Days From Retirement, Lincoln Public Schools' Superintendent Reflects on Being a Leader During Challenging Times

May 27, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Superintendent Dr. Steve Joel sits at his desk wearing a white dress shirt and tie
Dr. Steve Joel (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Lincoln’s Public Schools' Superintendent is retiring after more than two decades of service to Nebraska's public schools. Nebraska Public Media News reporter William Padmore spoke with Dr. Steve Joel about school safety, the politicization of education, and the future of teaching in America.

William Padmore: Unfortunately, we were talking a little bit earlier before we recorded, what should have been a fantastic fun week for you. Definitely not as much given the events in Texas. That opens up a whole can of worms, of course. But I just want to ask you, for those who are thinking about this issue right now. Why should parents, students, and teachers feel safe, given the history of events like what happened in Texas?

Dr. Steve Joel: Well, I would tell you that we believe, because we've invested a lot of time, a lot of resources, that our schools are safe. We have three nationally trained, nationally renowned experts on threat assessment. We've got standard response protocols in place where we go into various stages, depending upon whatever the threat is, you know, it could be a lockdown could be a lockout. And we practice that on a regular basis, you know, we are very, very good about letting kids know, if you see something, say something, the same thing with staff. Now, the news of what's happening in Uvalde is still coming out. And you know, one of the questions I have in my mind is, how did somebody with an AR-15 get into the school? I mean, did they walk in the main doors? Did somebody prop open a side door? You know, I think it'd be awful hard to do in Lincoln. I'm not calling out that as a challenge, I'm just basically saying that, you know, we do a very, very good job of making sure that, you know, our buildings are fortified. We have secured entrance monitors at every school, we have security teams that, you know, walk our middle schools and high schools, and we have SROs, in our high schools and middle school. So, you know, would I say that we're impervious to any of these threats? No, but I do believe that we've got outstanding protocols in place. And I think that for the most part, our parents and our teachers, and our students feel safe. But what happened in Uvalde, is indicative of what's happening in society. And that is that, you know, the prevalence of these kinds of events, there's too much of it, and it should never happen.

William Padmore: How has the school safety issue evolved from your beginning days and Grand Island to now?

You know, somebody asked me that question the other day, and I thought, I well remember the days when, and it wasn't very long ago, when grandparents and parents could stop by the school because they had a few extra minutes. They could walk in, they could say hello to the secretary, and then they could walk down to the third-grade classroom, pull their son or daughter out and go have lunch with them, or, you know, take them someplace or do whatever. We just can't do that anymore, right? There's no free and unfettered access to the schools. Everybody has to go through a database. And, you know, we're constantly checking. I remember when we began to have greater security measures. There were some in our communities that would say, you know, we're turning our schools into a militaristic place. In Grand Island, for example, we had actual threats and we had to bring in wanded detectors to see if there was any credibility. We had a SWAT team, that literally was in the halls of Grand Island Senior High and either felt safe or you felt really threatened by that, right? And it was one of those things where, because it was so new in American education in Grand Island education, people really didn't know how to process it. And I think we're processing it differently. Now. We're realizing that that as tragic and as horrible as it is, and unthinkable as it is now schools, schools are the subject of these events, you know, and we're seeing it not only in in the tragedy of Uvalde, and you know, what's happened in Buffalo and some other places, you know, the violence that's occurring in this country is, is unprecedented, I've never seen it. And we have the most important commodity in our, in our hands every single day are kids. And so some would say how much money you spend on security. And I would say, we're going to spend whatever we have to spend on security, because we're not going to take any chance whatsoever, we're not going to pursue any shortcuts when it comes to the safety of our children. Because what these poor parents are dealing with, is so emotional for me, and for everybody else, you know, you say goodbye to your child in the morning. And then by noon that day, you know, you haven't tried to identify by I mean, it's just my wife and I were watching the news last night, and we were just both just emotionally distraught. And that's, but we have to have education, right. And, and what we also learned is that through the pandemic, you know, kids learning from home, while it sounded fun at the beginning of that wasn't very effective. So we need to make sure our schools are safe, keep our kids in school, we have to practice safety protocols. And I feel like LPS under the direction of Joe Wright, who was a former captain and one of those threat assessment national experts who actually helps train other districts- I feel like we are in a very strong point. But it doesn't mean that we're immune from something bad happening.

Padmore: I'll shift gears just a moment to talk about one of the other significant events that happened during your tenure, the pandemic. I don't have to tell you, how tension-filled that time likely was for you, with masking protocols, taking kids out of school, and reintroducing them back. How do you process making such weighty decisions, especially when you have to take in mind, not only parents, not only teachers but of course, the kids who are somewhat caught in the middle of all this?

Joel: And the community and, you know, the political establishment. I mean, everybody's got strong opinions on it, right? I guess the idealist in me would say, I wish everybody would just trust us, you know? That we do have the best interests of kids and staff in heart and mind. We don't make decisions willy-nilly but we also live in an environment where everybody's got strong opinions, right? Somewhere down the, down the road, we have to render a decision and what I tell people all the time is simply this: "I value your input but the decision that I have to make today is for 42,000 kids and 8000 staff. You will have options if you don't like the decision that we've made," and people will explore their options, or, you know, you'll trust us because one of the things that I've learned, what was it two years ago, you know, we were looking at our data, we were talking with the health department, we decided we weren't going to have graduation and we're going to do it virtually and it's just wow, I mean, what a deathblow that was to kids. And, you know, when we make decisions, we can rethink them. We feel like you know, if we have more data and information - at the end of the day, we want to err on the side of safety for children. But we also want to make sure that we deliver on our obligations, too. I think today with the turmoil in America on a variety of topics, I think what's spilling over into school boardrooms, not only in Lincoln but around the country about curriculum challenges you know about, about equity, and some of the misinterpretations that are involved in that. You know, I think we just have to push our way through it and make the best decisions we can for all of our kids. And I feel really proud about Lincoln Public Schools' educational system. I think we still do way better than most, and I think our kids come out of here with a really valuable diploma and that we've taught them the most important thing which is to learn how to be a critical thinker and be a positive contributor to society and, you know, be prepared for whatever that next step of your journey is, whether it's career or college preparation. I feel like we're doing a good job of that, but unfortunately, in the environment, we're in, we have to be willing to at least listen to the opinions- strong opinions-that are out there. And so, you know, I would tell you that the pandemic is very challenging, very difficult, because, you know, I was just talking to somebody the other day when we close school on March 20, we didn't even have a case and you know, I don't I understand why people were scratching their head saying what you sent kids home, we don't even know if this is real yet well, no Of course it came and, you know, we were having to deal with infections and we were dealing with, you know, we had to keep our classes classroom safe. We had great options for parents, those were tough decisions. And I can tell you we work 24/7, making sure that those decisions were grounded in the best data we had available to us. And then we wanted to provide flexibility for parents and students so that, you know, they can pick and choose, and they did. Some worked well, some didn't work so well. I hope we're over those days now.

Padmore: On that point of political debate and opinion, I know that you have been careful not to conflate your job with the politics of the moment and sort of keep that separate. How, how do you do that in today's world, and I'm thinking of, again, not just the gun debate, but the critical race theory, transgenderism, like a whole slew of political topics have buffeted schools, it seems like in just like the last couple of years, how has that been living through? How can schools proceed forward, still keeping that neutral line?

Joel: Well, that's the challenge, right? So we have, we have groups that want to get us off of that neutral line and into their ideology. And, you know, I know that we can never allow ourselves to be political. And we have to, again, put the best interests of our children in place and I think a lot of people who are critical of the things that you just mentioned, don't really know what's going on inside our schools and sadly I think some are being influenced by what they read (and) what they hear and it's not coming from, you know, the trusted media, it's coming from the media that' pretty much is unregulated and they assume that that's happening in our schools. You know, it's like health standards, for example. We had an awful lot of people angry at us about health standards, and we hadn't changed the health standard, right? But because the Department of Education was thinking about changing health standards, then our boardroom became a place where, you know, people wanted to call out what we were doing or what we were thinking about doing. And I just think that's the politics of education today and I really regret that. I regret that when we're trying to celebrate student and faculty success, and we're trying to plan for this future, this uncertain future, we're preparing kids for, we have people in groups, that want to bring up issues that may or may not be germane to the daily work that we're trying to do, and there doesn't seem to be much compromise. It seems to be that, you know, on the masking and unmasking, you know? Either you supported the masking, or you thought that we were doing really bad things to kids and, you know, that’s going to be, unfortunately, I think the burden that we're going to be facing in the public sector. How does America get back? I'm a social science major. So one of the things that I'm asking myself is how do we get reunited as a country, given the pressures right now of some of the political ideologies that are out there? And I don't know the answer to that, because it seems like rather than moving toward each other together, we seem to be getting farther apart. Where's that unifier going to come from? Well, it used to be, 37 years as a superintendent tells me this, education unified people, right? Because at the end of the day, regardless of whether you were red or blue, or you believe this, you believe that or you were your male and female, whatever the issue was, at the end of the day, you came together on education because little children learning is the most important function of American democracy. Now, all of a sudden, little kids' learning is in the midst of some of these debates, that quite frankly, we never had to deal with in the past. You ask the question about how I remain neutral. My job requires me to be neutral. But I think as a private citizen, I don't know that I have to be so neutral anymore and I have strong opinions on a lot of this. But at the end of the day, I am responsible for 50,000 people and responsible for high-quality education because I do believe this with all my heart; the vast majority of this community, not the folks that are necessarily coming in representing certain interests, the vast majority of folks in this community appreciate and expect high-quality educational opportunities through Lincoln Public Schools, and bond issues pass. The right board members get elected when they go out there. Those are encouraging signs that we are doing good work and people appreciate that. And that's not the way it is around the country because around the country, I can point to Virginia I can point - I mean there's a lot of states - where there's tremendous upheaval. Some of the bills that have been passed in some of the states like Iowa, where they're going to make it almost a crime if you talk about equity in a classroom, that there's no room for that. And yet I listened to, I don't listen to I interact with because I choose to listen, to all of our students every time I visit a school, I sit down with high school, middle school students, elementary students, and if some of the people that want to take these shots at public education would just listen to children, they would fully understand that we're doing a good job. We're not indoctrinating anybody. It is about reading, writing, and math, but it's also about critical thinking. It's also about collaboration. It's also about being kind to others. It's about community service. That's how we build better people, so that we can hopefully, continue the democracy that we have because really, this is a great place to live.

Padmore: If you are the commander of LPS, then the teachers or the troops. I don't need to tell you that teachers have had a rough one lately. In Nebraska, and nationally, is education in a healthy place? Not so much even as what's being taught, but the people taking up the profession considering the stress that comes from things like the pandemic, like all these political debates, and traditional issues, like low pay, and things of that nature.

Joel: I think I think we're in better condition than most. I think that Nebraska represents a high quality of life and living. I think public schools are really supported in Nebraska. We don't have charters, we don't have vouchers. Public education, I believe is fairly and, you know - I think we're well funded. I think we have the dollars that we need too. I think our salaries, about 81% of our budget is staffing salaries. So I think we distribute dollars as closely as we can to the classroom. I think the longer you stay in the profession, the more you earn and, when you get to be my age, you look at the pension, and you go, "Wow, it's really pretty good pension." And I think we're appreciated and supported. So I do think we have those elements. Having said that, teaching is incredibly difficult today, and you think about where teachers were prior to the pandemic, and where they are today. When we asked them to do hybrid teaching that was a very, very challenging thing. We had met with teachers on the front end, and we all we reached an agreement that, yeah, we have to provide something like that. But all that did was just add stress and put a lot more on teachers’ plates. We made some changes this year that hopefully were better. You know, we've seen an uptick in student behaviors and a lot of that is because students right now, they missed a year and a half of school, they come back, they forgot how to behave. The answer isn't to suspend everybody that misbehaves. We spent we spend more time on behavior management. And so, you know, a roundabout way of saying I have great appreciation and admiration for the work of our teachers in our classroom. Some of left, but (its) not out of the ordinary for us, you know, we have retirements because of the boomer generation. But I do think some people left because they thought, "You know, this is a really hard way to make a living and maybe I'm not as appreciated as I'd like to be." We're not in a recession, so there are always other financial opportunities out there. But I do think those that stay in it are going to feel rewarded and the greatest reward you get as an educator isn't really the dollars. It's the student who thanks you 20 years after they left your classroom, for what you taught them. I mean, the profession that makes all professions possible- that's what education is, and you have an opportunity every single day to impact a young person and set the record straight and you know that's powerful. A lot of teachers when they retire when we shake their hand and we say thank you for 30 years of experience, they turn around and they say "thank you," because they recognize that they've made a contribution to society that even if you made a lot more money, you don't make the same level of contribution.

Padmore: What will you miss the most about doing this?

Joel: I'm going to miss being in schools. I'm going to miss being around kids. I'm going to miss working with this incredible team of professionals that I work with every single day. They are, without question, the top people in their slots in the country. I'm going to miss the board of education that has stood with me and stood with us every step of the way, every challenge. They don't all agree on everything, we don't all agree on everything. But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is kids, and we make decisions in their best interests. I know that that that gets challenged with some of the discourse that's taking place, I'm going to miss that. I'm going to miss this great community that supports education. When you're superintendent of Lincoln, you sit on chamber boards, United Way- you get invited to participate in a lot of organizations. And again, I just feel like, people have great respect for Lincoln Public Schools, and we're a known commodity. They're not looking at us, as, you know, we charge too much for taxes or, you know, whatever the issue might be, they're there to support us. It just works in Lincoln. I told another person I was interacting with that, our intent, my wife and I's intent was to be here, three, four, five years, and then we were going to do something different, because I would have been eligible for retirement, then. Lincoln grows on you, you know? It's just the kind of place where if your kids didn't go here you wish they did. And then you realize that in this community has everything that we need to feel fulfilled as a member of that community. I'm going to continue to stay involved. My wife's involved in a couple of groups, and we love it. Because I've traveled. I've been around. I grew up in New York, you know, we've lived in Kansas and lived in Grand Island. And while each one of those communities has merits, Lincoln's the package, and I hope, I've been able to play a small role and in making sure that you know, education kept it propped up. And I know that my successor is going to continue to do that in the future.

Padmore: What is next for you? What's next in the book of Dr. Steve Joel?

Joel: No more alarm clocks, which I, quite frankly, never, use anyway, but (I want to) just be able to say that. I want to go to the gym at eight o'clock in the morning, instead of 5:30 or eight o'clock at night. We've got five grandchildren. I've missed a lot of soccer and piano recitals and things like that. I want to be more of a present grandparent. My wife and I have never taken a two-week vacation and we're going to schedule one, that's going to be enjoyable. And then, you know, I've got some consulting opportunities. You know, one of the things I've been afforded through Lincoln is some national networking. So I've been invited into some, some coaching and some mentoring of superintendents, and I'm looking forward to that. I've accepted a position on the statewide teammates board, I'm going to continue with my teammate, because I want him to graduate. And so you know, I'm going to stay involved, and I'm going to become a fan of LPS and all things Lincoln, and you know, to our earlier conversation, I no longer have to worry about neutrality in terms of some of my opinions and if the opportunity presents itself I think I'll take advantage of that.

Padmore: Final question, and this one is probably the most important. What is your favorite school lunch?

Joel: You know, I'm going to go with pizza. And only because in some of the schools, they actually bring in like a Pizza Hut and you know, some of them but I really do like when they make the homemade pizzas, that's good. The kids complain about lunch, and I want to tell them what it was like when I was a kid or what it was like when I started in this business. Some of them don't eat because they don't like the meals but the kids have so many, so many choices today. And our food service people are beyond awesome. So whenever I have the opportunity in the school and I try to eat in the school.