By FRED KRONER
Ryan Martin’s interest in education and school administration started because of a potato.
It wasn’t just any ol’ spud.
It was a French Fry.
Actually, it wasn’t even an edible fry, but one that Martin and other students had to visualize.
“When I was in grade school (at Sangamon School), I remember Mr. (Larry) Gnagey (the principal) telling a story about a French Fry falling off a tray and going on an adventure,” Martin said.
That elementary school principal quickly caught the attention of the young student.
“Mr. Gnagey made a big impact,” said Martin, now 39.
A decade later, Martin graduated from Mahomet-Seymour and headed off to college.
He already had a plan.
“I remember clearly as an undergrad being asked my ultimate goal and saying to be a principal and to know every kid’s name,” Martin said. “I started off majoring in elementary education.”
As a student at Parkland College, Martin had another experience that helped cement his decision about the age group he wanted to teach.
“Pat Marker (former Mahomet-Seymour teacher) taught third grade and I asked if I could observe her class,” Martin said.
He wound up doing more than watching.
“She gave me a spelling test to give to the kids,” Martin said.
He was hooked.
“I enjoyed the elementary-age children,” Martin said.
As he travels on his journey, Martin’s school career has come full circle.
A former teacher for 13 years at Leal School, in Urbana, Martin is in his first year back in the district where he was raised.
He is the assistant principal at Middletown Prairie, a school for pre-kindergarten through second-grade students.
At a school with 31 classrooms (plus six pre-K classes between morning and afternoon), he’s not yet able to identify every student by name.
“I’ve got all the teachers down,” Martin said.
Those watching him interact and exchange high-fives with students during bus arrivals and departures might be inclined to think he knows a vast majority of the students, too.
“They have name tags on their backpacks,” he said, giving away one of his secrets. “That (interaction) puts a smile on my face, no matter how tough the day was.”
Moving from the classroom to administration wasn’t a total unknown for Martin.
“I had experience at Leal,” he said. “When the principal took extended leave, I filled in. I learned that every day you’re putting out fires.”
While organization is essential in the classroom, it sometimes doesn’t matter how prepared an administrator might be for a new day.
“Some like the routine of class, where every single second is planned,” Martin said. “For an administrator every day is different.
“I never know what will come across my desk. At any moment, something can jump up and consume you.”
It might be a medical issue that requires his attention. Perhaps it’s a parent seeking a call-back.
Maybe it’s a teacher needing help with a particular student.
Martin is also on a cycle where he is doing teacher observations.
It’s his good fortune, he said, to work with an experienced administrator, Middletown Prairie principal Wendy Starwalt.
“We meet every day and go through the schedule,” Martin said. “She helps me figure things out.
“She does a good job of prepping me on what’s coming up.”
M-S is the fourth district where Martin has been employed.
He spent his first year out of college at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, teaching fifth grade.
Martin then joined a couple friends from his hometown, Kyle Kimme and Cory Richmond, living in Chicago “about a mile away from Wrigley Field,” Martin said.
He taught on the west side at suburban Oak Park, working with fourth-graders for two years and fifth-graders for one.
The Windy City’s professional sports teams helped impact his life.
He grew up in a family where, he said, “my dad was a Cub fan and my brother and grandpa were Cardinal fans.
“I was impartial.”
Living so close to Wrigleyville made a difference.
“I became a Cub Fan,” Martin said.
He followed other sports during their seasons.
At a Bears’ football game, he officially met the woman who has now been his wife now for 11 years.
“Our paths crossed,” Ryan Martin said. “It was totally coincidental.”
Martin was one of four buddies who were going to a Bears’ game. When one of the Champaign-area friends couldn’t make it, Lisa Klingler — a school teacher and coach in the Mahomet-Seymour district — was invited and accepted.
She said it wasn’t exactly like meeting a stranger when she was introduced to Ryan Martin at the game.
“I still remember seeing him in church leading up to meeting him in Chicago,” Lisa Martin said.
“His family always sat in the same place, and he would join them when he was in town.”
In 2005, Ryan Martin returned to Champaign County. In 2008, he completed work on his master’s degree at the University of Illinois.
It took time before he was ready to make the move out of the classroom.
“I sat on the degree 10 years before I thought I was ready,” he said.
In the interim, he put himself in positions where he could gain valuable knowledge and experience.
“I challenged myself to do something different with leadership at Leal,” Martin said. “I asked what I could do.”
He worked with an after-school program SPLASH — which is similar to Mahomet’s BLAST program — and took on a key role during the past five years.
“I was the administrator on that,” Martin said, “and hired teachers and staff members for different parts of the program.”
During his 13 years at Leal, Martin also devoted his after-school winter hours to serving on the boys’ basketball staff at Mahomet-Seymour High School. He was the junior varsity head coach.
He is not completely removed from that sport.
Ryan Martin and Nathan Mills are coaching a fourth-grade girls’ basketball traveling team that opened its season last week.
One of the nine players on the team is the Martins’ fourth-grade daughter, Hannah.
There’s one student at Middletown Prairie that he knows well without scanning the backpack name tag.
The Martins’ youngest daughter, Ashley, is a first-grader.
“When I worked at Urbana, it was hard to leave to come to one of her school functions,” Ryan Martin said. “Now I see her every day.
“That’s a bonus.”
As he becomes more comfortable in the role of school administrator, Martin recognizes that he might need to borrow from the playbook of a former mentor and deluxe storyteller, Larry Gnagey.
He hasn’t yet developed a script to follow.
“It’s in the back of my mind, that I might tell stories to keep them engaged,” Martin said.
“Especially on the cold, winter days when we can’t get outside.”
Maybe it’s time for a new generation of French Fry tales. Whoever said a potato is only for eating?