Justin Gardner

Never Stop Learning

High School Principal, Beekmantown Central School District

Hometown: Plattsburgh, NY
Age: 31
Education: AA, Social Science, Clinton Community College; BA, History, SUNY Plattsburgh; MST, Social Studies Education, SUNY Potsdam; Education Leadership Academy, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
Community Involvement: Member of St. John’s Parish

What’s your biggest professional success?

Personally, being the successful candidate for a high school principal position in a large school district at a young age has been my biggest professional success to date. However, within education, I don’t think that an individual can take sole credit for any accomplishment or achievements that happens within a building or district. There are countless people who provide vital contributions to successes within a school. Recently, I’ve enjoyed being a part of a school district that has set out to become the most progressive learning institution in our area. I hope that my presence has contributed to this goal in some way, and I take great pride in what our district has accomplished towards providing our students with a progressive learning environment that offers them the education they deserve.

Within my building at the district, I am quite proud of the recent positive gains we have made in increasing our graduation rate, decreasing discipline, and increasing attendance. However, I’m most proud of the climate that has been established within the school and the positive relationships that are being built with students.

Again, I view these accomplishments as group successes and am excited to play a part in moving our school in a positive direction.

What’s your dream job?

I’m very fortunate to work with great people in an amazing district. I can’t think of a job that I would enjoy more than where I am right now. I’m fortunate to work with a talented team of administrators, an amazing group of teachers, and a great support staff. I feel that these resources, combined with the support the district provides, make my current position one that would be hard to top anyplace else. I’m genuinely grateful for the opportunity I have to serve as high school principal at Beekmantown Central School District and hope to continue in this position for a long time. At some point far down the road, I’d like to become a district superintendent, but that’s a goal I’ve set for a time far into the future.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

The life of a school administrator doesn’t easily lend itself to work/life balance. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to get that “one more thing” done before the end of the day or the end of the week. I think it really requires continual self-reflection on how you’re spending your time each day. Prior to taking on an administrative role, I taught and coached athletics throughout the school year. This prior experience allowed me to become acclimated to extended hours and helped me develop time management skills that now assist me in keeping a work/home balance. The support and understanding that both my wife and sons have for the time investment my position requires is also extremely helpful. My wife is a full-time educator as well and our two young sons keep us pretty busy. She has done everything she can to support my extended work hours and I’ve made it a priority to return that support by being present and involved at home as much as possible.
Keeping this balance has allowed me to be a better principal and even more importantly, it has allowed me to become a better father and husband.

What important lessons have you learned in your career?

One lesson I picked up along the way is that there is something that can be learned from every experience. You can often learn more from failure than you can from success. Because of this, I’ve learned to embrace the little failures that happen along the way. Each time something doesn’t go as planned, it’s an opportunity to learn something and become better in the future.

Another important lesson I’ve learned is to seek out and welcome feedback from those who don’t always agree with you. Continually hearing voices and opinions that reaffirm what you already believe doesn’t result in growth. However, being receptive to constructive feedback and even criticism is another great way to foster real growth. Surrounding yourself with a good support staff that will offer honest feedback is an invaluable resource to any leader.

Probably the most important lesson that I’ve learned so far is the importance of workplace culture. The mantra that culture trumps strategy holds true for almost every field. No matter how great an idea you have, it will be dead upon arrival if the culture isn’t receptive to it. As a leader, cultivating and maintaining a positive culture is the foundation that has to be laid before any real change or progress can occur.

What’s the most exciting trend happening in the community right now?

I’m really about post-secondary education in our community. Both Plattsburgh State University and Clinton Community College have created amazing opportunities for local students by offering scholarship opportunities to make them more competitive at keeping our best and brightest in the area. Many of the highest performing students in our area are now deciding to attend college locally because of these new financial incentives, when they previously would have looked elsewhere after finishing high school. This is exciting because of the long-term effect it will have on our community. The chances of our best and brightest students remaining in the region after college are going to greatly increase because of the programs now being offered by our local institutions.

What would make the North Country a more enjoyable place to live and work?

I think the North Country is a great place to live and work. I believe the attention our region has received from around the state shows that it’s a place where great things are happening. If the region continues to progress as it has in recent years, I can’t think of anything that stands out that would dramatically improve this area. I’m proud to call the North Country home and I’m glad that my children will grow up our community.

Who is your mentor and what have you learned from him/her?

I’ve been lucky to work with many great leaders and peers during my career in education. I think that I’ve gained a lot from a variety of people I’ve had the opportunity to work for or with. Currently, I view the entire administrative team at Beekmantown CSD as my mentors. I’ve been helped by all of them in some way as I started my career as a school administrator. Specifically, Amy Campbell, the principal of our middle school, and Dan Mannix, the superintendent of our district, have both provided me with countless lessons during the beginning of my career as a principal. Mike Loughman, the former principal from my time as a teacher at Northern Adirondack CSD, has also been a strong mentor. He’s a big reason I’m in my current position, and really pushed me to go into administration at a time when I needed reassurance that I was ready and capable to take it on.

How do you contribute to the culture of your company?

Within my district, I’m a member of a talented administrative team. Each of us brings a certain set of skills to our district, which makes for a positive and progressive school culture. As principal of the high school, I do my best to manage the building and ensure that we are working towards both district goals and the district mission to create quality contributors to society and self. I think my willingness to take chances on new ideas has allowed my building to implement some really positive changes for our students. I model the values and behaviors that are at the heart of our programs and initiatives for our students and staff because I believe that for them to buy into them, I need to be fully committed myself.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Leaving the classroom and entering administration. I loved working directly with students as a classroom teacher, but wanted to be able to affect more students than just the ones in my classes. Becoming a school administrator offered me the opportunity to impact more students and truly influence change in education. When I made the decision to leave teaching to become an administrator, it was a big risk. Leaving the security of my teaching position and jumping into a new position definitely took me outside of my comfort zone. I knew that I wanted to make the change, but all the unknowns that came with it were pretty scary. Taking that leap was difficult, but I haven’t regretted it yet, even for a second. I love what I do and am so happy that I took that risk.

What is something that no one would guess about you?

I’m super competitive. I’ve learned to curb my competitiveness as an adult, but growing up I was really competitive with everything from athletics to board games. Now, I do a pretty good job of controlling it and only applying it in appropriate situations, but I still really get a lot of enjoyment from competing when I get a chance.

Write a brief note to your younger self…

Slow down and take time to enjoy the moment. Follow your instincts and work hard toward your goals, but enjoy the journey along the way. You only get once chance at each moment, so make the best of it and don’t wish away the present because you’re too focused on the future.