Making an impact in middle school

New assistant principal and athletic director wants to build relationships with students, though that's a little more challenging in the COVID-19 era.

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September 1, 2020 - 10:40 AM

Jason Coke is the new assistant principal and athletic director at Iola Middle School. He’s originally from Afton, Okla., and taught science to seventh and eighth grade students at Royster Middle School in Chanute. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Jason Coke, Iola Middle School’s new assistant principal and athletic director, worked at an afterschool program for Crawford County Mental Health while in college.

It turned out to be a life-changing experience.

It’s not only where he met his wife, Tracy, but also where he decided to become a teacher. She teaches in Chanute.

Until then, Coke had convinced himself he never wanted to teach. His family was full of teachers. Instead, Coke, who grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, decided to pursue wildlife management.

But, “working with kids makes me happy,” he explained of the change in direction. “And the most important thing in life is to be happy.”

Because he’d already studied so much science as part of the wildlife degree, it made sense to become a science teacher and so he taught seventh and eighth grade science at Royster Middle School in Chanute. 

Along the way, Principal Don Epps became a mentor, teaching Coke how to motivate students by having a positive attitude.

“He showed me you could have fun while being an administrator,” Coke said.

Coke believes he can have a positive impact at IMS.

“Middle school is an interesting time in someone’s life. It kind of shapes you into the person you will become,” he said. 

“Kids this age are open to new experiences. It’s energizing to be around them. I can be goofy and have fun, and they accept that.”

But middle school can also be a time of challenge and change, as students start to leave childhood behind and transition into their teenage years and beyond.

“I’m big into treating each other with respect and holding myself and everyone else accountable for our actions,” he said. “It’s important we do our best to make middle school a safe learning environment.”

That’s why it’s important to develop positive relationships with the students, Coke said. When students struggle, they need to know they can trust him with their problems.

“They’re trying to figure out their path and they stumble sometimes,” he said. “This is the place to get that fixed and learn the lessons that will help them the rest of their lives. I think a lot of people can look back on middle school and think, ‘I should have done that a little bit different.’”

But building relationships with his students is easier said than done during the coronavirus pandemic. A mask mandate means students and staff must keep half of their faces covered. It’s not easy to learn names and faces that way, Coke said. He feels bad repeatedly asking a student’s name.

He wanted to organize a big “back to school” party to introduce himself to students, but couldn’t.

He also likes to shake hands and give high-fives, which he can’t do.

But the most difficult part of the pandemic is the emotional toll it’s taking on students.  Coke is sad to see students miss out on activities, or become stressed because of all the changes.

“It’s tough to know what are the best decisions,” he said of the pandemic. “But I think as bad as it is, it’s going to help me in the long run to become a better administrator. There have been a lot of learning experiences.”

Outside of the classroom, Coke enjoys hunting, fishing, archery and golf.

He and Tracy have a 3-year-old daughter, Addison.

“I’m very happy to be here,” he said. “I feel that I’m in the right place.”

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