As teachers, we know that well-told stories are more memorable than almost any other effective teaching strategy we routinely use. There is a reason we remember the outstanding books that were taught, the impactful and sometimes heroic stories of individuals throughout history, and the intriguing storylines that help us remember important information, even in Algebra II.
It’s the teachers that can connect with students through these stories that are remembered the most. One of my favorite teachers, Harry Buckingham, had an amazing way of telling stories about famous and even notorious people and events from the past. My classmates and myself were fully intrigued with his stories and we all asked questions to further our understanding. In fact, Mr. Buckingham liked stories so much that our goal each day was to get him on a tangent to tell more stories, many not content related. It’s the way he told the stories that kept us engaged!
Unfortunately, in public education right now if you aren’t telling your story, someone else is trying to…and we may not always like the story they are telling.
Here in Montana we’re still dealing with staffing problems holding over from Covid. Then there’s the longstanding budget limitations that could be made worse by the push for more charter schools and the possibility of a voucher system. There’s politics within different narratives, and it’s important to listen to all sides before developing an opinion and weighing in.
No matter how you look at it, though, these are all stories of real challenges impacting the lives of real people. But the way we tell these stories makes all the difference. I for one like to focus on solutions and action plans over opinions and problems. I like stories about underdogs and victories that are hard won. And those are always narratives that fit well in the world of educational leadership.
One way to rewrite the narrative in public education is to simply tell our own stories, the journeys that led us to become educational leaders. I have been promoting this strategy with other educators since I started in my first administrative position in 2004.
Here I’m going to do just that: tell my own story and offer up some key takeaways, things I learned through my relationships with students, staff, and immediate supervisors.
5th Grade Student Teacher
WHERE: MATSU School District: Pioneer Peak Elementary, Palmer, AK
WHEN: 1998 (5 Months)
WHO: Mr. Boyce – Cooperating Teacher; Mr. Miller – Principal
STUDENTS IMPACTED: 24 students
The allure of the remote Alaskan wilderness sucked me in. I was lucky enough to be dating a fabulous young lady whose uncle was a principal, John Miller at Pioneer Peak Elementary in Palmer, Alaska. I was able to connect with him, complete my student teaching at his school. He even let me stay in his home until I finished my requirements. I am so thankful for this experience. John truly was the man I wanted to be…family man, principal, and friend to many.
Mr. Boyce, my cooperating fifth grade teacher, was an extraordinary man of patience, kindness, and humor. He let me fail, gave me advice, and told me to get back up and do it again. This atmosphere of positive guidance helped me realize that teaching was a lot harder than I had first anticipated. I needed to be more prepared with plans… and better at thinking on my feet and troubleshooting when something didn’t go as planned. I am lucky to have started with Mr. Boyce as this was a successful student teaching experience…I now wanted my own classroom!
2nd Grade Long Term Substitute Teacher
WHERE: Anchorage School District: Northwood Elementary, Anchorage, AK
WHEN: 1998-1999 (5 Months)
WHO: Mrs. Doughty – 2nd Grade Teacher; Mr. Randazzo – Principal
STUDENTS IMPACTED: 32 students
After my student teaching experience in Palmer, I moved to Anchorage. In November of 1998, I started substitute teaching and chose jobs at all levels of K-12. By December, I was slotted into a long term substitute position in second grade at Northwood Elementary.
The teacher, Mrs. Doughty, was fighting cancer. Sadly, in January, she passed away. Not only did I have to continue to support these students in learning as a long term substitute, but I also had to support them with the loss of their teacher. This was very difficult. I began to understand that taking care of a student’s social and emotional state was just as important as the academic side. In addition, I found that many students needed support just to regulate themselves emotionally and behaviorally so as to be able to focus and learn.
Strangely enough, this second classroom was set up with a full time aide to support me. The class had 32 students. At the time, I didn’t know that was over the state maximum for students. I didn’t know any better, I was just glad to have a job. I look back now and wonder what the school was thinking by putting so many students into one classroom.
The other two second grade classrooms at the school were piloting two different types of reading programs at the time. All three second grade classrooms had a different program for reading going on. When these classrooms were leveled, I quickly realized that I had the most difficult and most needy students. Again, in retrospect, putting the least qualified teacher (me) with the neediest students would be something I would continue to fight against for the rest of my career…though I had confidence in myself at the time, and I didn’t know any better!
I had some things going on in my personal life too at the time. My dad had angioplasty in September, and over Christmas break of 1998, he had a sextuple coronary bypass surgery to save his life. The doctor had given him a directive that if he didn’t change his habits, he would only live for two years. I traveled home twice between student teaching and finishing my long term substitute position. I had to decide on where I was going to teach, Alaska or Montana?
I decided I needed to be back in Montana to be close to him, as it was costly to fly back and forth from Alaska, and I knew I couldn’t get the time with him I needed when I was so far away.
I applied to several positions in Montana: Ekalaka, Fort Shaw, and Lakeside. Visiting all of these places, and interviewing, I had hoped to get the Lakeside Elementary position. I was lucky enough to get offered two positions at the same time…I had to make another decision.
5th Grade Teacher
WHERE: Somers School District: Lakeside Elementary, Lakeside, MT
WHEN: 1999-2003 (4 Years)
WHO: Mrs. Hansen – Principal; Mrs. Brown / Mrs. Duffy – Co-Principals; Mr. Thies – Principal
STUDENTS IMPACTED: 20 students X 4 years = 80 students
Lakeside Elementary is on Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana. It is in a beautiful location with mountains and lakes encompassing the school. Many classrooms overlooked the lake and I thought, how fantastic would that be to teach and look out upon the lake all day!
The school was new, in fact, it was only two years old in 1999. The school had about 400 students in grades K-5. There were three classrooms for most grades, K-5. Though I was only there for four years, we had four different principals come in and out during this time. This taught me how important leadership was in a school, as well as how important it was to collaborate with colleagues. I was given 18 students my first year in a fifth grade classroom and averaged only about 20 students the following three years.
My teaching partners were fabulous and supportive, and we all recognized and complemented each other’s strengths regularly. The principal, Mickey Hansen, was a proponent of site-based managed teams. Every staff member had to be on some type of a team, and the leadership of these teams changed routinely…everyone at some point had a chance to lead. I bought into this collaborative leadership philosophy right away and have used this concept the rest of my career. I was only with Mrs. Hansen for one year as she moved on to a large elementary school in Spokane, Washington.
The following year, two teacher leaders were chosen to take over the principal position at the elementary school. Mrs. Duffy and Mrs. Brown. They were both teaching partners and did an excellent job of managing our school. Co-principals was a new concept to me as I am sure it added hurdles to their teaching day. They continued to teach a class for a half day while the other partner would be in the principal role.
I became a professional development junkie this first year. I soaked in the latest in educational research and during my tenure at Lakeside I was able to meet Carol Ann Tomlinson, Denny McLaughlin, Rick Wormelli, and Ruby Payne to name a few top educators.
During the second year of my teaching career, I began learning about Literacy in the Classroom, which was a reading philosophy that came out of New Zealand (The Reading Recovery program was connected to this philosophy). I invited my co-principals into my classroom to watch what I was doing. My favorite was showing them the implementation of this new reading program where I was leading literacy discussions (well my students were leading), and I was walking around facilitating these groups. My confidence was at an all-time high in only my second year of teaching, I didn’t know what I didn’t know unfortunately. I received some great advice that humbled me and made me think about my students’ needs which pushed me to use data and standards to drive my instruction. These concepts would stay with me throughout the rest of my career.
My third year at Lakeside brought a new principal, John Thies. He was completely different from any principal I had ever been connected with…genuine, positive, kind, and all about kids. This is exactly what I needed at this time in my career. He helped me understand that relationships come first. I was able to have him as my supervisor for two years.
In 2002, I began earning my Master of Educational Leadership online. This was the first online master’s degree for educational leadership that the state of Montana accepted. In 2003, I needed to get my hours completed for an internship requirement in order to complete my master’s degree. This meant I needed to be closer to the superintendent. I had to move within the district, from Lakeside Elementary to Somers Middle School, where the superintendent, Bob Smith, was located.
6th Grade Teacher
WHERE: Somers School District: Somers Middle School, Somers, MT
WHEN: 2003-2004 (1 year)
WHO: Mr. Smith – Superintendent; Mrs. Cunningham – Principal
STUDENTS IMPACTED: 3 classes X 20 = 60 students
In 2003, I was able to transition with my current 5th graders to 6th grade at the Middle School. This was an unbelievable experience as I was able to start learning with students so much sooner as the relationships with students and families were already strong. I then was a true believer of the concept of looping with students (looping with students from grade level to the next grade level). Of course, looping is only as effective as the teacher that works with these students. I asked, why can’t we think more outside the box and find great teachers that want to loop from school to school within a district? This would make transitions so much better for students and increase instructional time.
This experience made me think about all the things we do in education because we have always done them this way. It began my crusade to change things in education. I vowed to do things differently by always thinking about what is best for the students, even if it wasn’t always exactly what faculty wanted.
I was able to work closely with Mr. Smith, Superintendent of Somers School District, as well as the principal, Mrs. Cunningham. I needed over 250 hours of administrative work in order to meet the requirement for obtaining my master’s degree in educational leadership. I signed up to supervise every game, lead as many committees as possible, do additional research, and support in the planning of events for the school district.
I am grateful to these administrators who graciously allowed me to take part as I know I was a young punk that probably acted like I already knew what I was doing as a principal. Until I got that first administrative position, I didn’t know what I didn’t know!
K-12 Principal and Athletic Director
WHERE: Power School District, Power, MT
WHEN: 2004-2007 (3 Years)
WHO: Mr. Fifield – Superintendent
STUDENTS IMPACTED: 212 students + new kindergarteners each year (12 X 2 = 236 students)
In 2004, at the age of 27, I signed my first administrative contract to be the next K-12 principal and athletic director of a small rural school outside of Great Falls, Montana. The Power School District enrolled around 212 students in grades K-12 and all students were in one building… seniors walked by kindergartens daily! I am so grateful that the district chose me to lead with no administrative experience. What I came to learn quickly was that the athletic director portion of this job was more time consuming than the principal portion. I had to supervise all sports, all activities, and any other events. This led to long days.
Other than two staff members, I was the youngest employee at Power. Knowing this, I spent time forming strong relationships with staff members, especially those that I could glean leadership and knowledge for my new position. I needed a mentor. The former athletic director, Mr. Hamm was one of my first true informal mentors. He helped me understand how to be prepared by planning ahead. Too many times in this position I was reacting to things that were occurring, instead of being proactive. Mr. Hamm was a superhero in this arena.
My immediate supervisor, Mr. Fifield, was a retired principal and superintendent that wanted to continue working. He was a part time superintendent for the Power School District. His calm demeanor and ability to sit me down and tell me how it is was genuine. I appreciate his ability to have the frank conversations that I needed, as I still shook his hand after every meeting because I revered and respected him so highly. From Mr. Fifield I took away the ability to not shy away from difficult conversations, be respectful, and show the other person you care. I hope those that enter my office appreciate the candid conversations and are still able to shake my hand at the end of the day similar to Mr. Fifield!
At this time, I was engaged to a tremendous teacher in Great Falls, Montana. Being 30 minutes away, I wanted to get a position closer in order to start a family with her and her kids. I applied to several positions in the Great Falls School District but lost out on six interviews. I finally had to determine how much I wanted to be in Great Falls, going back to the classroom may be the best option. By coaching and teaching I could make the same salary and work fewer hours. This seemed like a no-brainer as I was starting my family.
5th Grade Teacher
WHERE: Great Falls School District: Morningside Elementary, Great Falls, MT
WHEN: 2007-2010 (3 Years)
WHO: Mr. Salonen – Principal
STUDENTS IMPACTED: 24 X 3 = 72 students
In 2007, I took a teaching position at Morningside Elementary in Great Falls, Montana. The next three years would turn out to be exactly what the doctor ordered. The principal of this school, Bill Salonen, was a National Distinguished Principal and understood how relationships are the vital cog to a well-run school. Mr. Salonen took me under his wing and began giving me leadership opportunities immediately. Looking back, I am grateful that he saw these leadership abilities in me, especially knowing that I was a former principal in a small school.
The greatest educational aspects I learned from Mr. Salonen are based on the relationships with students, parents, families, and community members. He spent much more time out of his office connecting than he did in his office. I wanted to emulate him and try to do so daily. His servant leadership style is something I continue today and I am lucky enough to call him a close friend!
In 2010, I was nominated for the Presidential Award in Elementary Math and Science. This award allowed me to visit Washington, D.C.
I can tell you the best part of this trip was waiting in the Yellow Room in the White House for President Obama to walk down the West Wing to visit us. As he was more than 200 feet away, the cheers and applause erupted, and the goosebumps set in…this memory will be forever ingrained in my brain! It encouraged me to give back to my community and to help develop and grow educators everywhere.
After these three years I was ready to take on a different position that had more impact, more impact on teaching. In addition, I had just begun the process of becoming a Nationally Board Certified Teacher (NBCT). The difficult decision to change positions while doing this process was a mistake as it was too difficult to show progress of students over time with my teaching strategies. I did not complete this process and regret not finishing, but the next position set me up for the future.
WHERE: Great Falls School District: District Office, Great Falls, MT
WHEN: 2010 (1 Year)
WHO: Mrs. Mathers – District Title Coordinator
STUDENTS IMPACTED: ? (too difficult to calculate)
In 2010, I decided to take a leap at a completely different type of teaching position, a teacher on special assignment…K-6 instructional coach. One full year of learning and working alongside teachers was an extraordinary experience. In fact, I revisited how to be a learner once again myself. I dove into my role, supporting teachers with new curriculum, instructional strategies, assessment techniques, behavior management, and more. Admittedly, an area I didn’t have much experience in was kindergarten. Kindergarteners always scared me, but this was a hurdle I had to overcome. I ended up spending several weeks teaching kindergartners a new reading program, and I loved it.
Mrs. Mathers, the school district Title I Coordinator, led our group of three instructional coaches. She worked hard to define what this position looked like and how it would be used in the school district. The greatest challenge was to make sure all staff members knew how we can support teachers in the classrooms, and we were not evaluating anyone. We worked with all tenure and non-tenured ranges of teachers in the district. The goal was to let people know we were coaching and working alongside teachers.
Mrs. Mathers chose the work of Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Philosophy to guide us. This gave us new language around the philosophy, actions, and helped create goals when coaching. This coaching philosophy has carried over into everything I do as an administrator. To this day, I find myself using the verbiage and strategy through this coaching experience with all employees. Her guidance really pushed me further, and I am grateful to have worked with such a highly regarded professional as Mrs. Mathers!
This position was slated for three years, but an opening at an elementary for a K-6 principal enticed me to apply. I was ready for the challenge.
K-6 Elementary Principal
WHERE: Great Falls School District: Lincoln Elementary, Great Falls, MT WHEN: 2011-2020 (9 Years)
WHO: Mrs. Uecker – Assistant Superintendent; Mrs. Lacey – Superintendent; Mr. Moore – Superintendent
STUDENTS IMPACTED: 420 students + new kindergarteners each year 70 X 2 = 560 students
On my seventh interview with the Great Falls School District, I finally was chosen to lead a school, Lincoln Elementary. From 2011 to 2020, I led roughly 420 students in grades K-6 in a fabulous elementary. My immediate supervisor was Mrs. Uecker. She was a well-articulated, organized, and effective leader of principals. I had fifteen other principals that were able to team with me during this tenure. I had never been part of such a large leadership team. I was pushed outside of my comfort zone. I learned how to work with all stakeholders and understood how vitally important to what I did next.
In 2012, Lincoln Elementary was nominated for the National Blue Ribbon Award. This afforded me and a teacher a trip to Washington, DC. We met with educational leaders, and I truly understood I am only as good as the people around me.
Then in 2018, I was nominated for the National Distinguished Principal Award. Again, I was able to visit Washington, DC with principals from all over the nation and even US territories and the Department of Defense. This was a completely humbling experience. I learned so much from these principals, made connections that I still nurture to this day. This inspired me to continue my servant leadership philosophy.
In 2019, I won the National No Kid Hungry Award. This was something that I was extremely proud about as we made a major change in how we support kids at school with food. We chose to offer breakfast after the morning bell. This improved academic scores, increased attendance, and decreased behavior referrals. A nationally released video was created that illustrated our journey in ensuring “no kid was hungry.”
In 2019, I felt I was ready to impact even more students. I applied for the open superintendent position in the Great Falls School District, a district with over 10,500 students. I understood this was a large leap going from an elementary principal to a superintendent of the second largest school district in Montana. I was lucky enough to be considered a finalist. Though I didn’t get the position, I knew I was ready for something bigger. I began applying for superintendent positions around the state of Montana.
WHERE: Corvallis School District: District Office, Corvallis, Montana
WHEN: 2020-2022 (2 Years)
WHO: Seven Member School Board
STUDENTS IMPACTED: 1258 + growth of 74 students + 80 new kindergarteners one year = 1,412 students
In March of 2020, I was interviewed and accepted the position as the next superintendent of Corvallis School District. Corvallis has around 1430 students in grades preK-12. I was elated to begin a new path. March 12, 2020 of the same year, schools were shut down due to the CoronaVirus. This proved to be a pivotal decision in my career. Not only was I going to be a first year superintendent, I would be leading a staff of over 200 employees, a student population of over 1400 students, and a community through a pandemic.
I can honestly say I never learned as much as I did during the two years I was in this school district. I worked with past colleagues, new colleagues, the county health department, and Rocky Mountain Laboratory (who researched infectious diseases like COVID-19) employees. I used mentors, worked closely with district lawyers and a personal lawyer, and more to make sure all students were safe…my first priority.
This position during COVID proved to test my values and ability to live my code. I was continually pitted between supporting and advocating for staff and others. Too many times the goals between the groups were quite different, which made the superintendent position difficult to maneuver.
In order to write more about this experience, I need to be further out from it. June 30, 2022 was my last day. I do know I feel burned by out of the “system” that I have loved so much, and I do want to get closer to students. In January of 2022, I began applying for other administrative positions.
High School Principal
WHERE: Columbia Falls School District: High School, Columbia Falls, MT WHEN: Begin August 8, 2022
WHO: Dave Wick – Superintendent
STUDENTS IMPACTED: 660
I am excited to begin a new chapter in my career as High School Principal in Columbia Falls, Montana. Once again, I am going backward, but I don’t feel like it is a move down, as I believe moving closer to working with kids day to day is an important next step for me to renew my commitment to staying in education! In addition, I get to work with a team I know and a boss that has been close to me for years.
My Career so Far: Total Students Impacted = 3,682+ Across 6 School Districts in 24 years
It feels awkward trying to put a number on impacted students, but I wanted to see what 24 years in education looked like over my career. I am sure others have much higher student counts, as well as other ways to count it, but it’s more important to me to accurately portray how we as educational leaders can directly impact students at each level.
I encourage you to tell your story. What takeaways did you get in each of your positions? How have the people you have worked with influenced who you are as an educator today? I am happy to say each of these people have played a role in making me who I am today!
I love education, and I love the idea of a free and appropriate education for all students! Let’s tell our stories and showcase what is right with education!