By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – When Mike Teahon travels across the state for conferences and other events, he’s constantly running into graduates of the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s educational administration program.
Honestly, they’re not that hard to find.
“I see UNK grads all the time who have been through our program, whether they’re superintendents, principals or even teachers. They’re scattered throughout Nebraska,” said Teahon, an associate professor and chair of the department.
More than 80 current Nebraska school superintendents and 200-plus principals have an educational administration degree from UNK, along with numerous special education directors. The program has its highest-ever enrollment this semester, with 145 people pursuing degrees or endorsements to serve in these positions.
“When people talk about our program, one of the first things they mention is how much the practical aspects are emphasized,” Teahon said. “A lot of times, we’ll have students with degrees from multiple places, but what they feel they get from UNK is that practical application to be able to go out and do the job. That’s why our numbers are growing, because that message continues to spread.”
Because of the political climate, an ongoing teacher shortage and other issues, Teahon believes educational leadership has never been more important. It’s also more difficult than ever.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find people who want to do these jobs, because of that pressure,” Teahon said. “In the educational administration program, we’re trying to build a bridge by providing an extra level of support. When you get into these jobs, there are going to be tough times, but we’ll be there to support you through those tough times.”
Teahon and the other faculty members are a major strength for the UNK program and a valuable resource for students. They all have experience as K-12 administrators, so they understand the challenges these professionals face.
“From my perspective, what sets us apart is that personal service we provide for the students. We really focus on developing those relationships, building that network and making connections that last long after a student graduates,” said Teahon, a former school administrator in Amherst, Dunning and Gothenburg.
“I have people who graduated three or four years ago who still call me to talk about their careers and ask for advice. That’s definitely a focus.”
The UNK educational administration program is offered in a flexible online format, allowing people to take classes on their own schedule. Most classes also offer regular Zoom sessions so students and faculty can meet remotely to discuss topics and engage with each other.
“Even though it’s online, we do have a very personal component using the technology that’s available to us,” said Teahon, who recently taught a school finance course with students from multiple states and one foreign country.
A majority of the students are from Nebraska and neighboring states – people like Jeff Schwartz who are looking to advance in their educational careers.
An Alma native and Kearney High School graduate, Schwartz followed in the footsteps of his parents and other family members when he decided to become an educator.
“I grew up in education, so it seemed like a pretty natural fit for me,” he said. “I enjoy being around people and helping students out.”
After graduating from UNK in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in Education, Schwartz started his career at Cedar Rapids Public Schools (now Riverside), where he served as a teacher, coach, athletic director and assistant principal.
Schwartz earned his master’s degree in 7-12 school principalship from UNK in 2017 and held administrative positions at Auburn and Axtell before becoming the high school principal at Boone Central Schools in Albion.
A lot of friends and family members have asked him why he wanted to leave the classroom to become a school administrator, and the answer is pretty simple.
“I really enjoy it,” he said. “I love working with kids and I also love working with adults, and this gives me a chance to do both. I also love to lead and build a culture. That’s big for me, creating an environment where people respect what your school does.”
Schwartz completed his final degree from UNK this summer – school superintendent specialist – and started in that position July 1. The decision to enroll at UNK a third time was a “no-brainer.”
“It didn’t even cross my mind to look at other schools because I’ve had such a great experience with UNK,” he said. “Growing up, I always heard that UNK had the best educational programs, and they’ve proved it to me.”
Although he’s no longer enrolled in a graduate program, Schwartz continues to receive support from UNK through the Super Lopers program.
Offered by the Department of Educational Administration, Super Lopers gives superintendents who are new to the position an opportunity to connect with other professionals in the field during twice-a-month Zoom sessions. UNK faculty also attend the online meetings, but program participants set the agenda, whether the focus is budgeting and school aid, teacher recruitment and retention or another topic.
“We want to serve people before they’re our students, while they’re our students and after they’re our students. That’s something that’s unique to our institution,” Teahon said. “We will even invite non-Lopers to join us, because we’re trying to impact leadership across the state at all levels.”
A similar program, Loper Leaders, is offered for practicing principals.
“Administration can be a lonely world at times, so you have to make sure you build that network,” Schwartz said. “I’ve developed a lot of great relationships with professors and other UNK graduates who are administrators now. Those are resources you can build off of because you know they’ll always be there to help you out.”