Pleasanton’s three departing veteran principals all have different backgrounds, but they share a common message: The key to their success is building relationships.
“The way we’re most successful with students is getting to know them and getting them to connect with us,” said John Whitney, who’s retiring after 14 years at Pleasanton Middle School. He was principal at Donlon Elementary before that, and served as dean at PMS before moving to Donlon.
One of the ways Whitney’s been known to reach out is through music, playing guitar with students and getting others to dance.
Both high school principals, Foothill’s John Dwyer, who’s headed to a high school in west San Jose, and Jim Hansen, who’s retiring, agreed that success is about more than just the students.
Dwyer is leaving after spending nine years at the school, where he started as a vice principal. He’s been principal for six years.
“Everything is built on relationships,” Dwyer said. “You need to build solid relationships with staff, parents, kids and the community.”
Hansen has been principal at Amador since 2010, and spent 11 years before that as principal at Harvest Park Middle School. Give him five minutes, and he loves to talk about accomplishments — not his own, but those of his students.
“It’s pretty exciting when, for example, our baseball team won Saturday,” he said. “They’re moving on to the next level of North Coast Section play. It’s kind of cool to see how excited the kids get and be able to be involved in that, to see the excitement of the kids that came in second in the nation in ‘We the People,’ just how hard they worked to get there.
“It’s just gratifying as a principal to see kids doing so well and thriving.”
Hansen also complimented the school’s drama and mock trial team.
“In this school, excellence in the classroom is the norm, but even beyond the classroom, just being able to watch kids excel. Not only do they excel in competitive environments, but they excel in community service,” he said.
Whitney said the best part of the job is being part of a team.
“Being part of a large team of dedicated, passionate people who want to make a difference in the lives of kids — that’s awesome,” he said.
“You get to work with wonderful kids, great teachers and faculty,” Dywer said.
He said the hardest part of being a principal is trying to achieve balance.
“Between the time you spend at school and the time you want to spend at school, because it’s a great place to be, but also looking at your own personal family life and trying to find that balance, it’s a time consuming job,” he said. “For your personal health and sanity, you’ve got to find that balance. We’re all challenged by that, trying to find balance in our lives.”
Both Whitney and Hansen touched on recent economic struggles as among the hardest parts of the job.
“Overall, the funding situation has been so unpredictable,” Whitney said. “We’re used to doing educational instruction at certain levels of staffing and financial support. With the budgeting challenges, we were bound and determined to continue that. We did everything we could to continue the highest levels of quality.”
For Hansen, less money meant having to say “no” more often.
“If there’s a request for funding a project or funding an event or something that’s near and dear to the staff or the students and the funds aren’t there to do that, that’s difficult,” he said.
They said working with problem students can be tough, too.
“Once in a while, you try everything you can for a specific student but there’s something in the way of getting them where they need to be,” Whitney said.
Hansen said his approach to discipline has always been less about punishment than it is about helping a student realize the consequences of her or his actions.
“Having that conversation with a student about what they did and what the consequences are — involving the family in that conversation, typically — I know that I’ve been successful if the child doesn’t do it again, if there’s a sense that he understands,” he said. “When a kid walks out of the office after you’ve had that conversation and after you’ve given him the consequence and he says, ‘Thank you,’ or she says, ‘Thank you’ — and they usually do — I think it’s been successful.
“There are times you have to be heavy handed with suspensions and expulsions but I really think kids come away from those experiences having learned a huge life lesson, so it’s really about the life lesson.”
All three offered simple advice for the next person to step into their job.
“Establish a real solid foundation of positive relationships with all staff — teaching staff, classified staff, kids, community. When it comes time to make changes, that becomes much more difficult, I think,” Dwyer said. “If you want to be successful with the changes you want to make or moving the school forward, you have to spend a lot of time building those relationships.”
Jason Krolikowski, an assistant principal from the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, was hired as Foothill High’s new principal.
Hansen’s successor at Amador Valley has yet to be selected.
His advice for the next principal is “learn the culture, get to know the staff and the students and the parents and understand what this community is about, what direction it’s already going.
“Obviously,” he said, “that person is going to want to add his own ideas in terms of that, but make sure he understands the direction the place is already going before implementing any changes.”
Whitney said he’s already confident the incoming principal at PMS, Aileen Parsons, will do a great job.
“She knows our school well,” he said. His single piece of advice: “You just have to enjoy the moment.”