Fifteen years ago, Fairfield High School principal John Dodig made a life-changing decision.
“I decided I’d no longer hide who I am,” he says. “At the same time, I knew I wanted to be known not as ‘the gay principal,’ but as a principal who cares about all kids, and happens to be gay.”
That decision, he says, allowed him to create a school environment in which he hopes every student feels comfortable in his or her own skin. “Many — if not most — people carry scars from high school or middle school forever,” Dodig says. “I don’t think that has to be the case.”
Dodig retired from Fairfield High in 2003. Soon, he was named interim principal of Staples. He liked the staff, students, parents and Westport community so much, he applied for the permanent position. The Board of Education did not interview anyone else.
In 11 years at the helm, Dodig has directed much of his attention to what he calls “the affective domain.” Staples has always had high academic standards. Concentrating on the social and emotional aspects components of the school, he says, allows everyone to create an environment in which all teenagers feel welcome. And that, he notes, helps them perform at their best academically.
Dodig’s work has drawn praise from fellow administrators, staff members, students and parents. Now it’s gotten the attention of Lambda Legal. On Sunday, October 26 (12 p.m., Mitchells of Westport), the human rights organization’s Connecticut chapter will honor the principal for his impact on thousands of students, over his 45-year career as an educator.
“John leads by example and strength of character,” says Staples graduate Adam Stolpen, who nominated Dodig for the award.
At Staples, Dodig has created a warm, supportive environment in many ways. At nearly every faculty meeting, he stresses the importance that teaching “chemistry, US history or whatever” is not all that matters. “Each of us has to support, care and love everyone else,” he says.
He is a ubiquitous presence, standing in the front hallway as students begin the day and in the cafeteria during the 3 lunch waves. He knows most students by name. He congratulates them on their athletic, artistic, academic or extracurricular achievements. They, in turn, approach him to mention an interesting class discussion, suggest a possible improvement in school life, or congratulate him on his recent marriage.
For a school of 1900 students, the incidence of name-calling is low. Many students “have bought into the message that in this high school, you should be free to be who you are,” Dodig says.
Not all do, of course. But those who don’t “know that it’s socially inappropriate to put someone down for who they are.
“Our culture is visible every moment school is in session,” Dodig says. “It starts at the top. If a principal is mean or nasty, that trickles down to everyone. If the message is to help kids navigate high school with as few scars as possible, that trickles down too.”
Dodig is proud of the many small ways his message trickles down. On the 1st day of school this year, for example, he addressed all 4 classes separately about Staples’ culture. He followed with an email to parents, suggesting they talk with their kids to see how that message was received.
One parent responded with a story about her sophomore son. He didn’t think he could make it to the end of his cross country run, but an upperclassman stopped, asked what was wrong, and finished the course with him.
The next day, the mother said, her son saw a freshman in the same situation. This time the sophomore was the one who stopped, talked, and ran with his teammate to the end.
Dodig is proud too of the many emails he’s received from parents, saying that at Staples their child felt empowered to come out as gay.
That makes his Lambda Legal award particularly important. The decision he made 15 years ago has paid off in countless ways, for thousands of students. Dodig has impacted them, and they in turn have impacted many others.
Even those who — unlike everyone at Staples — have no idea who John Dodig is, and what he stands for.
(Click on the Lambda Legal website for tickets to Dodig’s award ceremony.)