TUPELO • Dr. Terry Harbin’s first job in education was teaching math, science and social studies at Milam Elementary School from 2000 to 2004.
Twenty-one years later, he’s returning to the school as principal.
The Tupelo Public School District Board of Trustees approved Harbin’s hiring to the school’s top position in late May.
For the past five years, Harbin has served as principal of Itawamba Attendance Center, a prekindergarten through eighth grade school with around 1,100 students. Meanwhile, Milam, where all students from TPSD’s elementary schools converge into a single sixth grade school, has around 500 students.
He is a 1980 graduate of Tupelo High School and served as principal of Lawndale Elementary School from 2006 to 2012.
Harbin said his homecoming is both exciting and sentimental.
“As I walked through the halls (during) my initial visit back, I just could envision where everybody was,” Harbin said, reflecting on his past at Milam. “And I think there are only three teachers here now that were here when I was here. Almost everybody else is gone. It’s a bittersweet feeling.”
A change in careers
Education is arguably Harbin’s calling, but it wasn’t always his career.
After working 15 years for Warren Pest Control, Harbin made a midlife career change to education at the turn of the millennium.
“I always had a love for education and really wanted to go into education, but at the time just didn’t take that leap,“ Harbin said.
But then, opportunity struck. The business for which Harbin worked was sold, and all employees would be starting over as if freshly hired.
Harbin took it as a sign that it was time to follow his passion and change careers.
“I thought, if I’m going to start over as a new employee, I’m going to go back to school,” Harbin said.
He attended the University of Mississippi where he earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education. He went on to earn a master’s in special education, a specialist in administration and a doctorate in administration.
As an educator, and especially a school principal, Harbin feels positive communication with students, parents and staff is the key to success.
“Ultimately, we’re all in this together,” Harbin said. “We all are striving for the same thing. And for that to be a success, you have to be able to communicate in a positive way.”
He achieves that goal through building relationships. You’ll never find his office door closed unless there’s a need for a private meeting.
“I believe that’s a huge sign, that you open that door to let people know that they are welcome,” Harbin said.
When students have discipline issues, he talks with them to find out why the problem is occurring and strives to be a constant positive presence in the school.
His presence in the classroom is not for intimidation, but to share positive praise.
Harbin invites parents in, forms relationships and makes them part of the overall school team. He reaches out and calls them to share the good things happening with their students at school, not just the bad.
That attitude developed during his time as a teacher. He was encouraged by Rosalind McGaha, a retired English Language Arts teacher, to call parents and share good news.
“What I found as a teacher is, most of the time, parents are prepared to pick up that phone for a negative,” Harbin said. “They are shocked when you’re calling to say ‘Hey, Little Johnny did a good deed today.’”
One of Harbin’s early priorities at his new post is smoothing out the transition from the district’s elementary schools to Milam. He hopes to build on former Milam principal Paul Moton’s legacy and bridge that transition to ease student fears.
“Fifth graders transitioning over to middle school, they’re apprehensive, they’re nervous about it,” Harbin said. “They feel like there’s a change in the academics. There’s a change in the responsibilities. So I think, just overall, transitioning up to teenage life somewhat is just kind of nerve-racking for them.”
As for Harbin himself, he’s feeling none of those nerves while transitioning to Milam. In fact, he’s thrilled to be returning to Tupelo Public School District and the school where his career in education began.
“It is truly coming home,” Harbin said. “This is my third time back, so I’m really thrilled to be back.”