Coming home to Lovell to lead a district as superintendent for the first time, Doug Hazen couldn’t have picked a more complicated moment.
As COVID-19 continues to be a present reality in Wyoming, Hazen’s first task comes with no easy answers: What will education look like in Lovell come fall?
“It’s been two days now (since I started the job) and that’s all we’ve discussed,” Hazen said. “It’s a difficult issue to tackle for sure. Baptism by fire. No softballs on this one. This is the real deal coming in. Right off the bat.”
At least there’s this point of solace, as Hazen begins his rookie year as superintendent, when it comes to a problem like this: years of experience don’t always mean that much.
“The superintendent I just worked for retired this year. He had between 44 and 47 years of experience. And his last words were ‘Doug, it wouldn’t matter if I had 47 or 77 years of experience, nothing prepares you for something like this,’” Hazen recalled. “This is a once in a lifetime issue.”
Hazen is a familiar sight within Lovell school hallways. His career began at Lovell High School, where current principal Scott O’Tremba hired him as a math teacher.
“You all remember me riding up here with a bike and a backpack looking just like a student 12 years ago,” he told Lovell residents at a March public forum earlier this year.
It didn’t take long for him to rise up through the ranks. When he left the district to take a position as junior high principal in Columbia Falls, Mont., just last year, he left behind his post as the Lovell Middle School Principal and Special Education Director for the district.
Hazen said he recognized that there was still room for him to rise within the district when he left last year, but leaving was necessary, he said. He needed to experience something different if he was going to be the leader he yearned to be.
“This district is a huge part of me, but there was a feeling last year, I had spent my entire career within the district. I take this job as superintendent very serious and I knew there was potential, things had gone very well for me within the district. But I just hadn’t known anything else. I hadn’t seen anything else.” Hazen said. “Would I be prepared? I don’t know that one year necessarily does that, but it gave me a different perspective.”
At Columbia Falls Junior High, Hazen managed a school of just over 500 students, and for the first time, he delegated tasks to an assistant principal. With an increased number of students under his care, there was also a greater variety of experiences. With the school having students that came from both wealth and poverty, the socio-economic status of his students was more varied than in Lovell schools, and just as the students differed along those lines, so did their parents.
“You just had more variety of issues and viewpoints,” Hazen said. “It really was just exposure to more.”
And then, of course, toward the end of Hazen’s tenure, came COVID-19.
A pandemic is never a good thing, but the experience it can give one as an administrator is an entirely different matter, Hazen said.
“It was, professionally, a very good thing,” Hazen said. “When some of the social distancing measures were just starting to be put in place, I had staff move to their rooms and start using Zoom, where we could help each other still but plan for being shut down. A lot of my staff members were ultimately happy, because they felt prepared.”
Admittedly, Hazen expected his time in Columbia Falls to be quite a fair deal longer.
“I didn’t expect this to happen within a year’s time,” Hazen said. “You think maybe you’ll come back around in a number of years, and you’ll have your shot. It happened much faster than any of us anticipated. That’s how life goes sometimes. ”
Beginning as superintendent
As of Thursday, July 2, Hazen was pretty sure that his first two days as superintendent didn’t look like the typical two days. District administrators didn’t need to know who Hazen was or what he was about. It’s common knowledge. Instead it was straight to the deep end.
That’s the unique benefit Hazen brings to this position. He knows the district, and the district knows him, inside and out.
“I’ve held a lot of positions within the district. I’ve coached a number of things. I’ve been a teacher in the district. I’ve been a principal in the district. I’ve been a special education director in the district,” Hazen said. “That’s given me at least some insight in how a number of different entities within the district run. That might make me better at understanding what our employees in our system need in support and what they should be expected to do. It’s important for me to understand what people need to do the best job they can.”
That can be a downside, as well. The district knows him well, sure, but not as superintendent.
The district’s administration team knew Hazen as a first year teacher. Now he’s the boss.
“I have to strike a balance between being the CEO of the district and being approachable and a familiar face and colleague and friend, and whatever these relationships were,” Hazen said. “There is a balance there, and my hope is that I understand the professional side of the job.”
Then again, it’s nothing entirely new, Hazen said. He’s moved up the ladder within this district before, and he’s done this juggling act before.
It’s right, Hazen said, that he begins his career as superintendent in the town where his story as an educator began.
“We spent 11 years here previously. Eleven years is basically a third of my life. I’ve spent as much time here as any place I’ve ever been,” Hazen said. “From my family’s point of view, we’re all excited to be back. There’s a comfort and feeling of home. This is where I’ve come up as an educator.”
The challenges ahead
What education will look like in the upcoming months may be an unprecedented problem, but in addressing it, Hazen said his most important task is recognizing the team and resources he is surrounded by.
“We’re not in this alone. Everybody is going through this,” Hazen said. “I don’t think my approach is going to be that I have every answer, or that I’m going to do this alone. We’re going to collaborate with many people. We’ll get guidance from county health, we’ll get guidance from the state and we’re going to use all of that, with community and stakeholder input, to make a plan that will be right for our community.”
The district may be in difficult times as it navigates COVID-19, with the future of state funding for education remaining perilous to predict. But, it’s an exciting time for education as well, Hazen said, noting that within difficulty lies opportunity.
“This is the catalyst for innovation. We’re forced into it. We have no choice but to innovate,” Hazen said. “We’re forced to be different.”
It’s likely that the steps taken by educators today, such as those taken by those in Lovell, could change education far into the future.
“COVID-19 has shown us to a certain extent that there are things that make us adapt and change all of our rules from what they have historically been, some to the good and some to the bad, but I think it gives us better context to what is working and what hasn’t been working,” Hazen said. “As much as we all wish COVID-19 would go away, there are going to be some long-lasting effects that are positive for educational practices.”
One of the benefits Hazen said he’s recognized is that COVID-19 has increased awareness for teachers in understanding the challenges some of their students face, creating a more holistic understanding of education. From grading students to determining eligibility to attendance, COVID-19 is forcing educators to re-evaluate nearly every building block of the educational system.
“Some things it opened up two ways, we were seeing into student homes at times, and better understood what certain family dynamics and realities were, where we had potentially six kids sharing one computer, all of the inequities and issues that created,” Hazen said. “And on the reverse side, it also put staff in an uncomfortable position where we were a fish out of water. Most teachers and educators are wired in a way where we are in education because we want to help people, so a lot of us stepped up into that.”
The crisis may also have long-lasting impact on the use of technology within the classroom, according to Hazen
“One of those potential ramifications is just our understanding and utilization of technology and when we do re-enter the classroom,” Hazen said, “how we can leverage some of those skills now to make that environment even more effective.”
Whatever the future has in store, Hazen is grateful to be doing it here, in the town that formed him as an educator. He recognized the district’s previous superintendent, Rick Woodford, for taking him under his wing, but Hazen said he has also returned from Montana with a better understanding of himself and what he uniquely brings to the table.
“Rick was an unbelievable mentor to me. I learned a tremendous amount from him,” Hazen said. “But, I’m not a carbon copy of him. I’m my own person. I have my own style of doing things. I’m going to be myself. That’s why the board hired me.”
By Ryan Fitzmaurice