The power of mentoring
Steve Joel was happy and had a plan. He was going to continue coaching high school football, teach social studies and be a driver’s education instructor in the summer. Eventually, he’d move up from Wilber-Clatonia and be a head coach at a large high school in Nebraska. Then he met Ed Kelley.
“Driver’s ed was one of the greatest jobs ever,” said Joel. “You ride around in a late model, air-conditioned car and teach kids to drive. But I had to get nine hours for driver’s ed certification, so I went to campus one day to sign up.”
Enter Ed Kelley, an assistant professor in secondary education and administration, at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The person who signed off on driver’s ed courses wasn’t in that day, so a friend told Joel to go see Kelley. That chance meeting ended up changing the course of Joel’s career in education.
“He told me ‘we don’t need any more damn driver’s ed teachers. We need leaders and administrators,’” Joel recalled.
He was compelled by Kelley to join him later that day at local pub with other graduate school hopefuls. Over a glass of beer, a deal was struck. Kelley would sign Joel’s driver’s ed paperwork if Joel would take one class in educational leadership. That class changed his life.
Kelley was far from being finished influencing Joel’s career path. After securing his master’s degree in educational administration at Nebraska, he was offered the middle school principal’s job and athletic director’s position in Wilber-Clatonia. Joel was thrilled with the development and so was his wife, a small-town Nebraska native. Kelley thought otherwise. He felt Joel should get some experience elsewhere. Joel’s response was, “well you can tell my wife then. She’s as happy as she’s been.” Instead, Kelley suggested it would be a good “leadership activity” for Joel to break the news.
Today, Steve Joel sits in the superintendent’s chair at Lincoln Public Schools, the second largest school district in Nebraska, at nearly 41,000 students and growing. His educational leadership journey started with principalships in Kansas and progressed to superintendent posts in Beatrice, Grand Island and, since 2010, in Lincoln. Along the way, he picked up a Nebraska Superintendent of the Year Award and other leadership awards. He serves on numerous community boards including the chamber of commerce, Lincoln Community Foundation and United Way, where he currently serves as president.
Joel still credits his graduate degree at Nebraska (master’s, 1981) with launching his administrative career. He’s a Doane University graduate and earned at Ph.D. from Kansas State, but Ed Kelley (now deceased) and other Nebraska professors taught him the power of persuasion and the importance of mentoring aspiring leaders.
“When people enter our lives, we really have to reflect on what they’re saying,” says Joel. “The most important thing we’ll ever do as leaders is find unseen potential in others. That’s what the university did for me back when I was working on my master’s.”
That lesson is carried forward by Joel on a regular basis. He strives to bring value to the people he works with—to help them see things they hadn’t even considered and to encourage them to take some risks toward success.
“The people who made me the most uncomfortable were the people who helped me grow and develop the most,” Joel said. “I recognize that’s where I am in my career right now. I try to challenge people. Make them feel a bit uncomfortable. I’ll ask someone to do something they’ve never done before, and often they later tell me it was a great experience.”
As Joel winds down his administrative career, he predicts future school leaders will need to be proactive about engaging their communities. He says every day is an opportunity to show stakeholders and taxpayers the value of their public schools.
“We’re so reliant on taxes to fund our schools,” explains Joel. “There’s always going to be critics, and we need to continue to help our communities understand what it takes to be an educator and to serve all of our students. It’s always going to be a challenge.”
He’s thankful that Nebraska and the College of Education and Human Sciences remains committed to preparing future teachers, school administrators and researching more effective educational practices. He sees the bar set high as young educators prepare to take the next step in their careers.
“The university is a game changer in so many lives,” said Joel. “It was for me back in the 1970s, and I see it happening today. I appreciate so much what the university does for LPS. We’re involved with some great research projects, and I’m convinced that everything is built around the concept of ‘we’re all in this together.’”
For more on Steve Joel’s philosophy on mentorship and leadership, watch his Lincoln TED Talk.