Effingham Daily News
He may be the high school principal in the largest, most developed school district in the area, but Mike McCollum is anything but a high-and-mighty type of guy.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” the Effingham High School principal said about his title, who’s retiring June 30, after 33 years in education.
McCollum’s move from a classroom teacher to high school principal wasn’t necessarily a goal he strived for, and he admitted it took some juggling to get him into his current position.
After spending a couple years as Unit 40’s athletic director in the early 1990s, he was moved into the high school’s assistant principal’s position after Dean Keller became the district’s business director.
“I didn’t want that job. I was happy being athletic director,” McCollum admitted, but took the position after those he respected convinced him it was a good move.
Only months into his new job and a few months into the school year, then-high school principal Russ Marvel was in a car accident. The collision forced him into the hospital for several weeks and months of rehabilitation followed.
That meant McCollum took on his position — as well as Marvel’s — while he was still learning the ins and outs of being an assistant principal.
“I didn’t go home until 9 or 10 at night,” McCollum said, and credits Marvel’s secretary, LaVonne Ring, for helping him with paperwork and some decision-making. “She took so much off my plate that year. Secretaries are the best to help you gauge what kids, parents and teachers are really thinking.”
Marvel retired at the end of the school year and McCollum was offered the principal position.
“Things just fell into place,” he said, adding it was a whirlwind for a while, since he wasn’t from the Effingham area and was new to the community.
McCollum graduated from Vandalia High School in 1975, and after earning his bachelor’s degree from Greenville College, he taught a combination of math, science, P.E. and driver’s education at Cisne, Altamont and Dieterich high schools before becoming athletic director at Unit 40 in 1991.
Through his progression up the teaching ladder, McCollum said he’s tried his best to stay grounded and identify with those students who aren’t as fortunate, a trait that’s easily seen with his joking, easy-going and down-to-earth personality.
When McCollum started his teaching career in 1979, his salary was $7,200 a year. He eventually lived in a trailer court and owned a rusted-out vehicle. He didn’t’ think he was poor; it was just the way things were.
“You just lived within the means you had,” McCollum said, adding his dad helped him stay grounded with the promotions. “He would always tell me, ‘Don’t ever forget where your roots were.’”
As a child who grew up with blue-collar working parents, McCollum feels like he can identify with those students who don’t have the world handed to them.
“I can relate to these kids who don’t have it all. It’s those little things that you can do to help,” McCollum said, adding it’s common practice for him to let students borrow a tie for graduation or slide over a few extra dollars to cover the cost of a dual-credit class. “I’m not afraid to help these kids out.”
It’s when students come back and thank McCollum for his support that means so much to him. Even if he doesn’t remember the favors he gave, it’s nice to know he made that impact on a student.
“That’s when I feel good, is years down the road they come back and you see that success,” he said, adding, sometimes, students and parents don’t understand the reasons why administrators hand out punishments, but it helps if he can explain to them in a way they’ll understand. “If you can get to their level where they understand, if they can be mad and they know you still care about their kid, it’ll work out.”
One of the biggest changes made during McCollum’s administration was the construction of the new high school in 1999 and closing campus during lunch.
“It was a safety concern and we really wanted a controlled environment for the kids,” he said, adding the race to the north side of Effingham to the fast food restaurants and back within a 30-minute timeframe was a major safety hazard. “We had fender-benders, speeding tickets, kids crossing the street and getting hit by vehicles. It was a dangerous situation.”
In terms of curriculum, dual-credit courses were implemented while McCollum was principal, helping seniors earn college credits and saving them time and money.
“That’s been a great tool to most seniors,” McCollum said, adding the motivation helps keep away senioritis that sets in second semester. “Our kids work right up until the very end. You have to get a certain grade to get those credit hours. That’s their college grade, too.”
McCollum stressed it was the teachers who helped make the credit agreement work with Lake Land College in Mattoon.
“It’s because our own teachers stepped up to the plate,” McCollum said, adding most teachers never shied away from taking extra classes to teach dual-credit courses.”So thanks to them, really, my job has been easy.”
Being only in his early 50s and still loving what he’s doing, it poses the question, why retire now?
“There was some apprehension. At first I said no,” McCollum said about when he was first approached with the thought of retirement. “I love what I do.”
But when his daughter, Mindy, recently graduated with a degree in education, he saw how she and her classmates struggled to find careers in the field he’d been a part of since the late 1970s. Mindy eventually was hired as a fourth-grade teacher at Central School.
He decided it was time for him to step down and allow the younger generation to take over. To McCollum, it wasn’t fair to the recent college grads that he keep his position, when he’s comfortable with his lifestyle.
“I want to continue to provide opportunities for these younger kids. They’ve got the energy,” he said, adding new faces will also give new perspectives. “I’ve dealt with things 500 times. Maybe they’ve only dealt with it 30.”
His son, Cody, a sophomore playing basketball at Parkland College in Champaign, has also decided to go into education, furthering McCollum’s reason to let the younger generation take the reigns at school.
But as for McCollum’s plans after he retires, he’s not sure. He has a few yards lined up to mow over the summer and fall, and he’s hoping to stay present within the community and be around people.
“These are the things I’m going to miss. It’s been a fun ride, and it kind of feels like home,” McCollum said, adding he’ll miss what he loves to do everyday, but he believes it’s the community and positive energy that have helped him become successful.
“Good things happen to good people. It will happen. And mine just happened to be at Effingham.”