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Odds and Ends: Joe Gothard’s Inclusive Nature and His Distinctive Deeds Define a National Honoree in the Superintendency

Joe Gothard speaks during the General Session Thursday, Feb. 15, after being named 2024 National Superintendent of the Year. Photo by Sandy Huffaker.

A collection of short takes about what defines the 2024 National Superintendent of the Year, Joe Gothard of St. Paul, Minn.

Following in a Teacher’s Footsteps

Like many high school freshmen, Joe Gothard struggled at times during his student life. But his biology teacher at Robert M. La Follette High School in Madison, Wis., Roger Hujik, took a special interest in him. He was a kind, patient man who nurtured a connection with Gothard.

“He just always made me feel comfortable and competent with who I was,” says Gothard, who admits he never has forgotten the fond feeling.

Years later, with a bachelor’s degree in science in hand, Gothard arrived back at his high school alma mater—this time, as a biology teacher himself. The principal handed over the keys to his classroom, the very same classroom where Hujik had taught him 9th-grade biology so many years before.

Hujik died of cancer a few years ago before learning of his protégé’s entre into teaching or his pacesetting honors in school system leadership. But the memory of that important personal connection continues to affect Gothard as an educator more than three decades later.

“In order to get to somebody’s head, to help them be a better student, to make better decisions, to learn from a mistake, you have to first go through their heart,” he says.

Cherishing the Role of Mentor

Because Joe Gothard himself had mentors who encouraged him along his educational pathway, he relishes the chance to be a mentor himself.  Gothard recently collaborated with the staff at one school to identify struggling students who needed some guidance. Then he launched a biweekly meeting in fall 2022with about a dozen middle school boys, just to give them some time and space to talk and reflect. They continue to gather in a conference room at their school, and Gothard usually starts the conversation. He might ask them to talk about a favorite teacher and then he lets them talk.

“It’s been fun and heartwarming for me to hear them open up and to watch each of these young men process how they see life,” he says. “It remains one of my favorite days on my calendar.”

Honorees Experience Bloopers, Too

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gothard was engaged in a conversation with a former school board member and was experiencing connection problems. He kept the video meeting up on his computer screen while he called the board member on his cell phone. Following a minor disagreement, he ended the video meeting but did not hang up the phone.

The superintendent then called a professional colleague on another phone to debrief the meeting. Needless to say, the board member was still on the other line and heard the beginning of this conversation before announcing themself as still being on the line.

“I gave myself a few hours of reflection and called the board member that same afternoon and apologized,” Gothard says. “It was a humbling lack of awareness on my part.”

Honoring American Indian Heritage

Located on Dakota tribal lands, the Saint Paul Public Schools has a long history of American Indian education. As such, Joe Gothard believes it’s important to make sure that American Indians in the community feel respected and heard.

When Gothard learned that some students who participated in the sacred practice of smudging, a cultural/spiritual ritual that involves the burning of certain herbs as a cleansing, were being questioned critically, he decided to take action. He met with the American Indian parent committee, and they created a policy. The district now has special kits to teach students about smudging to honor those students and their heritage.

Gothard recently visited the district’s American Indian magnet school and watched a diverse group of students participating in a smudging session in the library.

“For me, to see that policy in action is very meaningful,” says Gothard. “And it started because parents started advocating.”

Thinking in 3D Terms

The superintendent is known for his interest in new, innovative ways to achieve results. So when Sara Dziuk, president and CEO of Junior Achievement North, wanted to bring a new educational model for high schools to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, she immediately thought of Gothard.

Dziuk told him about 3DE, a competency-based model that bridges the gap between the classroom and the real world. She knew he wasn’t afraid of looking at new ways to achieve different outcomes, especially if this new model could deliver on its promise to reduce absenteeism and increase graduation rates.

Under Gothard’s leadership, the St. Paul district will launch the new model in two high schools in fall 2024.

“He has this special way of bringing people along with him,” says Dziuk. “It’s inspiring. You want to raise your hand say, ‘what can I do to help?’ You want to be a part of it.”

Books at His Bedside

What does the new National Superintendent of the Year have at his bedside currently? These titles:

  • The Unteachables: Disability Rights and the Invention of Black Special Education by Keith A. Mayes
  • The Color of Emotional Intelligence: Elevating Our Self and Social Awareness to Address Inequities by Farah Harris
  • Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

Why He’s an AASA Member

Gothard, a superintendent in two Minnesota districts, has been a card-carrying member of AASA for 12 years. Here’s why:

“I never feel alone facing the multitude of challenges in being a school district superintendent. The field is rich with talented, tested and trusted colleagues who have generously shared valuable insights and provided exemplary examples on navigating the complexities of leading public school districts. AASA, with its unwavering commitment to public schools, offers outstanding leadership support and provides an excellent professional network.”

(Compiled by Jennifer Larson, a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn., and Jay Goldman, editor of Conference Daily Online and editor of AASA’s School Administrator magazine)

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