For more than three decades, John Sanders has worked as an educator, starting as a teacher and then becoming one of New Tampa’s most beloved and respected principals. His career was almost everything he loved — helping guide students and teachers alike to set high expectations and meet them, while building relationships to make his school the pride of the community.
However, there are other things Sanders loves, as well. Like spending time with his son Jackson, fishing, playing bridge, tending to his yard and reading.
So, after a 38-year career, including the last 14 as the principal at Benito Middle School, Sanders, 60, is packing up his office and picking up his fishing pole.
“When am I going to enjoy those things?” he asks. “I’m not guaranteed tomorrow, so maybe now I can do some of the things I always thought I might enjoy.”
When the bell rings at the end of the last day of school this year, it will mark the end of an era at Benito. For the students who currently attend the school, and most of their older siblings, he’s the only principal they’ve ever known. Many from his staff, faculty, and even the PTSA say they’re not sure they’re ready to let him go.
They credit Sanders with sustaining a culture that has helped Benito maintain a straight “A” school grade going all the way back to 2002, while some other schools in the area have struggled, such as feeder school Hunter’s Green Elementary and Wharton High, where Benito students are zoned to attend.
But, the reason the school is so successful — with high test scores and low disciplinary problems compared with other schools throughout the District —goes much deeper than its letter grade.
His staff says it’s because of his unique style as a principal. He says it’s because of the people who surround him.
“We have a great student body and a great community, followed up by a fabulous faculty that is, for the most part, stable and successful. They get the best out of the kids,” Sanders says. “You put those together and it just works.”
While he never moved to New Tampa, he brought his only son, Jackson, to spend his middle school years at Benito. He says he tried to treat every child the way he would treat his own.
When his wife, Rhonda, passed away in 2016, Sanders was surrounded by the faculty and staff, who showed up in force at her memorial service, which he says was planned in part by volunteers from the school’s PTSA.
While he can hardly imagine stepping away from his Benito family, he says he thinks now is the time to move on to the next chapter.
But, he says it’s going to be hard, especially leaving the people who have become his family, like the group he brought with him when he was named principal at Benito. In the first 11 years since the school opened in 1997, it had four principals. Sanders has been there longer than those four combined.
He began his career as a math teacher at Plant High in 1983, then taught at Turkey Creek Middle School, where he was promoted to assistant principal. He then went to Young Middle School as an assistant principal before being named principal at Benito in 2008.
Language arts teacher Chris Ellis was hired by Sanders 24 years ago at Young. After 11 years together there, when Sanders moved to Benito, Ellis was one of many who followed and one of several who still teaches at Benito all these years later.
“He has had a very profound effect on my life,” Ellis says.
Ellis drove 24 miles each way to get to Benito, so, three years ago, he took a position teaching at a school closer to his home, only to return.
“I knew the minute I had walked out the door of Benito that I had made a terrible mistake,” Ellis says. His new school was welcoming, but he missed Sanders and his hands-off management style.
Like Ellis, math teacher Kelly Broadbelt — who has been honored multiple times as the school’s Teacher of the Year, including this year — also was hired by Sanders at Young.
She says Sanders, as a former math teacher himself, has influenced her tremendously, and that he still pops into her classroom occasionally to give the students a mini-lesson, which they love.
“For sure, he has made me who I am as a teacher,” she says. “I’ve never taught without him, and because he was a math teacher he could be very influential in my classroom, because he knows exactly what I’m doing and how to fix it.”
Both Ellis and Broadbelt have been under Sanders’ guidance their entire careers. They say that while they’re trying to be optimistic, they’re also nervous about the big transition they expect when he leaves.
“The reason so many people love working for John is that many times in education, they treat the teachers like kids,” Ellis says. “But, he treats you like an adult, and allows you the autonomy to go above and beyond.”
Sanders says that it’s always been important to him to remember what it’s like to be a teacher.
“I have tried to create a family environment and I think we have it,” he says. “I’ve tried to see the good in my teachers and not focus on the imperfections too much, except when sometimes you have to do that as the boss.”
Sanders half-jokes that the school is successful in spite of him, saying, “all I had to do is let the teachers teach and let the families come here.”
Sharon Hineline was PTSA president at Benito when her kids attended and says she was convinced by Sanders to work at the school — first in the front office and now as his secretary.
“Sharon has single-handedly convinced dozens of families who were on the fence about going somewhere else to come here,” Sanders says.
Creating A Unique Atmosphere
Meanwhile, Hineline says that she does so because of the atmosphere Sanders has created. “If you come to Benito and say you need something, he’s going to help you,” she says. “He has created a culture where it’s a partnership and the staff is empowered to resolve problems.”
Sanders is quick to return phone calls from parents who are upset about something they heard happened at the school, or to direct a teacher to call a parent to resolve a misunderstanding. He has a unique touch that helps calm down heated emotions, whether he’s talking with parents or students.
Hineline says Sanders recently had two girls in his office who hated each other so much that they had gotten into a physical fight. He spent time talking with each individually, then brought them together to discuss their choices, and they not only resolved their issues but are now the best of friends. One of the two went from failing all of her classes to passing them. The care Sanders demonstrated changed the girls’ trajectory at the school.
That same calm demeanor has talked many families out of leaving the school, instead resolving a problem that was accommodated by switching a class or another relatively simple solution, recognizing that at many schools, those resolutions are not always offered because they are more difficult on staff or teachers.
Sanders says has always focused on keeping what he calls “great families” connected to his school.
“That’s the mindset that I think a good administrator has to have,” he says. “You make their kids happy, you make them happy, and everyone wins. If I send you out the door unhappy, I’m asking for trouble. People are looking at alternatives.”
While he knows what it’s like to turn a school around –—Young was an F school when he arrived, and went up to an A — Sanders says Benito never needed that. It was a great school when he arrived. But, he has navigated some significant challenges, such as the population of students receiving free and reduced lunch — an indicator of socioeconomic factors that statistically align with school success — going from 22 percent to 62 percent.
He says Benito makes sure the kids know the expectations and the rules, and the entire staff “gets out and enforces it.”
Broadbelt, Ellis, and Hineline are just a few of the many who have bought into his philosophy.
“He’s just a good person, a good educator, and a good boss,” Broadbelt says. “He’s willing to do anything to help us.”
While Sanders deflects the praise, he says the community, the staff, and the students will continue to be family to him.
“This is my life and my world, and I’m sure I’m going to miss being the principal at Benito.”