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An Untraditional Path

Dear colleagues,Superintendent Joe Gothard

I have often had students ask me, “How did you know you wanted to be a superintendent?” I am honest when I tell them that I didn’t. I had leaders around me who gave me opportunities and offered me support. They demanded my best in service of the schools, students, families and community, and I am beyond grateful for that. 

Long before I was a superintendent, I was a college dropout. I was in transition and didn’t know which direction I wanted to go. I was unsuccessful at college the first time for a lot of reasons. That is when I became an educational assistant at Lincoln Elementary in Madison, Wisconsin, where I grew up. I am fortunate that my principal and fellow educators embraced me and nurtured my development to take the next step.

I was also coaching basketball at La Follette High School, where my colleagues encouraged me to earn my teaching degree. From there, I went on to earn my bachelor’s, then master’s, and finally my doctorate from Edgewood College in Madison. Along this journey, I was encouraged and supported by so many people, from fellow teachers and coaches to principals, professors, deans, superintendents, and my wife of 27 years, Mary. Without all of them, I would not be where I am today.

There was one teacher in particular who stuck with me all throughout this journey. Mrs. Bell, my homeroom teacher at Sennett Middle School, was my first and one of my only Black teachers. There have been many times in difficult situations that I have thought about her and how she always instilled in me the belief that “I could do it.” She did not allow me to cut corners or take the easy way out. I know that I would not be the person I am now without her in my life.

I share this story because I hope it resonates with anyone who has taken a nontraditional path to where you are today. Maybe you are an EA or TA working toward your next steps. I know you will find great mentors in SPPS who can help you get wherever it is you want to go. Our SPPS Urban Teacher Residency (SUTR) program is one path we offer to “grow our own.” 

You may not know it, but you could very well be someone else’s Mrs. Bell. If you haven’t thanked the Mrs. Bells in your life, I encourage you to let them know about the mark they left on you. Great educators are nurtured, not born. Let us all support each other so we can support the next generation of leaders.

In partnership,

Joe Gothard, Superintendent