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After being hired as the new principal of PBL Junior High School, Josh Didier was interviewed Friday by Paxton Record Editor Will Brumleve. Here’s the dialogue:
What are your feelings going into your new job? What challenges do you envision having in your first year?
“I guess I would say I don’t look at it as challenges. I mean, I’m just really excited about the opportunity the superintendent and the school board gave me. So I don’t really look at it like there’s challenges.
“I just look at it, like, you know, with the district’s commitment to excellence, I’m just going to come into the junior high and be myself. And I think we’re just going to collaborate with the staff, get to know students, be visible, talk with parents, be at sporting events and other organizational events. And from there, I need to learn the school and the school needs to learn about me. We both need to learn about each other.
“I always refer to it as a ‘learning community.’ Between administration, teachers, students and parents, we all make up that learning community. I just look forward to the relationship piece: building relationships with students and staff and parents. That’s the most important thing to me.
“We already have great programs in place, and we’re building upon those, but, you know, it’s not about programs, it’s about people. So I really don’t know the challenge, you know.”
Is there anything new you plan to implement — any new programs, any new initiatives, any kind of stuff you are going to add to what is offered at the junior high? What changes can people expect?
“It’s hard to say at this point what those changes would be. I have ideas on things that, I guess I would say, I’ve built my administrative career on. But I definitely need to get to know (the teachers and students) a little bit and collaborate with the staff to find out what those would be.
“But I would say, if you were like, ‘Rather than changes, what imrovements do you want to make?,’ when I interviewed for the job I looked at the school report card (from the Illinois State Board of Education) and the current (testing) data, and I would see things like our low economic population. That’s always a group of, a percentage of your school (population), that you always have to look at as far as programs and services and interventions being provided and counseling.
“The other part is I really want to get to understand and collaborate with resource teachers, special education staff, to understand what those needs are in the school.
“So I don’t look at it like ‘he’s going to change this, change that.’ I would say this: Changes that I have made have always been with the notation of what is best for students. I mean, for me, I’ve always rated it this way: Students, parents, teachers, me last. I would always be the last person I’m going to take care of, when it comes to that stuff. I want what is best for the students, even if it makes me uncomfortable, meaning more work, more time or more planning. If it’s the best thing for kids, I would do it.
"Now it’s different than when I was at the grade school. I came in (to Clara Peterson) and there were some immediate changes that I made. Things like recess before lunch — certain things I came in and made immediate changes on. Although we can compare the grade school and the junior high, we also know it’s two completely different things, you know, with class periods, etc.
“We need to explore and collaborate. Let’s see where we are and see where we want to be as a staff. And also getting input from teachers and parents.
“I guess if you were like, ‘Josh, give me one change,’ I would tell you I want the school to live and breathe what our students live and breathe. Like when I walk in those hallways (at the junior high), I look in those hallways and I’m like, ‘What a great place to have (picture) frames with students now and yesterday and as the years go by adding other pictures of students.’ I look at this place, and I see, ‘What a great place to have a bulletin board and have current things (listed on it).’ Like they’re doing student of the week, students of the month. Why don’t we get those pictures up of those kids? But there isn’t a bulletin board (in the hallway). So I guess if you were looking for one change, I would say, ‘Let’s improve the aesthetics a little bit.’ That would be something I would look to change first.
One thing you did at Clara Pete that was really a big deal that you took a lot of effort in was PBIS. Is that something you are looking to implement at PBL Junior High, too?
“When I did the interview process, we did discuss PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Supports). ... PBIS has a concept of your school having three to five expectations clearly stated: respect yourself, respect others, respect property. Some places have other expectations like that. The other thing is looking to be positive with students in a way where we’re doing more positives than corrections.
“I definitely am interested in exploring PBIS. But the first thing it takes for PBIS (to be implemented) is 80 percent buy-in by the staff. So it couldn’t be (just my decision). There’s also some other technical things (required to implement the program).
“But I would say whether or not we become a PBIS school, there is no escaping the fundamental approach like PBIS with an administrator like me.
“So even if we didn’t become (an officially recognized) PBIS school ... I know enough about PBIS that even if we weren’t listed in the PBIS database, we could do it anyway. Because having been a trainer, having implemented it for seven years at schools, it’s not something we couldn’t implement — the core principals behind it from a Tier 1 standpoint. So we’ll just have to see. I actually have that question out right now.
With the differences in the kids at the junior high and elementary school levels, what ways do you intend to motivate your new students?
“There is no doubt that from grade school to high school, or grade school to junior high, there are differences. But also, I don’t mean to sound cliche, but kids are kids, and just like kids at Clara Pete to the junior high, I think they want adults that are invested in them as a person — they know their name; they know the kind of activities they like and dislike, whether it’s sports or clubs. And that does take time, getting to know the students.
“But that’s one thing I pride myself upon. I think that comes back to being visible. My students will know me, and I will know my students. There’s no way around it. They will know me and I will know them.
“And having taught junior high and having taught high school, I would say developing relationships is a huge strength of mine. I feel very confident, because I know I can put in the time. I know that junior high kids, they like it when you know them — when you see them in the morning and you’re greeting them at the front door or whatever it is and you’re able to say something to them about having seen their volleyball game, their baseball game, or saw them at student council. When you’re able to make those connections outside of the classroom, it’s just on a different level, you know.
“And I would say students like organization. They like structure. I don’t want to say students like to be told what to do, but I think from adults to kids we all enjoy an environment that is welcoming, provides structure and is organized. That’s what we’ll have.”
What about the staff? What steps are you going to take to get the staff on the same page as you?
“I think the first time we do a faculty meeting, once I have a chance to really delve into this curriculum and the school, I will have my expectations out there. Overall, and I said this during the interview, for me, I look for people to be professional, be caring and also with a skill set that is continuing developing.
“When it comes to staff, I think they’ll know and see that being professional and caring is No. 1. Your skill set is continually being developed through professional development, early dismissal times, all that stuff.
“I’m the kind of leader that I’d rather lead by my actions by my words. So, there’s not one thing I could tell the staff. They will know the expectations — when I talk about being professional, caring and our skill sets developing — but the other thing is I have to lead by example. It’s like, how do you tell people that you have integrity? You can talk about it, but you have to show people.
“I just really want people at the junior high, just like I did at Clara Pete, I want all of us having 100 percent responsibility for what we say and what we do and also for what we don’t say and what we don’t do. If we all take that ownership and that responsibility, then we’re all taking care of what we need.”
Why did you want the job? What attracted you to the position?
“I like to compete. I enjoy challenges. I will say this, too: I definitely enjoy change. But all the change I’ve ever had in my life has always been for a positive reason.
“Next year will be my 14th year in education in its entirety. That started at East Peoria at a junior high; then I went to East Peoria High School; then I went to Unity High School in Tolono; then I went to Unity Grade School in Tolono; then I went to Clara Pete, and I’m now at the junior high. So six schools in 14 years.
“And the board and the superintendent wanted to know I was going to be here. Because they have had turnover (of principals in the district).
“Having started my career at junior high and high school and having coached all these different sports with kids, I always knew I could end up back. And really, I think for me, what it is is there was just something inside of me that said, ‘I needed to at least sit down and have a conversation and see where (the school board was) at’ — where were they at on the candidates they had versus me?
“One of the questions that did come up was, ‘Josh, you’re leaving, and I’m glad that the perception at the grade school is that that place is wonderful and that it’s really, really going well and things are definitely headed in the right direction.’ ... So people would say, ‘Why do you want to leave that?’ And really the only answer I could have is that that’s why I submitted my application and all the credentials that went with it.
“I didn’t look at it like they were interviewing me necessarily; I looked at it like I was interviewing them. And once they saw who I was and what I was about, they were thinking that I was the best person for that job, and that’s the best thing for the district.”
So you were happy at Clara Pete, obviously. But how long-term do you want to be at PBL? Is this the place where you want to end your career? Are you looking that far ahead?
“I would say this: Every job that I’ve ever taken, I’ve never taken it as a stepping stone to something next. In all honesty, here’s the thing: A week before that junior high job was about to close, my teachers had heard, ‘Hey, we’re hearing that you’re applying.’ And I’m not joking, I had no desire at that point to even put my name in (and apply), and there was no discussions had about anything like that.
“So, I really was, when you talk about longevity, when I was at that grade school, I was like, ‘I could be here for 30 years for all I know.’ It was great. It was wonderful.
“But I’m a risk taker, a calculated risk taker. So I applied.
“They were interviewing me as much as I was interviewing them. I would have been no more happy or less happy if they would have not gone with me and I would have (remained) at that grade school. That happiness was not dependent upon whether I was there (at the junior high) or not there.
“As far as longevity, like I said, it’s not a stepping stone. I took this job knowing I have a three-year contract but also knowing this could end up being it.”
You mentioned earlier that you had a lot of questions for the board. What was your main concern that you wanted to know from the board to make sure this was the right fit for you?
“I guess, for me, what I wanted to know from them was where was their perception of where the junior high was at now and where did they want it to be?
“There was no one specific thing that was said, that ‘this is a problem’ or ‘this is an issue.’ How they looked at it like was, ‘Where Mr. (Jeff) Graham had it, where Mr. (Dave) Snider put it, can you continue in those improvement things and those initiatives?’
“Because I really wanted to know if there was one thing (or issue), I really wanted to know what that is. And I think that between that and just making sure it’s an atmosphere of collaboration ...
“There’s no doubt when you look at me, ultimately decisions are my decision, but I do want to collaborate with staff to get necessary input as decisions are made.”
Today you were meeting with some of your new teachers, right?
“Yes. Basically, it’s like this: My contract doesn’t start until July 1, but we would be fools if we were sitting here going, ‘I wasn’t multitasking’ right now.
“So I actually met with teachers Thursday, the 31st. I was there for Common Core planning with math with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teachers. And today I was in there because the district is working on a three-year math plan for Common Core.
“So the meeting in there right now has junior high, Eastlawn and Clara Pete and high school teachers. We’re working on that three-year plan.
“But yesterday I went to the meeting just for the junior high. And let me tell you, that’s probably another thing that makes me the best candidate is now that I’ve been at Clara Pete, and I’m here at the junior high, a lot of the fundamental basic questions that we’re addressing when it comes to Common Core, teacher evaluation, the content is different but the questions are the same.
“As teachers are intimidated and scared by some of the things that are coming but also welcoming the challenge, the same fears and apprehensions we have at one building, it’s the same in every building.
“We all worry about those things, because we want to do well.
What can you tell us about Common Core?
“Common Core state standards is CCSS. Basically that is what the state of Illinois has adopted as their new curriculum. As far as the new assessment piece goes, that part is still being developed by the state. And I think the acronym for it is PARCC. They’re developing an assessment that is going to be based on the Common Core standards. And Common Core state standards is replacing the Illinois state standards.
"The difference between the two is there’s less (standards), and they go more in depth. ... The difference is now with the Common Core, when you read it, it’s much more compact as far as the number of standards go, but that standard goes into more detail, which should help.
“The other part that comes into that is the new teacher evaluation model that the state of Illinois and our district and all districts are adopting. ... I look forward to it as an administrator, after going to trainings already. (Superintendent) Cliff (McClure) has been very good about preparing us for this. We’ve already done trainings, we’ve done book studies as administrators preparing for what it’s going to be. And this summer I have to do 32 to 40 hours of online training on the new framework for (teacher) evaluation, but I look forward to it because it will make us better. ... It’s going to be more about evaluating teaching than teachers.”
"You mentioned coaching earlier. Any plans to get into coaching at all, or do you think you’ve got your plate pretty full with the job you’re going to have?
“I would never say that my coaching days are done. Because you’re always connected to it, right? But my great thing is now at the junior high is I definitely get to make that sport and club and organization connection piece again because now I will be, and will have to be, at those events more. But as far as coaching goes, my dedication is first to the role of principal and then everything else is secondary.”
What kind of reception have you had from the teachers so far? Are they happy about you being the new man in charge?
“I’ve already met the administrative secretaries in the front and doing this math planning with some of those teachers there. I’m just doing a lot of listening and trying to hear things, their concerns but also wanting to hear what do we do well.
“I think the junior high staff, if you were to say, ‘How do you think they feel?’, I would say that they are probably, hopefully, based on my reputation from working at Clara Pete, hopefully they’re excited knowing their getting somebody with experience and proven experience.
“But I would also say this: that I’m also sure that this is where we’ve got to get to learn each other because how many administrators have they had? Probably in the last 10 years they’ve had four people. ... So there’s no way I can say, ‘Here I am.’ They’re going to have to get to know me by what I say and what I do.
“As far as the Clara Pete staff, I sent them an email the night I got done talking to the board and I knew it was going to be finalized. I sent them an email right after I left here. ... I just thanked them for the opportunity to work with them and I think I told them ‘you made me a better administrator and a better man,’ because I’ve learned a ton from them.
What did you learn from the teachers at Clara Pete?
“It’s hard to put it onto one specific thing, but I learned more about myself and the type of leader that I was and also the type of leader that I was not. Here’s the thing: when it comes to best practice and good teaching, watching some of the things they did and their projects and activities, they further resolved my feelings on being professional and being caring with students and parents and teachers. I mean, what a wonderful staff. ...
“I don’t really look at it like, ‘Did I make Clara Pete better?’ That’s for them to decide. But I do know this: Clara Pete made me better.”
For the new person coming into take your job at Clara Peterson, what would you tell that person if you could give them a little advice?
“I would say the things that I felt helped me: Build relationships with students, with parents, with staff. By building that relationship, you build the trust, and when parents trust you they buy more into the initiatives you’re trying to do and things like that.
“That’s one of the things I felt good about. In two short years (at Clara Peterson), I felt like I had the trust of parents to maybe move ahead and do some initiatives, whereas other administrators might have had to wait a little bit. Because I felt my relationship with parents, they knew that I knew their kids. So I would say those relationships have got to be ready. ... Other than that, I can’t think of anything I would tell that person.”