When Dave Ditzler moves into the principal’s office at Rhinelander High School in a couple weeks, he’ll fulfill a career goal that’s taken 15 years, and several failed attempts, to achieve.
Ditzler has served as the school’s associate principal since 2006. In that time, he’s been the understudy to three principals; first Mike Werbowsky from 2006-08, then Terry Fondow from 2008-11, and then for the last school year under interim principal Paul Keats. The last two times the position has opened up, Ditzler has applied for it, only to be passed over. The third time was, as they say, a charm.
So, why was he successful this time? “I was ready,” he said. “I probably thought I was ready when I applied before, but I wasn’t. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to work under three excellent administrators while I’ve been here, each with different personalities and skills that I’ve learned from. Not getting the job the first couple times was disappointing, but I feel I’m a better administrator and person because of it.”
The first time he applied for the head job, Ditzler was beaten out by Fondow, who just two years before had been recognized as the Wisconsin Education Association Council’s Principal of the Year during his time in the Green Bay School District. “I understood completely why they chose [Fondow],” said Ditzler. “His credentials were amazing. Still it was a little disappointing.”
By far the greater disappointment was being passed over in August 2011 in favor of Keats, who was hired on an interim basis. Ditzler had essentially been serving as the school’s head administrator for several months while Fondow was on medical leave to deal with a severe sleep disorder, and he thought the position was his. He said he was “floored” when District Superintendent Roger Erdahl told him the district would be going in a different direction, with an interim principal from out of the area.
“It’s hard to describe how I felt…speechless is sort of an understatement,” said Ditzler. “I went home that weekend and spent a lot of time chopping firewood. I let out a lot of frustration that way.”
Ditzler gave himself a few days to let the frustration subside, then talked with his family about their options.
“I considered looking at other districts, but every one has a firmly established principle,” said Ditzler. “I knew I didn’t want to move my family. Together we decided to stay. I told myself, ‘You’ve learned so much working with Mike and Terry, and you’ll learn even more working with Paul.'”
Ditzler embraced his role, first serving as a mentor to Keats as he became acclimated in the district, then working side-by-side with him, learning from the longtime high school principal all the while. Despite the somewhat awkward way their relationship began, Ditzler said he and Keats have become good friends.
“Paul is a very good man, and did a wonderful job in his time here,” said Ditzler. He’s thaught me so much in the past year. He’s been great to work with.”
Ditzler also re-examined his interview, and determined what he felt kept him from being the choice to succeed Fondow last August-overconfidence.
“I went into my interview in August thinking the job was mine, and I think that’s why I lost it,” he said. “I had basically been serving as the principal for several months, so when the committee asked for examples of how I’d deal with certain situations, I answered with ‘You’ve seen me do that here before’ or ‘This is how I handled that particular situation in the past.’ I came across like I’d seen or heard everything, and that wasn’t what they were looking for.”
This time around, when the interview process for the position began in March, Ditzler was confident, but not overly so. He knew that the pool of candidates for the permanent job, including Keats, were all highly qualified. He was ready for all the questions, though.
“I guess being it was my third time through the process, I basically knew what questions were coming,” said Ditzler. “I felt ready…that it was my time, but not like anyone owed me the job. I went in humble. In a position like this, you’re always learning on the job.”
After announcing internally several weeks ago that Ditzler had been offered and has accepted the job offer, one of the first to congratulate him was Keats.
“Paul has been so gracious and professional throughout this whole process, even though I know it had to be tough on him,” said Ditzler. “He was worked with me every day, and has handed me a lot of the special projects he’d been working on over the last year. I owe him such a huge debt of gratitude.”
Among the projects that Ditzler sees among his priorities in the upcoming year are identifying the learning needs of the students, and implementing instruction that meets those needs. To do this, curriculum will need to be adjusted for individual students and their learning needs, rather than forcing each student into the same curriculum.
“We need to be ready for students that learn in different ways and at different levels,” said Ditzler. “In the end, students need to be learning similar content, it’s just the process that needs to be more adjustable.”
Among the other challenges Ditzler is looking at in the coming year are training his replacement as associate principal, Richard Gretzinger. Gretzinger is a graduate of Crandon High School, and has been a math teacher with the Crandon School District for 19 years. “I believe Rich will be a great fit at RHS,” said Ditzler. “He brings a high level of energy and enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to working with him.”
Ditzler also faces the challenge of easing into several changes the district is looking at next year, including Northwoods Community Secondary School moving into the high school building. The relationship between the teaching staff and administration has also become strained after the school board’s decision to lay off four highly-experienced teachers at the school in a cost saving measure.
“I know there are several huge challenges ahead this upcoming year,” said Ditzler. “I know this job is only as secure as how effective I am in the eyes of the school board and community. If they are happy with the job I do as principal, I’ll be excited to stay here for a long time.”