School administrator: ‘It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle’

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

School administrator: ‘It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle’With the California Department of Education’s declaration of Oct. 9-15 as “Week of the School Administrator,” Sierra Sands Unified School District celebrates those who have devoted their careers to the profession.

While administrators come to the job through a variety of pathways, and for a multitude of reasons, one thing most in the district have in common is a long-term commitment to the community they call home. The 19 administrators in Sierra Sands have nearly 400 years of combined service to the valley.

“This is not common at all,” said SSUSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Re-sources David Ostash, himself a 20-year veteran of the district. “In urban areas, most people live and work in separate communities, and a lot of administrators move around looking for places to further their careers.

“When I look at the level of dedication and time these administrators have given to Sierra Sands, and our community, I realize the quality of our leadership is really second to none. They are a driving force in our success.”

He added that a benefit of local leadership is that most have come up through the ranks, providing them with a great awareness of the needs on the front lines of education.

Ostash, who moved here to teach at Burroughs High School, said the stories and philosophies of his parents and grandparents — all teachers — significantly influenced his childhood and his decision to become a teacher himself.

“I realized very early on that teaching is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. The experiences you gain as a teacher are things that you carry with you your whole life. Teachers who truly love what they do are invigorated by their service — even when it’s not easy or underappreciated.”

Ostash credits his transition to administration partly to his mentors who drew him into the realm of advocating for the resources to deliver quality education to their students. “I think for myself, like many teachers, you just continue to stay involved in advisory or coaching or school site leadership and one thing leads to the next until you’re suddenly in your first administrative job.

“I think the one thing that does not change as an administrator is that your focus continues to remain on serving students needs.”

Ostash acknowledged the multi-faceted role of administration, but said the public face of that role is the school principal.

Kirsti Smith, head of Murray Middle School, leads the district in longevity, with 36 years of service.

“I went into teaching because I wanted to work with youth to convince them how much fun science can be,” she said. “Eventually, I realized it wasn’t science that was so important — it was the whole child and giving them the confidence to learn to be successful in school.”

One of the rewards is watching those middle-schoolers mature and develop an awareness and appreciation of the world and possibilities outside themselves and their circle of friends. The other, she said, is the teachers themselves.

Over the years, technology and state and federal accountability systems have driven a shift in education, but one positive aspect of that change are the increased collaboration between teachers and a more individualized focus on students. “Students are actually better behaved and more strictly supervised now.

“We are fortunate to live in this small community where we really do work as a village to raise our wonderful children!”

Smith left the district for a time to accept a job closer to her Northern California family.

After 11 months of traffic and other restrictions that come with urban living, she returned home to work and raise children. “I could never give up the wonderful school district that has offered me so many opportunities.”

Inyokern Elementary School Principal Bev Ewbanks, a 32-year veteran of the district, remembers sitting on the floor making lesson plans as a first-grader.

“My dad was a teacher, and between him and all the great teachers I had — those who could really ignite a classroom — I was excited to learn, and I wanted to be able make other people excited to learn,” she said.

“I love teaching and I always will, but I came to feel that I wanted to make a difference at another level. As a teacher, you connect to the lives of your students, their parents and your fellow teachers. As an administrator, you take that platform to the community level and work to make this a place where our kids have everything they need to succeed.”

Education is not without its challenges, she emphasized — primary among those a chronic shortage of resources. “I don’t just mean money, but you never have the manpower or the time to do all the things you want to do.

“But we can wallow in what we don’t have, and what we can’t do, or choose to see the possibilities. Sometimes that’s hard, but I think being able to find a way to get there can feel rewarding.”

Ewbanks, whose family has had a role in local education for decades, tells a familiar story of her return to Ridgecrest after college. “I was just going to teach here for one year.” As is often the case, the valley became the place she wanted to live, work and raise her family.

“I have had so many great people in this district who helped guide me and teach me and help me reach my potential. I saw what a great district this is for kids and for staff, and how the people here genuinely care about each other,” she said.

Dr. Bonny Porter, principal of Monroe Middle School, said that was also a factor in her return to her home town. “I enjoy the small-town atmosphere that Ridgecrest offers compared to a bigger city.”

She traces her interest in teaching back to being a 12-year-old gymnastics instructor with a passion for helping people learn and grow.

“The thing I never wanted to be was an administrator,” she said. She originally pursued her doctorate with the goal of becoming an educational lobbyist in Sacramento. When an opportunity arrived for her to take a role in administration with the LAUSD, where she focused on helping students with learning disabilities, she was surprised by her connection to the role.

With 24 years in education, 14 of those as an administrator, “I’ve seen so many changes.” The biggest, she said, are the emphasis on accountability and the increased technology available to students in the classroom.

“Students are expected to know more in their core classes and also be able to find information in a global context through the use of technology,” she said.

Porter said that she loves working with the students, families and teachers at Monroe — “Educators and support staff are some of the most kind, caring and hard-working people I know — the hours in the day always limit the impact on student lives.

“I believe that if I just had a little more time, I could make a greater positive impact on society.”

Like many, education was a “family business” for Burroughs High School Principal Bryan Auld, a 20-year veteran of Sierra Sands. His parents, wife, sister and many aunts, uncles and cousins have all committed their lives to teaching.

His grandparents, the late Howard and nonagenarian Barbara Auld, also helped shape his decision. “They selflessly gave both time and money to support community growth. They were a constant reminder, mostly by example, that supporting one’s community was both necessary and admirable.”

That commitment to serving students has also become the most rewarding part of his job.

“Nothing can replace the feeling of exhilaration and excitement that comes from helping a student succeed,” said Auld. “I also find it very rewarding to support faculty — both individually and in teams. It takes a team to accomplish great things.”

He said he is grateful for those in the community who are always giving of themselves to compensate for insufficient resources.

For an administrator, technology means that the job has no reprieve. “In other words, unless we shut down technology, we are never “off work.”

But that technological proliferation has also changed the delivery of education. It has changed instruction, collaboration and communication— and it has even changed curriculum.

“For example, with the prevalence of smart phones, we no longer need to focus on memorization or regurgitating facts,” he said. “Instead, we are now faced with the challenge of teaching students what to do with that information, how to think critically, how to determine whether information is relevant and factual.”

Educators are also constantly working to make sure students are safe in the burgeoning digital realm.

Before settling on becoming a teacher, Auld said, he contemplated practicing law, though he ultimately decided that would make a viable career only in an urban setting. Here, his children have been able to forge strong relationships with their family.

“This place is not perfect, but it’s special,” he said. We may not have the kind of shopping and entertainment venues of a large city, but there is “a sense of family, safety, great friends and caring community. Those are the amenities that I value, and for the most part, I don’t know that you can find those in larger cities.”

One example of a “behind-the-scenes” administrator is Elaine Littleton, who has served the district for 30 years and now leads the special education programs and services.

As an undergrad, she was not sure she wanted to teach. It was not until she began teaching her senior year that she was hooked. Although she went back to complete a master’s degree, special education was still in the beginning stages of development in 1977.

“All of my professors were from other disciplines, because special education was so new,” she said. “It was a fascinating experience. I knew that I had found what I wanted to do in education.”

Her service with the district has largely stayed on the leading edge of program development, as new mandates and discoveries continue to sculpt the direction of how to meet students with special needs. After serving at various schools, she became coordinator of pupil support services in 2003, then of SELPA (special education) in 2008.

“Each position that I held in the district has provided me with unique learning experiences,” said Littleton. “I have been able to be involved at every level — elementary, middle and high school. That has been helpful in my position as SELPA director because it gave me an understanding of the different challenges that each grade level faces.”

After more than 40 years in education, most of the changes she has seen have been positive.

“Research and best practices are expanding the ways that we think about teaching and meeting the diverse needs of all students, not just those with an individualized education plan. The changes that we have seen in our society are also reflected in our schools and the students that we serve.

“The challenge of public education is to meet the students at the place that we encounter them and provide them with the tools that they will need in order to be successful in life,” said Littleton.

“I have a deep-rooted belief in public education. I think that it is one of the cornerstones of our nation. It isn’t perfect, but it is our duty to constantly work to improve the system. I have been privileged to be a part of an amazing team in my years in Sierra Sands.”

Pictured: Inyokern Elementary School Principal Bev Ewbank helps fourth-grader Jamie Haas in the library as she prepares for a test. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2016-10-07