GILLETTE, Wyo. — After 44 years of employment with the Campbell County School District in administration and teaching, Thunder Basin High School Principal Terry Quinn is retiring.
Quinn said Campbell County Deputy Superintendent Kirby Eisenhauer will lead interviews for the prinicipal position, which closes next week.
County 17 sat down May 24 with Quinn to discuss his decision, his legacy and his beliefs about education.
County 17: Why did you decide to retire this year?
Quinn: So here’s the deal. I’ve had 44 years. I did 23 in the classroom and 21 in administration. So as we get to the point, I have five brothers, one who has passed away. All the brothers are retired but me. My mom, at 92, has taken ill, so I’m going to help out the brothers in that situation. At 92 she’s quite healthy, but she’s had a diagnosis.
The professional reason is, for some strange reason when this senior class was seventh graders, I sat with them once in a lunch room, and I said, “You know, when you guys walk, I’ll walk.” And for some reason that came to fruition when they were seventh graders. As we got closer and closer, I kept thinking, you know what, this would be a pretty good year. Thunder Basin and the scores are up, our ACT scores. All that fun stuff. Enjoyed it the best.
And so I said, I can’t think — which sounds strange — I can’t think of a better guy to resign for than Kirby Eisenhower. And that’s not sucking up, because he’s already done with my evaluations, but he has done me well and always been really good at supervising me. I said, “Kirby, I don’t want you to ever have to get to the point where you think, ‘Eh, this guy’s getting too old.'” So that’s why I’m hanging up.
County 17: How has education changed over the course of your tenure?
Quinn: Well, people say kids are different and that’s not true. Kids are kids. They’re gonna make mistakes. Sometimes we lose sight that education’s institute is to help kids learn and that is socially, emotionally and academically. We need to assist kids in that maturation process. So I don’t think it’s changed.
I think the advance of technology, clearly. In the old days, if you wanted to talk to one of your teaching buddies, you had to wait in between classes, you couldn’t shoot them a text. And so that’s changed.
It’s clear that the kids are more susceptible to round-the-clock, either support or criticism from their peers or their enemies. So I think that’s difficult.
I think it’s more challenging these days to be a teenager than ever because they carry with them a phone that, you know, when they get on those sites, they’re always comparing themselves to what they see and that, that’s just not necessary. As corny as it sounds, when you’re an educator, you should hopefully see the internal beauty of every kid. And unfortunately, that’s not what’s seen on a phone.
So, but other than that, education hasn’t changed at all. Staff, they’re still committed. Teachers are committed. I think education is being scrutinized more by individuals. I think it’s become more of a political hot potato for shallow-minded politicians who want to create an aspect of panic or fear in the educational system for election purposes. And that’s unnecessary because they all had teachers and they all should be grateful to the teachers they had.
County 17: What advice would you give to struggling teachers?
Quinn: You need to reveal who you are to students and what that means is you let kids know a little bit about you. Now, obviously not through social media. But when you start off the year, kids don’t know who you are. So you want to reveal some things about you and then kids, once they see that you are willing to share a little bit, they’ll share a little bit. The best classroom management is building relationships with kids and writing a great lesson plan because if you have a relationship with a kid and you’ve got a lesson plan, you won’t ever understand the need for classroom management.
County 17: What’s your greatest professional success?
Quinn: I think if I built a positive connection such that a kid came to school or a kid felt better about themselves, then that’s probably my greatest success. I want kids to believe in themselves. So, if this old man who is overweight helped the kids believe in theirselves, then that’s my professional success.
I always tell people, I’m gonna be that guy walking the dog and every day they drive to work and one day they’re not going to see me walking the dog and I hope they ask, “I wonder what happened to that dog?” That’s what I want to be.
County 17: What’s your greatest professional regret?
Quinn: I was a quick listener. People have told me that my whole life. I listened quickly and so people had to frontload conversations. It’s interesting because the same comment was made about my twin brother when he retired — that the Quinns, we listen quickly and we want to get things resolved and move on. And so that would be it, that I didn’t linger longer with listening. Wow, three L words.
County 17: Can you give me an example?
Quinn: If somebody comes into my office, I usually am standing, if they can find me in my office. And I’ll start listening and I’ll presume where they’re headed with their conversation and I will start answering it with a simple yes or no. “Yep, let’s get going.” I do the same thing on the phone. I usually don’t say goodbye. I just simply say we’re done. Let’s move on. Next!
County 17: If you were to rate your leadership from the lens of your staff, what score would you receive?
Quinn: Maybe 5.5 out of 10. When you lead, you’ve got to make difficult decisions. And, unfortunately — and I knew this when I was a teacher — a principal has a greater understanding of the entire situation. A superintendent understands the situation even greater.
I think there are some teachers that felt as if my decision was wrong. Sometimes we lose sight that I have to do what’s best for school in decisions. But I would say 99% of my decisions were based upon what’s best for a kid, right or wrong. I always tried to do what was best for a kid, whether that meant calling the parents and telling them something that maybe the kid didn’t want revealed. … That’s leadership, though. If you want to be liked, give away ice cream. Don’t become a principal.
County 17: What are the biggest struggles facing public education?
Quinn: Shallow criticism by politicians and angered citizens. Everyone thinks they’re an expert in education because they have an education. But what they don’t realize is the ability to create formative thought and opinion. … You have to attribute that to education because we taught you how to ask “Why?” So to turn that against us is unfortunate.
Teachers were front-line personnel, first line of defense when it hit COVID, and that has been forgotten, because now they’re easy targets based upon rumor and conjecture from across the nation that they try to apply here. So teachers deserve a better shake, a better opinion.
County 17: Are there experts on education?
Quinn: I think an expert in education is someone who understands the challenges that kids come to school with every day. And so if you have content knowledge and knowledge of the brain development of the children that your instruction in teaching, I think you are an expert in education.
County 17: What has your stewardship as principal taught you most about yourself?
Quinn: I needed to delegate more. That was my weakness. I think my other weakness is, there are times I think a decision I should have made with my head I had made with my heart. And sometimes that can upset people.
And then for strengths. Oh, I don’t know … I hope they found me genuine. I hope they said, “You get what you see.” Because I, I can be abrasive. I can be quick. I can be witty. I tried to be who I was at all times.
County 17: What are you planning to do after?
Quinn: Oh, [expletive], read golf, travel and find the best wines to drink.
County 17: What’s your favorite book?
Quinn: There are two: “The Boys in the Boat,” which gave me goosebumps at the end, and “Between Two Kingdoms,” which is disguised scallop potatoes and ham — you love the book, but you’re not sure why. It’s just written so you just never want to put it down. It’s phenomenal.
County 17: What’s your favorite movie?
Quinn: I don’t do movies.
County 17: Really?
Quinn: No. In fact, if I could unhook my TV… I just don’t go to movies. I’ve never been a movie buff. The only movie that I actually watched with good faith is one that my wife and my two children, we sat down and watched as a Christmas Eve tradition. “White Christmas,” as my wife insisted. And she always fell asleep during it. But to this day, the boys and I try and watch “White Christmas” in memory of my wife.
County 17: Aw. How long has it been?
Quinn: She passed away in December of 2017.
County 17: Ah, I’m sorry.
Quinn: She battled with cancer.
Also, I think for me, one of my best decisions, personally, so, selfishly, was in supervising the special programs here at Thunder Basin High School. It has taught me and it has shown me all the elements of society that we’ll face. All the different individuals, different characteristics, different traits. I think being able to be a part of the special programs at Thunder Basin and with the autism program has been so enriching for me. That I will probably miss the most, the kids that I would see almost every day at lunch with special programs. Great kids, great kids.
County 17: Will you be volunteering in that capacity? Are you coming back?
Quinn: I have a house in Sheridan, also. I bought that so my son and his fiancée, soon-to-be-wife, had a place to live because Sheridan’s expensive. He teaches up there. So I think in two years, I’ll sell my house here and then move to Sheridan. And then, if I want to work at Hardware Hank and sell nails, people won’t say, “Oh, there’s Mr. Quinn.” They’ll just say, “Oh, there’s some old guy selling hammers and nails.” That’s what I’d rather be. They asked Mike Mansfield, “How do you best want to be remembered?” And he says, “I don’t.” So that goes back to the dog and the man walking the dog.
County 17: You have any grandkids at this point?
Quinn: No, none. I’m really happy with, proud of my two, the two sons that I have. One is deeply enthralled in music and one is deeply enthralled in education. That’s perfect because my wife was a music teacher. And so he has followed her path in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And my youngest son has followed my path in teaching mathematics and playing golf.
County 17: Did you “only” teach math, or…?
Quinn: I taught junior high math from ’79 to ’89. I taught high school math from ’89 to ’03, I think. Something like that. And then I jumped into, I have worked in Twin, Campbell County High School. I did a stint at Wagonwheel to cover for a principal who went down. I did a stint at Hillcrest when another principal went down. Then I did Stocktrail, Sage Valley and Thunder Basin. I’ve worked in seven schools and I have spanned six decades, which is strange because I started in the last year of the ’70s. So I can say I was here in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s. I have no regrets whatsoever. I’ve loved this occupation. I won’t even call it a job.
County 17: Any favorite memories?
Quinn: Oh, kids, kids, kids and kids, I call them résumé kids; just great kids. You know, the kid that said “Mr. Quinn, I’m on the fifth floor, can you come visit me?” It’s based on kids and so that would be it. I mean, there’s just so many different kids.
I never remember the bad kids. I had a guy the other day pull his truck over and he got out and I was walking to my mail and I thought, “I’m gonna get my [vulgarity] kicked.” And he comes up and he goes, “Mr. Quinn. Do you remember me?” And I said no. He apologized for his behavior when he was in junior high or high school. I didn’t remember it.
I remember kids. I find them funny. I find them entertaining. What they do on Tuesday may not be what they do on Wednesday. And some bring a lot of luggage; I mean we’re at the Denver International Airport because they bring a lot of luggage to school with them, and I’m amazed how many do so well with what they have to carry on with at home.
Like you said, I’ll probably, I do like volunteering. I love singing in the church so I’ll sing at the Catholic church. I know I’ll go to church more often.
I don’t like this celebration stuff. I’ve garnered 528 paychecks from this school district. I don’t need to be thanked. [Expletive], they paid me. So when I’m done, I’m done.
County 17: Do you think … I just feel like there’s, there are … I agree with you, but I’m also aware that sometimes — and I know that sometimes it depends on the baggage someone’s carrying — but sometimes people do more than the job description.
Quinn: They paid me well and so it helped my kids get through school. My wife and I are terribly happy. I’ve been quite fortunate. To lose my wife was sad, and I had to strengthen in a different way. But my boys are doing well. Forty-four years, 528 months.
County 17: I’ve got a stupid question but I think people still want to know … why is math worth studying?
Quinn: That’s a great question.
County 17: It’s kinda cheesy.
Quinn: Math is important because there are two forms of math and one is an abstract reasoning, which is developed in geometry and developed further in calculus. The other one is concrete sequentialism, which is developed in algebra one and algebra two. And so what you have is both the left and the right side of the brain being engaged in a similar topic of mathematics depending upon where you are in the scale. What it does is it allows you to sharpen the saw, going that way and coming back.
County 17: Did you enjoy teaching or administrative more?
Quinn: Apples and oranges. Somebody said when you go into administration, you’re further away from the kids. That’s only true if you stay in your office. To be an administrator, you have to be out of your office. You have to be visible with kids to be an effective administrator.
If you get out of your office and you go into classrooms and kids are comfortable with you, you see all aspects of kids’ lives and you see more of kids in administration, of their background and all, than you do in education. I think administration absolutely draws you closer to kids than instruction.
County 17: This kind of came up at the school board meeting yesterday: What do you think the role of patriotism is in education?
Quinn: I think model citizenship is a different context than patriotism. I would think our best goal is to develop productive citizens in society that contribute and that are open-minded to those who are patriotic and those who may not be patriotic. I think that’s what the goal of education would be. And education also should be able to give the entire picture and not a singular picture. No one understands a movie with a single frame of the movie. You have to be able to watch the entire movie. Same thing with reading books. You need to be able to read the entire book. Same thing with judging people. You can’t judge people from one encounter. Whether they’re patriotic or not, because we’re educated, we should be able to say, “I’m glad that person is taking a stance, whether I disagree or agree with that.”
County 17: Anything you want to say that is kind of one of those things that you didn’t feel comfortable saying while you were employed but are ready to say now?
Quinn: [Laughs] I would tell teachers and administrators both: If you get up in the morning and you are going to work because it’s a job, find a different job. If you get up in the morning and you go to work because you find it engaging, enlightening, enriching and you understand that you’re planting a tree that you may never sit in the shade of. … If you understand that concept of your role, then you should be in education. But if you get up in the morning and you say, “I got this job,” do yourself a favor, do your kids a favor, do your spouse a favor and say, “I’m done.” My wife always said, “We’re not an employment agency. We’re here for kids.”
Youth can read you. They can tell if you want to be there. Kids, especially at the high school level, are pretty keen and perceptive in regards to whether you’re actively engaged and an advocate for their success.
I loved kindergartners and I loved working with seniors. They’re similar in nature. They just need to know that they are loved and that we’re all on the same team.