Tenino Elementary School principal reflects on 25-year career as he retires

Charly Harrington spent eight years at Tenino Elementary School


Charles “Charly” Harrington isn’t one for countdowns.

When the Tenino Elementary School principal made his decision to retire, he proceeded with his duties as usual.

Even as the end of the school year approached and he attended his last staff meetings, observations and assemblies, his focus was always on the next task and prioritizing the students.

Now that his 25th and final year in education has concluded, Harrington expects the emotions and sentiments of retirement to hit him on Sept. 1, his birthday, when he is typically hard at work preparing for the next school year.

“I’m not a big countdown guy. I’ve tried to avoid that because there’s just so much to do every day, and for principals, so many things can come up that really need your attention,” he said. “It’s all gonna hit me on Labor Day or my birthday. This is the 25th year I’ve done this, and I’ve never really had a birthday because we were always so busy over Labor Day getting ready for school.”

Harrington is retiring at the same time as his wife, who is also a teacher, as they decided together to retire at a “relatively young age” in order to take advantage of the offerings of retirement. They plan to travel around the country in their camper van with their dogs, Nemo and Tonks. Their trip will include visits to Denver, Colorado, and to Iowa. They plan to visit family and enjoy music festivals.

They also have a trip planned down the West Coast to visit their daughter and several national parks, including Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and the Grand Canyon.

“The first step is going to be to do some traveling. We’re both looking into different volunteer activities. I could see myself coming back into public education, but not as principal,” Harrington said. “I could see myself coming back as maybe some type of consultant, maybe working with student teachers. I’ve even thought about becoming a paraeducator in behavior support.”

Harrington studied at The Evergreen State College, and he began his career teaching English as a second language at Pleasant Glade and Mountain View elementaries and Chinook Middle School. Through those jobs, he began to develop an administrative role and fell in love with the idea of becoming a principal.

“I would get to know kids as they came into the district or sometimes into the country. As I got to know them, I helped them out with registration and with conferences. If there was ever a concern about special education, I was a part of that. If there were problems with discipline, I became a part of that,” Harrington said. “It was a natural calling, and something that I wanted to do in my career.”

His first job as a principal was leading Lydia Hawk Elementary School in Lacey in 2008, then he made what he called a career-defining transition to Mountain View Elementary in Lacey as an assistant principal.

“I think that transition really set me up for success here (at TES). I really think in that transition, a light went off in my head. It was around that time where I realized the value and the power of being able to say, ‘I don’t know,” Harrington said. “You have all this pressure that you’re supposed to know everything. You’re supposed to make these informed decisions about all this stuff pretty quickly, and you don’t have to. Adults lighten up when I say, ‘I don’t know and I need your input on this,’ because it values their experience.”

Harrington later jumped back into the principal role at Tenino Elementary in 2016 and finished his career there. He said navigating the school through the COVID-19 pandemic shifted his primary focus for the remainder of his career.

“Quality education is based on in-person, personal connections, and having to shift to online was OK, but it just split kids into their groups,” he said. “If there was somebody at home that was really watching them and paying attention, they tended to do OK. But if there wasn’t, we just lost them. The primary emphasis of my job switched from academics to care, and when they came back, it was a continuation of that. I’ve always felt my primary mission is taking care of kids and helping them learn and be good people, and that shift has been gratifying.”

Harrington said he is proudest of the teams that he built, especially over his eight years in Tenino, and the relationships he built with students, teachers and staff. He added that he is grateful for the outpouring of support since he announced his retirement.

“The thing I’m going to miss is being the guy, being the principal in the eyes of all the students, the teachers and the community. It’s been really gratifying to get the outpouring of support and just to know that you matter and that your job is recognized and valued.”