Fox Point — After more than four decades in education, Mary Jordan Dean's decision to retire was bittersweet.
Although she is going to miss the students, teachers and staff, the 67-year-old is also looking forward to having free time - something she didn't have much of as both the principal of Maple Dale School and the superintendent of the Maple Dale-Indian Hill School District.
Dean came to Maple Dale Principal in 2001, when Maple Dale and Indian Hill were part of the Glendale-River Hills School District. When then-superintendent Frances Smith left the district in 2005, Dean was asked to become superintendent of the new Maple Dale-Indian Hills district - a position she accepted under the condition that she could remain principal of Maple Dale School.
The joint role of superintendent and principal is understandably difficult, since a principal is involved in the day-to-day happenings of the school while also envisioning long-term strategies as a superintendent. School Board President Mark Goldstein said the role would ordinarily be impossible, but Dean's personality and talents led her to excel in the position.
"She's been a steady hand for the district,"said School Board President Mark Goldstein. "She is a problem solver, a voice of calm as went through changes. She's always been an advocate for teachers and staff."
Dean's leadership style was brought to the forefront when the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel named Maple Dale-Indian Hill the Top Small Workplace in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The district didn't aply for the award in 2013. Every employee except Dean was asked to take the Top Workplace survey, and the data was compared against research about successful work environments.
Even during the tense relationships and hard discussions of Act 10, the employees still gave Dean top-notch reviews. Although it may seem unlikely that a public school district would be named a top small workplace during these turbulent times, Dean said she and the teachers had already established a sense of trust with one another.
"I give teachers latitude to make decisions. I trust their instincts," she said. "I observe them and use their strengths to fashion and shape their teaching."
Multiple school board members said Dean also has a knack for hiring good people, which she attributes to her ability to read people.
"I can walk into a school and assess what type of school it is just by walking through the front door," she said. "The same thing goes for classrooms."
If the entrance to a school is any judge of the school's character, then the entrance to Maple Dale School speaks volumes. The school's atrium is decorated with 48 flags from around the world - each representing a student who is a first-generation immigrant of that country. Maple Dale's international emphasis started in 2007, when the school formed its mock United Nations chapter.
Instead of staying cooped up in the office, Dean enjoys seeing the students every day at lunch, where she acts as both a supervisor and a playmate. About six years ago, she started playing ping pong with the kids during their lunch hour. She said the students have embraced ping pong during recess, and some of the students have bought tables so they can practice at home.
Dean's approach is in some ways based on her own experiences growing up in Milwaukee. In her younger days, Dean was more likely to be found reading a book in the back of the classroom than participating in traditional classroom activities. She said many students, such as her younger self, have a desire to learn, but they feel alienated by traditional teaching methods.
"I think my love of learning and insistence that all students have the best is a reflection of my personality," she said. "It's very important to me that students are engaged and that teachers make their classrooms come alive and vibrant because I couldn't stand being in any classroom that wasn't alive and vibrant."
As a result, Dean has encouraged her teachers to engage their students and be creative in their teaching methods.
"I let them do anything that they find to be creative and different, as long as its research-based and we can back it up with some good pedagogy," she said. "A classroom that doens't look like a classroom is very exciting."
What will Dean do when she officially retires on July 31? The 67-year-old said she plans to golf, swim, spend time with her dogs and relax at her summer home in Minocqua. She said she still wonders if she made the right decision, but she knows the district will be fine with whomever the next superintendent is - even if ping pong skills aren't in the job description.
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