The true definition of leadership

Jeff Makelky receives Principal of the Year Award

On Wednesday, May 13, Big Piney High School Principal Jeff Makelky logged onto Zoom for another routine meeting with faculty and staff, the new normal for principals and teachers providing remote education. About five minutes into the meeting, outsiders hacked their way in and took control of the proceedings. Thankfully, the “hackers” did not intend to wreak havoc. The “Zoom-bombers” turned out to be Ken Griffith, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Secondary School Principals, or WASSP, and other leaders of the organization. Griffith abruptly entered the meeting to announce that WASSP had selected Makelky as 2020 Wyoming Principal of the Year. The award allows Makelky to represent Wyoming at the National Association of Secondary School Principals conference in Washington, D.C., this October. Makelky will have the opportunity to meet other principals of the year from each state and the chance to take home the National Principal of the Year Award. WASSP received nominations for the Wyoming Principal of the Year Award during the fall semester, Griffith explained. Superintendents typically send in the nominees, although selections sometimes come from faculty. Griffith and a group of “peer readers,” a panel mostly made up of former principals of the year, examine each nomination and select the top five. The principals selected by the panel are then asked to fill out a lengthy application with numerous essay questions and information about the principals’ school, Griffith said. Superintendents, a community member or parent, a teacher and a student from the principal’s district submit letters of recommendation. The WASSP selection panel goes back to work to select the top principal. “This is a fairly stringent process,” Griffith said. “It’s very difficult for the cream of the crop to come to the top.” Makelky modestly accepted the award, quick to give credit to others. “The first two words that come to mind are humble and blessed,” he said. “I’m humbled to receive an award like this and I’m blessed to be in a school community that made it possible. This is a school-wide award. It’s not about one person. My name is on the award, but it represents our whole school.” Makelky added that the award is also a “family award.” “Because of the time and dedication this career takes, you have to have a supportive spouse. I really appreciate my wife, Vicky, and my three sons – over the years they’ve been super supportive.” Work ethic “If you’re going to be successful at anything, you need to have a strong work ethic,” Makelky said. He learned this trait early on from his parents. His father worked “from sunup to sundown to provide for the family and my mom really raised my brothers and I.” In high school, Makelky joined the football team and continued to work hard and grow under the leadership of a coach he admired. “My coach definitely was a huge impact in my decision to further my education and go to college,” Makelky said. Makelky attended Dickinson State University in North Dakota and played running back and receiver for the Blue Hawks. He graduated with a teaching degree in history and social studies and a minor in physical education. Immediately landing a job in the small community of Terry, Mont., Makelky hardly had any time to enjoy graduation. “I started at Terry in the middle of the year,” he said. “I got done with my classes at Thanksgiving and my first day of work was Dec. 6.” After nearly three years in Terry, Makelky moved to Conrad, Mont., a town not far from Glacier National Park. For 22 years, Makelky wore many hats in Conrad, teaching U.S. history, world history, strength training, physical education and driver’s education. He also served as the head football coach for the Conrad Cowboys. After 25 years in the classroom, Makelky felt ready for a change. “I really enjoyed teaching, but I felt like I needed to see the bigger picture outside the classroom, so I dabbled with administration a little bit.” This led Makelky to pursue a master’s degree in administration from Montana State University in Bozeman. Upon graduation, Makelky got hired in Sublette County. He worked as assistant principal and activities director at Pinedale High School for six years before moving to the high school. “I’ve been thankful to be over here (at BPHS) for the last seven years,” he said. “I’m just blessed to be part of a really caring and effective team of educators. And really, this starts the first day of kindergarten and culminates at graduation. All the work that goes on between those events, I’m just a part of that.” Different styles of leadership Working in the trenches as a teacher and coach for so many years gave Makelky a leg up when he started his administrative career. “The biggest thing that teaching helped me with was really understanding what teachers have to do on a day-to-day basis. A teacher’s responsibility has increased every year. It’s not only educating the kids on curriculum, it’s about life skills. It’s about being there as a kind of social worker and role model.” Graduate school at MSU-Bozeman allowed Makelky to “dive into different types of leading.” The master’s program, combined with experience in education, laid the foundation for the leader Makelky became. One aspect of Makelky’s leadership style is to “distribute learning.” “I really believe you’ve got to use the talents and resources that are around you,” he said. Makelky is the first to admit that he does not have expertise in every subject area. Allowing others to share their knowledge and ideas makes for a successful organization, he added. When Makelky started in Big Piney, the high school’s ACT scores “were not competitive.” Makelky worked with teachers from all disciplines to improve each student’s preparedness, and for the past five years, the school’s ACT scores “were well above the state average.” “I knew I couldn’t turn the ACT scores around by myself. We did that as a staff. This was achieved only through distributed leadership where everyone played a role, whether they were an English teacher, health teacher or science teacher.” Another aspect of Makelky’s leadership philosophy is “servant leadership, or “doing things that benefit other people.” This recognizes that administrators are “servants” to their “customers,” the students and their parents. “I feel like teaching and education is a public service. A lot of times we have to remember that we’re here to serve the needs of our students and community. Any successes that our students achieve is our success.” Teamwork also plays a significant role in leadership for Makelky. He refers to the Alan Sinner photo Big Piney High School Principal Jeff Makelky is named the 2020 Wyoming Principal of the Year by the Wyoming Association of Secondary School Principals. The true definition of leadership Jeff Makelky receives Principal of the Year Award By Robert Galbreath, [email protected] faculty and staff at BPHS as “a team” rather than simply employees. “Sometimes high schools can be a bunch of individual one-room school houses,” he said. “If teachers don’t get out of the classroom and watch one of their colleagues teach, they may not be exposed to a different strategy, best practice, technique or style of classroom management.” Everyone in the building arrives with different knowledge they can offer to others. “The (faculty) are not learning from me, they’re learning from each other,” he said. At the end of the day, being a principal comes down to the students – making sure they have “quality people running and leading” the classrooms and activities. “The greatest reward that I experience is when I get to sit in on a classroom and see a really effective teacher conducting a lesson with a high level of learning going on and engaged students,” he said. It helps that BPHS is full of great students. “We have some of the most tremendous young people I’ve ever worked with go to school here,” he said. “When you see them every day, it’s hard not to be positive and to work hard to benefit those kids.”


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