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Character Matters

Taylor called to see if he might come for a visit one weekend.  He said it was so he could get to know us better.  I told my wife he was wondering what type of family he might be getting mixed up with and wanted to check us out.

During his visit, we hiked a local trail and came upon a policeman who was hiking on his day off.  I introduced Taylor as my younger daughter, Anna’s, boyfriend.  I mentioned that he was obviously a good guy or we would have already had an “accident” on the trail.  Later that day we enjoyed browsing through family photo albums while my wife and I told stories about Anna.

A few weeks later, Taylor called to see if he could drop by.  That evening he asked what we thought about his asking Anna to marry him.  I told him we’d be honored to have him as a son-in-law.

Visiting with my future son-in-law, I was not thinking, “What was Taylor’s GPA?” or “How did he score on the ACT?”   I didn’t worry about what degree he was pursuing, though I was pleased that he was in his last semester at UCA.  My first thoughts were related to character traits. I needed to know that this young man who would partner with my daughter for life had integrity, persistence, kindness, generosity, and courage.

During April and May I often respond to online reference forms for interns who’ve recently completed their degree.  It pleases me when I’m able to describe a candidate as a person of good character who demonstrates positive core beliefs.

A few years ago after interviewing several teaching candidates, I called a grocery store to check references on a prospective first year teacher.  After many calls, I reached the manager who described the candidate as dependable and honest.  She came in early and stayed late if necessary.  She was careful and trustworthy and her cash register was always right.  I hired the young lady and she quickly became an outstanding teacher on our staff.  I may have had other candidates equal in academic or technical skill but, I selected her because of what I learned about her work-ethic and character.

Bob Watson, Superintendent, El Dorado School District

Bob Watson, Superintendent, El Dorado School District

I worked for Bob Watson, an inspiring communicator with a keen sense of humor.  He did what was right even when it was unpopular to do so.  I felt great confidence as a young principal working under his leadership because of his strong moral foundation.  Fourteen years ago while looking at moving to Alma, I made several “reference calls” on Charles B. Dyer before making my decision.  I didn’t ask about his knowledge of school finance or legislation.  My questions were about his character.  I learned you always knew where you stood with Mr. Dyer and that others could rely on him to do what he said he would do.   He was committed to his family and coworkers.  Knowing he had these qualities gave my family the confidence we needed to make this move.  I am pleased to say these same characteristics are demonstrated in David Woolly who worked alongside Mr. Dyer for years before moving into the superintendent’s position.  Mr. Woolly and other district level administrators are intelligent but more importantly, they are hard workers and people I can trust.

Mr. Dyer speaking at an Arkansas Elementary School Principals' Association conference.

Mr. Dyer speaking to the Arkansas Association of Elementary School Principals.

As a member of the AAEA, I’ve had the privilege of working with Kellar Noggle, Tom Kimbrell, and Richard Abernathy.  These leaders are all smart and great educators but, without their strong character traits, the AAEA would not have the impact it does today.  They’ve shown good judgment and were astute in navigating political environments while staying focused on the needs of children and educators.  The credibility of the AAEA is directly related to the integrity of these executive directors and the membership they represent.

Kellar Noggle (left) visiting with former co-workers at the AAEA Annual Conference.

Kellar Noggle (left) visiting with former co-workers at the AAEA Annual Conference.

Whether selecting an employee, a boss, or an organizational leader, character trumps intelligence, knowledge, and skills.  When faced with a future son-in-law beginning a lifetime with your daughter, character matters more than academic achievement.   When the position is one of importance and influences the happiness and success of others, character is key.  As we pursue high achievement for our students, we must never lose sight of the importance of helping children become kind, generous, hardworking, and trustworthy.

Written for the June issue of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators newsletter.

Anna & Taylor

Anna & Taylor

Evaluation Leads to New Learning

Portion of my 2-page principal evaluation instrument from the mid-1990s.

Portion of my 2-page principal evaluation instrument from the mid-1990s

Ever had a sinking feeling in your stomach while meeting with a supervisor?  I had only been a principal for a couple of years and it was time for me to meet with my then superintendent, Mr. Bob Watson.   He spent what felt like two hours working through an evaluation instrument using a 1-7 point scoring scale with 7 as the highest.

I was scoring fairly high on a number of areas and was feeling pretty good until he got to instructional topics.  Those scores were lower. Mr. Watson gave good explanations of the instructional leadership needed.  He must have seen the despair in my face because he expressed confidence that I would be able to focus on instruction and make it better.

And focus I did! I became obsessive about teaching and learning.  I visited with and observed teachers who were masterful in their craft and tried to determine what made them successful.  I found myself drawn to principals and school leaders who were focused on instruction.  I visited some of their schools and copied their practices as best I could.  I started spending lots of time in classrooms.

My reading habits changed as I became more interested in teaching strategies.  My secretary at the time often laughed at the titles of my book purchases when they shipped into the office.  She thought they must be very boring. It wasn’t long before I heard her telling parents on the phone how important it was to be on time because of missed instruction.  My focus on instruction was contagious and was becoming a priority for teachers and even our secretary.

I had a new purpose for my involvement in professional organizations and I eliminated those that didn’t further growth in understanding of teaching and learning.  The AAEA (Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators) became a hub for my professional learning.  Those were fascinating times of discovery.  This often bumpy and uphill path of learning continues through the present but it all goes back to that very difficult conversation my superintendent had with me about my need to improve as an instructional leader.

I recently pulled that early evaluation from my file and was astonished to learn that I hadn’t accurately remembered my scores.  As I looked at the form my superintendent held that day I realized that the scores were not nearly as important as the conversation and the on-going support I received to pursue my learning and improve my practice as a principal.

Fast forward a few years and we are now scoring lessons observed with detailed rubrics describing various levels of practice. The rubrics for teachers and administrators are challenging but clear and add observable evidence to levels of performance.

If implemented in an environment of trust, these new methods of evaluation hold the possibility of being catalysts for improving instruction and school leadership. Professional learning and trusting relationships are the essential ingredients.  While the scores do matter, the conversations and relationships are where real improvements in practice occur.

On a personal note: Thank you to Bob Watson for being willing to have that “courageous conversation” with me so many years ago.  You set me on a positive path of learning that I still find challenging and exciting.

Portion of the new 19-page principal evaluation instrument currently being piloted.

Portion of the new 19-page principal evaluation instrument currently being piloted.

Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Newsletter, July 2013

Administrator Spotlight

Forgive the shameless self-promotion but I wanted to post this so friends, relatives, and especially my mom would have access to it.  It is pulled from the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Newsletter.  Michelle spent a good portion of a day visiting our campus and then wrote this feature.  I appreciated her positive writeup.

March, 2013

By Michelle Hostetler, Communications Specialists for Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators

When Jim Warnock was hired as an elementary principal in 1993, he knew he needed three things: church pews in each hallway, a notebook, and time in classrooms. He had watched his mentor, Glynn Calahan, use these to become a successful principal who made a difference in the lives of her students. Ms. Calahan had a church pew on each floor of her school where she would sit with her notebook that contained information on her students (test scores, etc.). She would visit with students there praising them for good work and, when needed, encouraging them to do better. Mr. Warnock followed in her footsteps, purchasing old pews from a neighborhood church and proceeded to use the techniques Ms. Calahan used, including spending time in each classroom.

Jim started his career in education as a music teacher. His love of music started in high school where the teachers and students had a strong bond. His teachers’ hands-on approach to instruction was an inspiration to him. He knew that he wanted to go to college for music and he “didn’t think that being a rock star was going to work out” so he went into music education. Music continues to be part of his life as he plays drums in his church orchestra — maybe still working on that rock star dream??

Music isn’t Jim’s only passion. He also enjoys writing and photography. He uses his writing skills to communicate regularly with parents and staff through newsletters and memos. He has also had three articles published in the Urban Magazine, based in Fort Smith. He blogs and posts to a Facebook page for the Lake Alma Trail and the Ozark Highland Trail Association, where he serves as a board member. His love of hiking and the outdoors was evident when asked what he would be doing if not in his current position and his response was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Beautiful outdoor pictures line the wall of the hallway outside his office, all which were taken by Jim.

The respect the Alma Intermediate School staff has for Jim was easy to see while visiting the school. And his appreciation of the staff was also visible. He noted that he has an excellent assistant principal, Suzy Ferguson. He knows that he can rely on her to take care of things at school when his out. That allows him to participate in professional organizations such as AAEA, where he is a very active member.

“I would like to be remembered as someone who was committed to his students, teachers, and his family. Someone who continued to learn and grow. I want others to remember me the way I remember one of my mentors, Glynn Calahan. She recognized and reinforced the strengths in others and helped them build on those strengths.”    – Jim Warnock


What is your favorite thing about your job?

“Helping facilitate professional growth which then has an impact on students.”

What is the most challenging part of your job?

“Helping teachers navigate change and finding time to have conversations on deep knowledge in teaching and learning.”

What do you enjoy doing in your time off?

“Hiking and photography.”

Advice for someone considering a similar career:

“Look at the reason you want to do it. If you are aspiring to be a principal and you are not excited about teaching, you should probably do something other than education. I also always advise an aspiring principal to check out the superintendent before taking a job. The key to success as a principal is the superintendent you get to work for.” Jim commented that he has had the opportunity to work with three awesome superintendents: Bob Watson, Charles Dyer, and David Woolly.

What is something you are proud of?

“I am proud to know that I am the principal of a school that I wish I could have attended when I was a kid.”

If you weren’t in your current position, what would you be doing?

“Hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

Where do you see yourself in five years?

“Still trying to figure out how to be a good principal.”

Personal motto:

“When in doubt, take a step.”

One word to sum you up:



“Jim Warnock represents what a great principal should be. He is first and foremost the instructional leader in his school. The great majority of his day is spent actively engaged with teachers and students in the learning process. And the results show!”

— David Woolly, Alma Superintendent

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