School secretaries: the heart and soul of a school
By Xavier Botana
A school’s office is the center of the school, the place that enables the rest of the school to function. It’s where students, staff and families go to get a multitude of needs and wants met. That’s why the people who run those offices – our school secretaries – are truly the heart of each school.
This month, I’m recognizing our amazing school secretaries – also known as administrative assistants – as part of my ongoing series about our outstanding staff at the Portland Public Schools. Specifically, I’m giving a shout-out to Deb Kierstead, lead secretary at Casco Bay High School, whose work exemplifies just how vital the work of school secretaries is. Deb’s exceptional efforts were publicly recognized in 2018, when the Maine Principals’ Association chose her as Secretary of the Year.
Deb is retiring this month after 23 years with the Portland Public Schools, 16 of them as founding secretary at Casco Bay. We’ll miss her greatly, but we’re happy for her. Among her future plans is volunteering at her grandchildren’s schools.
Deb came to us from the South Portland schools. She worked at several of our buildings before joining Casco Bay Principal Derek Pierce to start that school in 2005. Pierce has said Deb “may be my wisest, best hire.”
Deb’s work over the years has included designing, overseeing and constantly working to streamline and improve the school’s office procedures, from finances to enrollment, and mentoring coworkers. Pierce also calls her the school’s “first and best ambassador” who treats students and families with caring and respect.
Here’s more about Deb, who grew up in Scarborough knowing her organizational and people skills were ideal for office work.
What drew you to work in a school?
I took my son to school when he was in kindergarten and was observing the school secretary and thought, “Wow, that would be a job that would be fun and part of the community.” I’m a people person. I love learning about people and working with people and helping people. I knew that early on, and knew I had to find a fit for myself – and what better fit than a school? People of all different levels need help – students, a staff person, a parent or someone from the community.
What are some key aspects of your job?
Being part of different offices, I started seeing things we could do to help people more, whether it’s a student, a parent or a teacher. I like to say that whatever office I’ve worked in, it’s always an office that likes to put forward instant gratification, if at all possible. Also, sometimes, you’re the only person who might be in contact with that student who looks like they’re having a bit of trouble, and you alert someone at the school – a social worker, nurse or the principal – saying something is not right with this student. You see students and get to know their personalities and know when they’re just not themselves. Then they get help, or whatever little crisis they’re having gets resolved a lot sooner.
How did COVID impact your job?
We made a lot of phone calls home to connect with students and families, especially if they didn’t have the internet. It’s not the same thing as being in person, so I missed that a lot.
What drives you?
Knowing that what you do makes a difference, that what you do can make a person’s difficult day turn into a good day and, at the end of the day, knowing that you have done things that have a purpose.