Coming full circle: Retiring principal returns to her beginnings
When Kathie Danielson first walked into Des Moines’ Hoover High School, it was the fall of 1974. Then, she was a student teacher. When she walks out of Hoover in a few months nearly 44 years later, she’ll be retiring as principal.
But her experiences at Hoover belie a lifetime of self-discovery and awareness. Along her journey, Danielson called home one middle school and four out of the five high schools in the district. She went from never wanting to be a leader to winning over students, faculty and administration for her straightforward but always respectful demeanor.
Along the way, she married Ron Danielson, Hoover’s then-crackerjack drama teacher, had three children, a few grandchildren.
Fittingly, she ends her career where it all began.
Though she student taught at Hoover, she came back the next year as an English and speech teacher. She shudders at those first few years.
“When I think of what I didn’t know in terms of curriculum – there was no curriculum!” she said. Then she adds, part joking, part not, “I feel sorry for the kids I taught at Hoover. I worry about all of them.”
While she got her feet wet at Hoover, it was at East High School where it all began to come together.
“I learned my craft at East,” she said. “At East, I surrounded myself with fabulous teachers. We were doing collaboration before we called it that.
Danielson helped create what they called the School Within a School, an at-risk program in each of the high schools.
“The classes were small, never more than 10 to 14 kids,” Danielson said. “The program was aimed at kids with severe attendance issues, chronic absenteeism. That’s when I became passionate about the underdog student.”
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that conversations started evolving about education.
“We started talking about school improvement,” she said. “We started looking at schools in a different way. For example, we started looking at graduation rates.”
Those conversations whetted her appetite for more knowledge, and she returned to graduate school. Somewhere along the way, her leadership skills emerged.
“You talk about a blossoming leader, my leadership skills came out during my time at East and going through my master’s program,” Danielson said. “I became a better teacher using instructional strategies purposely.”
Still, she resisted the notion of becoming a principal.
“I didn’t want to be a manager,” Danielson said, for back in those days, many principals were just that. “They were wonderful people, but I didn’t want to do what they did. You never saw them in our classrooms or leading professional development.”
But a Drake University professor redirected her thinking: A school can thrive with a hands-on principal. Conversely, can it thrive without one?
“I said that if I ever became principal, I am going to have the guts to make the tough decisions when teachers aren’t meeting the needs of the students,” Danielson said. “I have to be willing to say to everyone, ‘this isn’t going well, this isn’t going to happen anymore.’”
After a stint back at Hoover as vice principal, she became principal at Callanan Middle School for four years before taking the same position at Roosevelt High School.
“Roosevelt was a wonderful fit,” she said. “It was diverse socioeconomically. I loved it all.”
And through it all, she didn’t hesitate to have those fierce conversations – always, always with respect.
“I remember one teacher who wasn’t doing well,” Danielson recalled. “She was a wonderful person, but she just wasn’t able to engage her classes.”
After several unsuccessful attempts to remediate the situation, the teacher finally realized she wasn’t suited for the profession.
“She came up to me and thanked me,” she said. “We were both crying.”
After six years, Danielson decided to join Heartland Area Education Agency as a regional director, and then headed back to Des Moines Public Schools’ district office where she coached and mentored 11 leaders.
It was about this time last year when the principal position at Hoover opened up.
“This is when my husband said, ‘I think you should have your head examined,’” she said. “The district supervisors said, ‘What if you went back?’”
“It is the most humbling way to end my career,” Danielson said. “This is where the action is. That’s no disrespect for my downtown friends.
“When we ask teachers to do something, mostly I agree. But you have to understand the day in, day out challenges that our wonderful children present, and who our wonderful teachers are working their butts off for. Teachers don’t always have the skills that they need for everything we are asking them to do. I know that now.”
The approach to education today would be unrecognizable in the 1970s. Indeed, Danielson could only list one thing that stayed the same over the years.
“People go into teaching because they genuinely want to do good here,” she said.
But that’s where the similarities end.
“When I started, we didn’t have standards,” Danielson said. “I never looked at data. Iowa Assessments? They weren’t seen as a tool to change student achievement. Instead, we gave the scores to the kids and said, ‘take that home to your mom.’”
Danielson is confident in the direction education is going today.
“We use data because it informs you on how you are teaching and reaching those kids,” she said. “That’s why we have PLCs (professional learning communities). Schools train based on research. These are the most important things we should be doing – and we see positive changes because of them.”
Her numbered days back at Hoover have ingrained in her a few non-negotiables.
“You have to have clear expectations for the kiddos,” she said. “For instance, tardiness here was way off the charts. In five weeks, we have had 2,500 fewer tardies. And it happened just by saying, ‘kids, we can’t have this anymore.’ Clear expectations do work. Do it lovingly, do it respectfully, and get the kids’ input.”
Don’t expect Danielson to sit around after she retires. In fact, to hear her talk, one wonders whether she’s sincere about retirement.
“There’s some consulting I can do with the district around coaching leaders,” she said.
Included in that schedule will be regular visits to her children, Greg, Jason and Anna – the latter two of whom are educators themselves – and her six grandchildren. And she and her husband plan a bit of traveling.
Any advice for new teachers or those considering the profession? Danielson doesn’t hesitate.
“Want it! Have a desire to teach kids and learn from kids without judgment,” she said. “Forget any preconceived notions of changing and molding minds – how arrogant! Walk into your classroom humble, excited, with lots of energy, and willing to learn constantly in order to instruct with the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to engage those kiddos in their learning!”
Written by Iowa Department of Education Consultant Jim Flansburg, Des Moines Hoover High School Class of 1977.
In the fall of 1974, a new student teacher made her first appearance at Des Moines’ Hoover High School during my sophomore year. Not much older than the students she taught, she commanded a presence that was endearing. Like the time she did a near-perfect imitation of Shirley Temple singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”
But like all other student teachers, at the end of the semester you wished her well, knowing that would be the end of it. But with Miss Burg, it wasn’t. The very next year, she came back as a bona fide English teacher. That’s when I learned what she was made of.
I was, without question, the most uninspired (dare I say lazy?) student out there, able to get by with very little work. OK, sometimes no work whatsoever.
I don’t remember what Miss Burg’s first writing assignment was about, but I do remember on the night before it was due, I copied a paper that my older sister had written during her freshmen year at the University of Iowa.
When Miss Burg handed the papers back a few days later, there was an “F” at the top of mine, with a two-word sentence capable of making your blood run cold: “See me.”
“OK, Jim, you clearly didn’t write this,” Miss Burg said after everyone else left the room.
I protested, albeit weakly.
“OK, then tell me, what does this word mean?” she said, pointing to a roughly six-syllable word that only my older sister could conjure.
My silence at that point was taken, rightfully, as a full-out confession.
After that, I worked as assigned in Miss Burg’s class, and wound up with an A. As remarkable as that may seem, it was Miss Burg who was the very first teacher to call me out. She saw something in me that eluded previous teachers, most of whom had concluded I was dim. (Deep down, I feared that, too.) Miss Burg saw through my façade and was determined to bring out the best in me.
Flash to my senior year, second semester, where ashamedly I was more absent than present as the days drew to a close on my high school career. Miss Burg, who also was a darn-good theater director, had cast me in the lead role of the melodrama “The Drunkard.” Once again, I was reminded how she didn’t suffer fools.
Upon learning I was somehow “absent” from school again, she called my mother.
“Mrs. Flansburg? How is your son doing?”
My story of deceit unraveled there, and between Miss Burg and my mother, I was convinced that skipping school wasn’t a terribly good idea.
But this story isn’t about senioritis. Nor is it about a stubborn student. It’s about an educator dedicated to her students, seeing them for who they are, differentiating her approach with each student – for no two are alike. It’s about an educator inspiring her charges to reach for heights even they didn’t think possible.
Flash forward once more, this time to 2014. My niece was going through a rough spot at Roosevelt High School where Miss Burg – now Mrs. Danielson – was principal. Once again, Mrs. Danielson looked at my niece’s situation and was able to help find her own special path. That niece today is a straight-A student in college.
Sound familiar? Absolutely. Coincidence? No way. The thousands of her students – from today’s students to yesteryear’s teens – are living, breathing proof.