Musings of a Lutheran School Old-Timer

by Dr. James Juergensen

Jim Pingel has been dogging me to submit a piece for The ALSS Journal, and I have been dodging him for awhile now. Also was motivated by Duane Jobst’s masterful and meaningful trip down the memory lane of his illustrious career in the Winter Journal, so I gave in. However, my compromise OK’d by Jim is not to produce another leadership primer by another old retired college guy, but instead a stream of consciousness-type list of principles I’ve lived by, reflections on a long journey in school leadership, an attempt at a pithy set of what worked some or most of the time for me, some random thoughts, and daring advice you can take or leave, hopefully some food for thought, and maybe even some 'aha’ moments for you. Did you get all that?

The rule I set for my producing this list was that I forbade myself to refer to any formal text I’ve read or used for my leadership courses I’ve taught, or even any concepts on leadership qualities from articles I’ve read. These are things I learned from much experience mostly the hard way, by trial and lots of errors, from my parents, friends, mentors (mostly the old lions at ALSS, guess I’m one of those now!), colleagues, and especially from the kids in the Lutheran high schools I served and grad students in my classes. Another rule was to sit down in one afternoon, and rattle them off quickly so as to finish later that night, truly off the top of my head, thus fresh and candid. I am a driven person, have a piece of OCD in me, as my family knows, and do my best(?) work when pressed to “git ‘er” done ASAP. Thus I produced this document w/o missing any grandkid basketball or volleyball games (I had five grandkids & one great grandkid playing basketball this past season, now in the spring season with baseball, soccer and track coming down the pike, plus various club sports always going on).

I retired after fifty fulltime years in the teaching/leading ministry in July, 2013—two starting at Grace, Queens Village, NY, ten at LI LHS, six at The American School in Japan, four at Rockford LHS, and twenty-eight (now thirty-three counting adjunct work) at CUW. Forty-seven of those years were in school administration. I still am teaching adjunct leadership and anthropology courses and advising theses and capstone projects online (greatest part-time job in the world!), watching grandkid games and activities, leading two Bible classes, serving as an elder at church, playing some golf, sorta, traveling quite a bit to family events, and enjoying getting up to our summer place in Door County, WI as much as we can in between. Cami and I celebrated our Palm Sunday 50thwedding anniversary this spring, and have a big double 50thanniversary reunion with our family and my brother and sis in law’s family at Lake Okoboji in Iowa in July. I’m also looking forward to a reunion in September at Lake Tahoe of my OLD baseball players from the three teams I coached at LuHi from 1966-68. I partook of an Alaskan cruise last August with bro Dan and Linda and Paul and Marge Wenger to start the 50thcelebrations early! Great seeing so many of my “old” ALSS/LEA friends, and meeting many more new/young administrators at our Alliance Conference in Orlando in March (plus staying the rest of the week with son Jim Jr. to catch three Yankee spring training games and a college game too. Bucket list checkoff complete!).

This all proves that I qualify as a legit old-timer, been there and done that. Okay, enough stalling: Here goes my quick reflections, all fifty of them in no special order (actually had to cut down the list to hold it to fifty!). I pray and hope some will hit home for you. I had fun in developing this list out of what is left of my memory box. Let’s roll:

  1. My personal mission statement on the Servant Leadership Model of Jesus Christ, the Greatest Servant (ala Matthew 20:26-28, paraphrased): “If you want to lead, get down on your knees and serve like a slave, for the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give His life for all.”

  2. Added this one when I got to CUW, as Dean of the School of Ed (Ephesians 4:9-13, paraphrased): “Equip our teacher candidate students (and later Called teachers and their students) for the work of service, to build up the body of Christ (the Church and its schools), to become more mature believers.”

  3. “You gotta have HEART!” Relationships key, built on mutual TRUST.

  4. Find and be a mentor/coach. Still doing that for a number of new principals, and I love it! BTW, there is no better training for school leadership than coaching sports, directing drama and music, etc.

  5. My Eagle Boy Scout motto still holds true: “Be Prepared!” A proactive administrator sets goals and plans ahead. My Dad taught me to always have a back-up plan!

  6. I never was too proud to bend down and pick up stuff in the hallways; was known for that. Concrete (pun?) example of servant leadership methinks.

  7. Give yourself a break sometimes. Our Creator even did, on the seventh day.

  8. Love the Growth Mindset concept!

  9. ”Water the roots, more than leaves and flowers.” Learned that from Phil Arnholt, Biology prof colleague and friend. Same with staff and students, build a base of strong roots of faith and academics.

  10. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Saw that first on my dissertation draft from my doctoral advisor at St. John’s University. Sage advice.

  11. Found I liked to hold most of our faculty meetings in the mornings, before school, if possible. It provided a time limit, good for coaches and after-school activity leaders. Helps to provide coffee and goodies too!

  12. Pray together as a staff, and play and have fun together too, often!

  13. WRITE out more notes than emails, or better yet, walk down to classrooms and deliver personally.

  14. LISTEN: This was a tough lesson for me to learn. Thanks to colleagues who cared enough to call me on it.

  15. EmPOWERment of staff much better than exercising raw power, except in emergencies.

  16. Go see teachers on their turf whenever possible.

  17. Attend as many student activities as possible, be visible, kids love to see you there. Do your office work in the mornings and after school, if feasible. Keep your door open unless privacy needed.

  18. Be proactive, “Make future decisions NOW!”

  19. Make and keep lists to check off daily, weekly and longer range. Arrange and respond to emails accordingly.

  20. PERCEPTION: This is a key quality of leadership. Important in sizing up people quickly (esp. candidates). Japanese term is “Haragai” (calculated hunch, literally going with your gut).

  21. Improving school culture (the reputation of a school is built up over the years) begins with improving climate (FEEL of place), measured via daily human interactions. Transformational leadership (servant leadership) built on trust and respect is epitome of true teamwork.

  22. If you are married, don’t neglect your spouse (and kids, if you have them). Quality time more important than quantity time though. Due date nights and one-on-one time with each child. My wife, Cami, had me add this one!

  23. PRAY! Getting down on knees most effective, unless you can’t get back up, like me!

  24. Also pray often with individual colleagues, both to thank God and for needs.

  25. Idea: I held specific Faculty Forums (not same as Faculty meetings) at each school where I was Principal or Superintendent to get input on tougher decisions, except regarding personnel, which were Administrative Council matters. They were voluntary, and we sent out an agenda of issues ahead of time. You must take feedback seriously, but be bold enough to make the final call, and tell them that is the procedure. Only take votes if you aren’t that invested in the outcome (dress codes, for me), or just a straw vote to gauge opinions.

  26. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! Monitor messages (be careful before you hit the “Reply All” tab, have learned the hard way), seek feedback, and honor it (especially opposing viewpoints, hear them out).

  27. Keep an open mind, work on being flexible, but still hold to a base philosophy and style for consistency.

  28. Don’t be afraid to enlist help, and use it.

  29. See the good side of the poor examples of leadership you’ve experienced in your professional lives, can learn what NOT to do! Flip it, that’s the epitome of a positive attitude!

  30. I never personally got hung up with all the advice on handling gender stereotyping with women leaders I’ve had or known. I was blessed in that my first Principal in my initial Call to New York was Stella Klein, probably the best leader I have ever had in my career! I have also had the privilege of working with so many strong and effective women colleagues throughout my career. (Thanks Mary!)

  31. Authors on leadership I like? Love Marzano and Covey’s stuff, also Jim Collins. DeFour and Eaker’s PLC models so helpful for PD. Charlotte Danielson’s Framework rubrics spot on, as is Sergiovanni’s Supervision One model still solid. Madeline Hunter’s anticipatory set and checking for understanding for lesson planning/delivery still relevant, although administrators misused her material for evaluation purposes. Sure enjoyed Jim Pingel’s biographical book on Washington’s faith life as well as his devotional for Coaches! Best book of all on school leadership in my estimation: Todd Whitaker’s What Great Principals Do Differently.Was blessed to hear him at an ALSS Conference, and then CUW hosted him for a Heartland Summit after that, so met him there too.

  32. Suggestion: Put a (+) on whatever discipline system you have adopted for your school, like enhancing the secular Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports system (PBIS) by adding the “+” sign to it, thus becoming PBIS+, where the “+” denotes the Cross, a Gospel-centered approach to Christian standards, behavior expectations, and consequences for classroom and overall school student conduct management. I had a graduate student who is principal of a Lutheran elementary school in Oregon write his project on this concept, and then install it very successfully, he reports. Very cool!

  33. Set a goal, and then don’t take your eyes off of it until accomplished, or ditched. Reminded me of how my farmer uncle outside of Seward, NE, taught me to drive his tractor in straight rows by aiming at a distant fencepost. Also a basketball coach who told me not to aim at the front rim on free shots, but rather the back rim, as 80% of all missed free shots are short, and 100% of short shots miss! Wise man. Again, reach and stretch out to achieve a goal.

  34. Another goal-setting thought: Know which college major most high school seniors/incoming freshmen choose, by far? UNDECIDED! Shame, methinks. My advice always has been to go ahead and choose a major of at least some interest, and go for it. At least one will have goal to start with, in the year most frosh flounder and turn to more partying. Even if they change majors, and they probably will, he or she will at least have headed at something, and it’s easier to switch than start over.

  35. My Dad always said to me when he wanted to discuss something important (or I was in trouble!), “Let’s walk and talk.” Great advice, good to get out and move when thinking over something serious. I still do that, although my son, Jim Jr., and I used to change a walk to “Let’s have a catch, Dad,” ala the Field of Dreams movie! Ask Jim to tell you a story about that, or I can too.

  36. Advice: Find something to do outside of school responsibilities, like golf, fishing, music, theater, reading, travel, running/walking, teaching college adjunct courses, Bible studies, etc.

  37. Never lose your love for teaching that you had before going into administration. Maybe teach a class from time to time. I did that, usually a theology or social science course. Lead a Bible class at church as it keeps you in the Scriptures. I love my online and Bible class teaching now in retirement. Did I say that before?!

  38. I flipped a number of traditional procedures during my career, some of them actually worked! For instance, when I became Dean of Students at LuHi, I placed my desk out in an intersection of our main hallway and another busy one, so I could see down both ways, could view the action there, and it was a good symbol for getting at the pulse of the school. Also great for establishing positive relationships with the kids. I did that when I became Junior High Principal then, and even sat out there from time to time when I became the overall Principal. Did that at a couple more schools. Also still stubbornly retained the primary responsibility for school discipline, based on mutual trust and consequences when deserved, all from a Gospel-centered basis. When I had AP’s (four at the American School in Japan!), I actually turned faculty evals and curriculum mapping, etc. over to them, and kept the discipline management. I was NUTS you say, but I enjoyed it, got to know lots of great kids who just needed to get direction and focus, and again it gave me knowledge of the pulse of the school, including meeting with some of the key parents, positively and negatively.

  39. Here’s one that should have been #1, if I had arranged these points in urgency order: You GOT to have a healthy sense of HUMOR—got to! You can do that with whatever style of personality you have, quiet and introverted, or friendly and outgoing. Be willing to laugh WITH others, and AT yourself. So important.

  40. Think about going for another advanced degree, maybe a doctorate. You can do it mostly online now so it fits your busy schedules better. Maybe another certificate? Could be professionally and personally fulfilling.

  41. Hope you are exercising regularly, and eating healthy. I have had hills and valleys with both of those areas. Doing better lately, because I must due to various ailments, especially my heart and diabetes. Having too much fun at life, especially with our grandkids and great grandkids, so I want to spend more time with them before joining Jesus, unless He is coming soon, and I do believe He is! At least we believers KNOW He IS coming! That’s HOPE.

  42. This one should also have been up front: If you haven’t yet, choose and write up a personal/professional mission statement that will guide your leadership roles at your school. An appropriate Bible text would work great. (See the two texts I chose for myself and our School of Education at CUW in #’s 1 and 2 as samples).

  43. Hope you have made special efforts to support and show appreciation for your non-teaching staff, like custodians, cafeteria workers, clerical staff (your Administrative Assistant is THE most valuable person at your school, so hire and retain that individual with that in mind). It is much easier to find a new teacher, or principal, than a new Secretary! At least it was for me.

  44. Nike has a great motto, “Just Do It!” Follow that maxim, all the way. Get things done, follow through on plans and campaigns, etc. Establish great relationships with your CEO, unless that is you, and your Board Chair to start with. Help educate them from your standpoint and priorities. Maybe expand that Nike motto to “Do it now!”

  45. Do what is best for your students and the organization when it comes to personnel, both in hiring and termination. Your TOP priority in your leadership role is hiring the best matches possible, and then retaining your top performers, helping the others to rise to that level, or at least be the best they can be, and be willing to make the tough moves if any of your staff are not doing what is best for the students, period! This is a must!

  46. Now in retirement Cami and I have more time to do the things we want to do, mainly for and with the family. I do my Bible classes, elder duties, sing in the choir, teach courses for CUW, watch grandkid games and other stuff with them, travel, make forays to our Door County, Wisconsin haven, read, exercise, etc. Cami is a hospice volunteer, and finds peace and joy in it actually, leads a Bible class and attends another, sings in choir, babysits a lot, reads a lot, paints some, keeps up with our finances, shops, keeps the house clean, writes up honey-do projects for me, exercises, etc. We are truly blessed in our full lives, lots of close family and close friends. What we have more time than ever for is our personal devotions, which now we can do daily. We start with a devotional like Portals of prayer, or Jim Pingel’s devotionals from a coach’s standpoint, and then each of us prays for each other naming an “attribute for the day” for each other, and then our other prayers for health issues, etc. Very special time for us each morning, with our coffee. We should have pushed harder to make that happen earlier in our lives, esp. with our kids. We took it far too much for granted because we had chapels at school, religion classes, regular church, etc. I hope our kids are able to do more than we did.

  47. This is something I DID do faithfully in each school I was at: Short walk-throughs of every classroom virtually every day. No matter what formal supervision procedure we had, usually headed up by my APs, I made sure I would at least walk through and pause in each classroom every day. This daily goal fit in with my discipline system responsibility nicely, built on establishing mutual trust, as I saw most of the kids in classrooms every day, and they saw me often, including at lunchtime IN the cafeteria. It worked for me, and was good exercise too. I would have knocked the socks off my Fitbit worn these days, I’m sure!

  48. I set a goal of trying to reach out to at least one new kid a day to single out somehow and get to know him/her better, home life, goals, aspirations, interests, activities, friends, spiritual life & faith-walk, anything I could help them with to make happen, etc. I wanted to make an impact on THEM, but most times they made an impact on ME! I still keep in contact with many of them. Some were my biggest challenges behavior-wise, but became trusted friends as time went on!

  49. The mountaintop experience of my college teaching/leading life at CUW took place off-campus, during my Sabbatical semester in 2007. I didn’t feel like doing research for a book or another project, so my good friend Ross Stueber came up with an idea for me that turned out to work out passed my wildest dreams. As Director of ALSS, Ross sent out a memo offering my services as a consultant for mostly LHS’s, where the principal gave me an issue to advise them on, and I in addition would do an overall school climate study, interviewing all parties, teachers, kids, parents, administrators, etc. I would get there on Monday, do my thing for four days, and then meet with the Board and administration to give my oral report Thursday evening. I didn’t charge anything, since I was being paid by CUW during the semester. They just had to get me there by covering car gas or airfare, and house me, usually with the Principal, who I normally knew well. It was a great experience. Then I headed back to office on Friday, wrote up a report for the school, and went off to a new place on Sunday. I visited 36 Lutheran schools, including seven in Australia in early summer, covered by CUNE, so I could supervise their student teachers there. Cami retired then and accompanied me there and other trips too. We saw so many great things. I was so proud of our Lutheran teachers who were doing such a great job of integrating the Good News of Jesus Christ!

  50. Cami and I will continue to keep each of you and your school communities in our prayers.

I hope some of these reflections affirmed the impact you are making on your teachers and students in your schools in your unique way, and that you can tell that this old guy has lived life to the fullest, and wishes that for each of you and yours. This was a fun quick trip down memory lane. Thanks for taking the journey with me.

Dr. James Juergensen.jpg

Dr. James Juergensen (“Dr. J” to so many) is the former Director of Graduate Education Programs & Educational Leadership at Concordia University Wisconsin. He currently serves as the Retired Emeritus Professor/Administrator at CUW and can be reached at