"I hope to make students the centerpiece of all I do": Q&A with Jeffrey Walkington
Published: Saturday, April 18, 2009 - 10:06am
Meet Jeffrey Walkington: Ph.D. in English from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, former public school teacher, longtime private school teacher and administrator, central Illinois native, father of two, current vice president of academic affairs at the Latin School of Chicago — and Uni High's next director, effective July 16. University of Illinois Provost Linda Katehi announced his appointment Thursday. Walkington will succeed Steve Epperson, who has served as interim director since August 2007. Gargoyle assistant editor Laura Dripps interviewed "Doc Walk" — as his students call him — via e-mail on Friday. The transcript of that Q&A follows. For more about Walkington's background, which includes administrative positions at the Webb School in Knoxville and the Cannon School in Concord, N.C., see our previous articles here and here.
Can you tell us about your first impressions of Uni as a school and the particular environment it harbors? What was your reaction when you were offered the Uni job?
My first impressions were brilliant, diverse, down-to-earth, genuine kids and teachers in a funky, relaxed, fun atmosphere of both freedom and personal responsibility. It seemed a place where people respected each other, perhaps even felt affectionate towards each other. That seemed to fit exactly what I hoped to find. Uni felt very much like the best schools where I have worked and thrived, but perhaps even better!
I was thrilled to be named director, and my family and friends here have been happy for us and very supportive. I'm sure the honeymoon will wear off soon, but for right now the position seems like a dream come true. About the disappearing honeymoon: When does the Online Gargoyle stop being so nice and start going after me? Please know I’m not asking for that and want to stay on your good side!
Another reaction was that I might be a little too close for my family in central Illinois. They might start looking for positions for me in North Carolina again.
What are you most looking forward to in your new job? What kind of changes do you plan on implementing at Uni in your first year?
I've been around enough to know that one listens a lot the first year. Expect me to meet with teachers and administrators individually, see students in small groups, visit classes, call on parents and alumni — in general to learn from you about the challenges and joys of being at Uni before I start asking too many questions. Note that asking questions is not the same as telling people what to do, although I think I'm known as a firm leader when we can't get consensus on an issue or I feel very strongly about a student- or faculty-centered cause.
I do think Uni is in terrific shape (thanks, Mr. Epperson!) but also that it's no secret that early work must focus on teacher salaries and facility needs. In my short conversations with many people, I’ve heard about those concerns a great deal.
How do you plan on changing the school overall (not just in the first year)? How do you envision the school will change during your time here?
In general, we’ll change (or not change) the school together; it won't be the Walkington Solo Show. (By the way, most students in my past two schools call me "Doc Walk." I like it since I could be called a lot worse.)
I think we'll work hard together to come up with a strategic plan with serious input from all constituents — students, faculty, administrators, alumni, U of I leaders, and community leaders. After we develop a vision together, we'll find ways to measure our progress and hold ourselves accountable. Everything we do should relate to the strategic plan in some way if we are to make progress in the directions we've all identified as important. I've always worked this way, and it makes folks feel they're pulling together in a common effort.
One area in which I think I can contribute, besides in curricular and instructional issues, is to help get out the story — everywhere — of what a terrific place Uni is. I don't understand why it is such a hidden gem — if not nationally then in the state. Maybe it's because admissions competition is already so intense that any more attention would just make that situation worse. After you get out the story, you can often start to raise money as appropriate, funds that Uni could put to so many good purposes. This process often takes years, sometimes decades, of cultivating relationships before you see some payoff in donations of time and effort and gifts from various constituents, the University, and state government. I do look forward to the great new leadership of Karen Cooley in accomplishing these goals, and I plan to draw heavily from the significant communications and fundraising resources at U of I.
I also have a background in technology and instruction, faculty evaluation, schedule changes, global education, etc., but so much, such as these issues, depends upon the culture of the school, whether Uni is interested in heading more in these directions or not.
What do you believe your role as administrator will be (managing the faculty, fundraising, etc.)? Do you think you will have a lot of contact with students?
I’m first and foremost a teacher, and like your great teachers, I hope to make students the centerpiece of all I do, beyond the external relations work I plan to take on. You already have tremendous teachers and administrators, and I think I can let them continue their success without getting too much in the way. I do hope that without neglecting faculty needs, we all take the student-centered approach, that we make all decisions with students' best interests at heart, our primary concern. Of course, research shows that happy teachers who are given the chance to do a lot of professional development are main factors in having happy, fulfilled kids at a school.
What will you miss about Chicago Latin?
I'll of course miss the excitement of Chicago, and the easy chance to connect students with museums, cultural groups, scientists and mathematicians, etc. But I see no reason why we can't do the same thing at Uni, in a vibrant community and on the campus of a great university. I'll miss not having quite as many unusual music spots to visit and not quite as many restaurants, although my daughter said that the best meal she ever had might have been at Café Luna. And she thinks she's hot stuff now that she goes to school in New York. (When I was in high school in Normal, we thought Champaign had the bright lights. That was when young REO Speedwagon and Cheap Trick played U of I more than ISU. What a great loss for us.) I'll miss the kids and teachers at Latin, but Uni students and faculty are perhaps brighter and more sophisticated than here at Latin, and many consider us one of the very best independent schools in the country. I know Uni has a tremendous reputation and history as well. Finally, I’ll miss the little ones. One neat aspect of my job here is responsibility for junior-kindergarten through 12th-grade academics. Probably sounds cliché, but the energy the younger ones show in learning really gives me a lift. And we're talking much younger than subbies!
I'll also miss the independent hot dog stands, which in Chicago outnumber all McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger Kings combined. That’s a weird hobby of mine; I've been to famous hot dog stands all over the country. My other hobbies include collecting, as a mid-life crisis, cheesy toys from my childhood, the '60s "classic plastic" age.
You expressed interest in continuing to teach; do you plan on doing so?
I want to feel my way through this first. Since I've been in the lowly job of school administrator instead of really working for a living, I've always just taught off and on, maybe a semester class a year or a full-year class every other year. You have to make sure as an administrator that you are really doing a top-notch job with the teaching, that you have a laser-focused passion for it. That can be hard to do when all heck breaks loose in the office right as you're going in to discuss Thoreau. I would like to do some teaching if possible since it's the way I get to know kids best and get to understand, in a small way, what the faculty experiences, particularly if I've urged them to do something extra. In other words, if we all take on some new initiative in our classes, I should have to do it as well. I used to make my English department chair evaluate me as a teacher, which was strange since I also evaluated him as chair. We laughed a lot about getting back at each other for bad reviews. I'm also gratified to have been named a lecturer in the U of I English department, too. I've taught a lot of college in the past and would love to get back into that in a small way — perhaps practicing up at U of I before I take on Uni teaching!
Will you move to Champaign-Urbana?
Definitely. We've looked at many places, but of course we can afford none of them until we sell our beautifully situated high-rise apartment here — in this awful economy. Two BR, two BA. Please spread the word. We like a lot of what we've seen in C-U very much, especially the older areas. We lived on a farm and raised lots of small livestock, gardened, heated with wood, had no phone or TV, etc., for many years, so we have thought some about a small farm in the country. It's a terrible amount of work, though. My students always loved to come out to our farm and cook out, fish, fix my old truck, etc.
Do you have kids? If so, if they're school age, do you know where they'll be going to school?
Our daughter is at Columbia in New York. Actually she's at Barnard, the women's college of Columbia, but I think she spends most of her time and takes most of her classes at Columbia. (She needs to be careful crossing Broadway as she seems uncontrollably pulled towards males across the street.) She has a very cool radio show at Columbia that we stream on the Internet from 11 to 2 on Sundays. Since she grew up in the South, like her dad she is a hard-core early country music freak. (On a radio festival last Sunday she played seven straight hours of Dolly Parton, years 1967-73 only.) Maybe she’ll move to the hard-core jazz show later. They take themselves way too seriously in the purity of their music genres there! Ellen is also a serious dancer and into dance history especially.
Our son is going into fifth grade; we took many years off the young child business. He's visited Countryside and Next Generation so far; we are fortunate that private and public, there are so many strong options in Champaign-Urbana. By the way, he is an amazing guitarist and likes classic rock, the Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thin Lizzy stuff, his favorite bands. We all go through that stage, just as he's going through the video games, skateboarding, etc., phases right now. Help!
When were you offered the director's job? What accounted for the delay in announcing your hiring (if there was a delay)?
I was officially offered the job quite recently by the outstanding associate provost, Keith Marshall, and by Provost Katehi. I didn’t feel there was a delay (perhaps people at Uni did), but it takes a long time for the University to check out a candidate and vice-versa, to make sure we'll both be happy and comfortable with each other for, one hopes, a long time.
Thanks for the opportunity to answer these questions.