon when they leave, always with a smile. When she’s having a hard day, she said a visit with her “kiddos” during cafeteria duty brightens it.
DeFord joined Belle Terre seven years ago, first as assistant principal, then interim principal before finally taking over that position in full in 2019.
Being principal doesn’t give her as much one-on-one time with her students as being a teacher did, DeFord said. But the tradeoff for an administration position, she said, is that she can have a bigger impact. As principal, she can help more kids than the 20-25 that would sit in her classroom as a teacher.
“Everything starts with the students,” DeFord said. “I love them, and they know that. They make me happy.”
And DeFord takes her job very seriously. The school functions as a support team for the kids and her part, she said, is making sure the best people are on that team and that the focus remains on the kids so they don’t get lost in the details.
“I am hoping that our kids when they leave here every day know that they are wanted, loved, cared about,” DeFord said.
That love and care for the kids and staff at her school is what makes DeFord stand out to her staff, too.
“I am hoping that our kids when they leave here every day know that they are wanted, loved, cared about.” — Belle Terre Elementary Principal Jessica DeFord.
Jean Jarre has worked with DeFord as her secretary for two years, but has been at Belle Terre for 16. DeFord's first focus is the students, Jarre said, but she is equally supportive of her teachers and staff.
Jarre said DeFord is always speaking up for her staff's needs.
“She's definitely always very vocal, even to bring it up to her higher-ups,” Jarre said. “She's always trying to get more for her teachers.”
DeFord works so hard, Jarre said, that sometimes Jarre has to remind her that she has herself as secretary and the assistant principals to help. She’s very organized, planning out every detail, Jarre said. DeFord herself admits it's in her nature to give her all to her job.
“She takes care of everything in her own way,” Jarre said.
For Natalie Muldoon, an ESOL resource teacher at Belle Terre this year, DeFord was the principal the teachers chose three years ago when the position became available. They sent emails on her behalf to the school board, Muldoon said, and really made it known she was their choice.
“We really wanted her to become our leader, our principal, “ Muldoon said, “because of the way she treated us and listened [to us].”
Since then, DeFord has always had staff’s back, Muldoon said, supporting and advocating for them to administrators and parents alike. She really listens, she said, and has not lost perspective during the day-to-day administrative side of the job.
Muldoon was actually on the committee interviewing DeFord for the assistant principal position seven years prior, and asked her why she wanted the job.
“She said she wanted to be that principal that she always wanted as a teacher, that person who is in it for the right reasons — for the teachers and for the students,” Muldoon said. “She work[s] hard to keep that perspective.”
“I find that if you love the people first, the rest of it kind of takes care of itself.” — Belle Terre Elementary School Principal Jessica DeFord
But for DeFord, balancing the administrative work of being a principal and caring for her students and staff just means getting to know them on an individual level, she said.
When you do that, she said, it's easy to empathize more and also put in the right support a particular student or teacher needs. At the end of the day, they're trying to make everyone the best they can be, DeFord said.
“I find that if you love the people first," she said, "the rest of it kind of takes care of itself.”