Interim superintendent ready to make the best of his time

Although he is new to the county, Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Donald Bechtel is no stranger to the education system.

While he was studying accounting at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Bechtel was a coach at the local YMCA. Working with the children at the center led him to change his career plans from the world of accounting to the education field.

“I had a lot of good teachers along the way – elementary, junior high, high school and then college,” Bechtel said. “Knowing what they had done for me in my life, that all kind of came together.”

Bechtel entered the classroom in the late 70s, beginning with the third grade at Matoaca Elementary School in Chesterfield County, Virginia. He received his master’s in the summer and quickly joined the administrative side as an assistant principal.

“The name of the school was Matoaca and that is one of Pocahontas’s first names,” he said. “She had a couple of names so now to end up here – full circle – is really special.”

After seven years as an assistant, Bechtel became a principal in 1986.

“I was good with discipline,” he said. “Classroom discipline, bus discipline and I’ve always felt that I can connect with parents, I was able to connect with the parents and help the kids be successful.”

Last year, Bechtel found a listing for a principal to finish the year at Hillsboro Elementary School. The posting intrigued him and, well, the rest is history.

“When I saw that it was kind of a transitional placement, that’s what intrigued me,” he said. “I didn’t know much about Pocahontas County, but when I saw the vacancy, I felt like I could help the faculty.”

Bechtel finished the 2012-2013 school year as principal at HES and had nine weeks into 2013-2014 when the board of education approached him about becoming the interim superintendent after C.C. Lester resigned the post in mid October.

“There’s all different size school systems in America but I really admired the principals here and they accepted me when I was their colleague,” he said. “I really felt like we have good leaders as principals and so I was real excited.”

As interim superintendent, Bechtel is unsure how long his term will be, but while he is in the office, he plans to make the best of it.

“It’s personalization of leadership,” he said. “We have one-hundred-ninety employees in Pocahontas County Schools. It’s real important that they feel like there is a connection. That I value what they’re doing and the personalization is really important because they’re making decisions every day. Whether it’s in the classroom, whether’s it supporting a teacher here at the board office. It’s high level work.”

Bechtel reached out to all the teachers in the county with a personalized letter, giving them a chance to know what his expectations and plans are for the future of education in the county.

“I feel like we have an energized school board,” Bechtel said. “They want to support the teachers and all other personnel in their work. As I told them, we’re instruction and support professionals. We can’t have ten goals because sometimes you say ‘I can’t do ten things well.’ I just want each goal to take a look at data and drill down we’re doing really well in these areas and these are the areas where we need to improve.”

Most schools analyze data by the semester or nine weeks. Bechtel said he feels it is better to analyze weekly, to ensure the students are retaining what they have learned.

“What gets measured gets done,” he said. “You have children who have all sorts of levels of knowledge and so instructionally, you have to do a lot of assessments and say ‘okay, I need to fill in the gaps for this group of kids. How am I going to do that?’ It is an orchestration instructionally within the room. It’s called formative assessment which is frequent.”

Bechtel cites “The Whole New Mind,” written by Daniel Pink when he explains his approach to leading the teachers.

“He talks about the three things that today’s worker is seeking,” Bechtel said. “Mastery, autonomy and purpose. Purpose. When you think of an educator, I can’t think of a higher calling. The autonomy is in the classroom and we want to value that we have – teachers who have spent a lot of time creating a classroom. The mastery is the challenge because we’re going to Next Generation Standards and we’re looking forward to Common Core. We’re kind of on dual tracks to begin to start to take a look at what is going to be expected by Common Core even though we won’t be tested on that this year.”

Bechtel takes a different approach to the students, altering the old adage, “The three Rs.” Instead, he believes in “The three Cs” – Capable, Connection and Contribute.

“Every day in school you get a lot of satisfaction and pride,” he said. “I tell teachers if we remember the three Cs every day; if we help every child feel capable on a daily basis, then we’ve earned our money. If we strengthen the connection between us and every child, and that’s through our non-verbal, our verbal, our notes. The last one is, let the child contribute to the operation of the room. If we do those three Cs every day, then to me, we’ve earned our money.

“From a metacognition standpoint, to say ‘this child really needs this today, this child needs this.’ It’s all those decisions that you make every day and you are building, you’re helping them feel capable,” he continued. “Every child should experience success every day. That’s really important because they’ll want to come back tomorrow.”

To show the students how important they all are to him, Bechtel spent his first week as interim superintendent visiting each classroom in the county.

“That was my goal,” he said. “I visited every classroom last week. I saw engaged teachers. They were happy to be there. They weren’t really expecting me. They were engaged, the kids were engaged and well behaved.”

As superintendent, Bechtel said his job is to assist the teachers with their style of teaching.

“One hundred-ninety spirits,” he said. “Just to say from a superintendent standpoint, ‘I saw you do this’ and be specific with feedback. ‘Good’ and ‘nice’ – I can be a little more specific there. What we’re trying to do, the teacher should not be the ‘sage on the stage’ anymore, talking for thirty minutes. The teacher should be talking for about ten minutes and then engaging the children because then you can really hear what is their level of understanding.”

Bechtel realizes that, although there is an ‘I’ in superintendent, he knows he can’t do it on his own.

“I can’t do it all but together we can do it all,” he said. “It’s exciting times when you can say, ‘how are we going to best use our days?’ Really help every child. It really is the one-thousand, one-hundred twelve children.”

Bechtel lives in Hillsboro and has been married to his wife, Brenda, for 21 years. The couple has two children, Brittany, 25, and Jay, 19.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontas.com

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