Educational leaders of two of Nebraska largest school districts were able to discuss leadership and the challenges they have faced in their careers on Wednesday night.
At a Warner Lecture Series talk, hosted by the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s College of Arts and Sciences at College Park and streamed virtually via Zoom, current Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent and former Grand Island Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel and current GIPS Superintendent Tawana Grover talked about the “pivotal points” they have faced in their lives and how it shaped who they are as educational leaders.
The Warner Lecture Series was launched in 2017 to address important issues in Nebraska and recognize the service of Charles J. Warner and his son Jerome Warner, two prominent former state senators who played a significant role in UNK’s history.
Joel said, as he reflected on leadership and the opportunities he has had in his life, he thinks about these pivot points. He said he, and every leader, are able to get to a certain point in their careers where they can look back at these moments.
In 1972, Joel said he found his way to Nebraska — a place he had never been to before — from New York City to enroll at Doane College. He said that while he didn’t appreciate it at the time, his enrolling at Doane was a pivot point in his life.
Joel said the decision to enroll at Doane was based on a single phone call and that it was his father’s idea. Joel said he was not in agreement with the idea.
“I didn’t want to leave New York, its pizza places, my friends and my 1965 Mustang,” Joel said. “My dad just said, ‘You know, let’s go see a part of the country we haven’t seen.’ He literally dropped me off at midnight in Crete. If the seniors wouldn’t have taken me ‘snipe hunting’ in September, I probably would not have stayed in Nebraska.”
Grover said she faced similar challenges as a young adult. After high school, while she graduated at the top of her class, she said she had no college plan and did not know what she wanted to do with her life.
Grover said she did the one thing she and others knew and worked at a local factory. Her life pivoted when two older co-workers took her under their wings.
“One day they said to me, ‘Why are you here? At this point in our lives, we do not have a choice, but you do.’ That just simply said that they saw so much in me,” Grover said. “I can remember one day during lunch break, I actually went away from that job and I went and enrolled myself in college. Three years later, I was able to earn my bachelor’s degree.”
Grover said, early in her career, her goal was to be a counselor since she wanted to educate students about “the options and choices they have, no matter their background, last name or how much money their family makes.”
But, Grover said, her journey did not go exactly as she had planned as she later became an administrator at age 25, working at a K-12 school she had to take a ferry to get to work. In her time as principal, she said she realized how people come together around their core values and education — ideas she has carried with her during her career.
Joel said the biggest pivot point in his life was in 2006 when, as GIPS superintendent, he dealt with the effects of a raid at Swift (now JBS) by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
He said he remembered being annoyed as he was stuck at a railroad crossing waiting on two trains. However, that didn’t agitate him any longer when he received a call from the police chief.
“He called me and said, ‘I can’t give you specifics, but there is something big happening out at the meatpacking plant and it is going to be very disruptive to your families,’” Joel said. “Literally within 10 or 15 minutes, we were able to pull a team of folks together to try to do what we could do to figure out which of our kids were being impacted.”
Joel said he remembers that while Grand Island was divided on the issue of immigration, it came together for the kids affected by the raid.
“In times of crisis, the best comes out in people,” he said. “I was never prouder of professional people, or of our community, when they wrapped their arms around our kids.”
Grover said one of the defining moments of her educational career was dealing with the aftermath of the death of George Floyd this summer. As the first African-American superintendent in Nebraska, she said she never had to associate the color of her skin with her leadership role prior to that point.
“Many community members here in Grand Island reached out to me to ask, ‘How are you doing?’ They wanted to know how I was doing as a person of color and knowing that I had sons of my own,” Grover said. “I was able to say that I am a Black female and a Black mother living in a diverse community.”
She said schools must provide students with the resources to use their voice to be able to stand up for social justice and making positive changes in their communities in light of recent issues around the country, including Floyd’s death.
“What I would say to my students is, ‘Use your voice, be able to share about your own personal journey and your own story, but also use your ears and your heart to be able to understand the stories and pathways of others,’” Grover said. “I think our kids just might be the ones who can help us really move the needle when it comes to addressing racial inequalities, diversity and inclusiveness.”
Joel said what the current generation of students have experienced this year alone is “10 or 20 years of experiences that many of us have had,” and that schools need to help them figure it out.
“How can we, as an educational institution, take advantage of the fact that they are experiencing history every single day in an environment that they are trying to figure out what it all means?” he said. “I think as educational institutions, we have to be able to put them in a position to be able to have those conversations to ultimately find their own voice.”