By Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2013-07-30 04:15:20
Giving credit where credit is due, directors share memories of the supervisors, teachers, colleagues and other role models who inspired their school nutrition journeys and presented an exciting new world. “I AM NOT A TEACHER BUT AN AWAKENER.” This quote from poet Robert Frost might be among the most articulate ways to describe the powerful potential that exists between a mentor and a protégé. And it seems most fitting in school nutrition, an unsung profession that tends to fly under the radar until one has been “awakened” to its many rewards. A very small minority of operators can claim to having had childhood dreams to one day manage a K-12 school meals program. Instead, they come to this profession indirectly, often inspired by the influence of a leader eager to pass on her or his passion to the next generation and taking on the role of mentor. One of the hallmarks of K-12 school nutrition is that it is a profession largely devoid of competition and instead tends to encourage relationships that often transcend the formality of stereotypical mentor roles. Indeed, while SNA Vice President Jean Ronnei, SNS, cites the value of both past and current mentor relationships, she admits that she’s a bit uncomfortable with the terminology. “It feels ‘top down’ and formal,” she explains, and that seems somewhat antithetical to the inherently collaborative aspects of the school nutrition profession. Still, whether it was citing one name, a dozen or too many to count, the directors interviewed by School Nutrition were eager to recognize those who helped to inspire their professional passion and pave the way to success. Let their enthusiasm serve as motivation for you to give thanks for those who helped nurture and shape you—and to follow their example and do the same for the future leaders in your midst. Heirs Apparent In the school nutrition profession, it’s common to find a mentor in a supervisor or predecessor. That’s not surprising, considering how invested most operators are in the continued success of their district’s school meals program. They want to develop capable successors to carry on and carry forward what they’ve built. Ronnei counts herself lucky for the advice and encouragement she got from her predecessor at St. Paul Public Schools: Candace Witter. Ronnei had been working for a hospital with a central production kitchen and joined three other Minneapolis-St. Paul-area foodservice directors with similar operations: one in another hospital and two in school districts. One of the latter was Witter, who came to realize that K-12 school nutrition was a natural next step for Ronnei. “Candace led with vision and drive, was incredibly charming, had a sense of humor and really gave me a tremendous amount of confidence that I could do [her] job,” she recounts. Indeed, upon Witter’s retirement, Ronnei applied for and got the position in St. Paul. Today, Ronnei is director of nutrition and custodial services for St. Paul Public Schools and remains grateful that Witter took a number of helpful preretirement steps to ease the transition for her successor, among them getting a universal school breakfast program up and running. “She was a change agent,” notes Ronnei, who also valued Witter’s innate understanding of the importance of letting a mentee fly solo. “After I took the position, we remained friends, but she never gave unsolicited advice.” When Lauren Hummel started in school nutrition, fresh out of college with no child nutrition-related work experience, she had the good fortune to work for SNA Past President Ruth Jonen, “a selfless mentor who made sharing her knowledge her top priority,” says Hummel, who succeeded Jonen as director of foodservice for Township High School District #211 in Palatine, Ill., after a mere 18 months. “If there was something Ruth knew, she was willing to shed light on all angles of the information to ensure that it was fully understood. She never held back because mentoring might take longer than doing a job herself—she always made the time to do it.” Hummel has embraced a light-hearted example from Jonen that has deeper resonance: “She would always say, ‘No one died, so let’s move on and learn from what happened.’ Her point was that we will continually face challenges and [while] things may not have ended the way that we desire, nothing is bad enough to stop us from pursuing what is right and to work toward making it better the next time. I still say this to myself today.” In nearby Iowa, LaRae Doll, SNS, child nutrition director, Johnston Community School District, owes her success to her first school nutrition boss: Dr. Elizabeth Hanna, SNS, director of nutrition services in West Des Moines Community School District. “Beth educated, promoted and allowed me the opportunity to grow. Without her help and leadership, I would not be where I am today,” asserts Doll, who is unsure that she would have answered the challenge to becoming a district director without Hanna’s encouragement. “Beth has a gift for seeking out talent and helping that talent grow,” says Doll, noting that a number of school nutrition directors in Iowa have blossomed under Hanna’s mentorship. “Many of us still seek out her guidance and leadership.” Jenny McComb, child nutrition supervisor, Provo (Utah) School District, also cites her predecessors, Vaughn Hawkes and Linda Burrell, as valuable mentors. “Both were great leaders, optimistic, excited about the child nutrition program, full of energy, with high expectations, but recognizing how hard everyone worked,” says McComb. She recollects both of her former bosses with a mixture of admiration and fondness: “Vaughn could never go into a kitchen without fixing some piece of equipment or showing someone a better way of preparing the food. Linda had the most unique and contagious laugh! In trainings, she would always cheer everyone up after a grueling day. She led by example, working as hard or harder than anyone in the program. I was very blessed to have been mentored by both of them.” A Matter of Influence While we often think of a mentor as an authority figure, such as a teacher or supervisor, important counsel and advice certainly can come from coworkers, peers and other individuals whom fate has brought into our orbit. Dawn Houser, MPA, SNS, is director of nutrition services for Collier County (Fla.) Public Schools, and has worked in a number of districts—and as a consultant—over the years. But once upon a time, she was new to K-12 school nutrition. She “got” the foodservice part of the job, bearing a degree in foodservices and housing administration from Penn State University and experience as an Army civilian club manager at a hotel in Tokyo, Japan. But when she came to the Brevard County (Fla.) school district as a supervisor, she relied on fellow supervisor Christine Farneti, SNS, to teach her the K-12 ropes. “Christine was a wealth of information. Her attention to detail was phenomenal, and she taught me all the USDA rules and regulations. She encouraged me to get my master’s degree in public administration. She was an amazing mentor,” credits Houser. While they only worked together for two years before Farneti moved on to direct the operation in Volusia County (and Houser eventually was promoted to the top spot at Brevard), the two have remained friends for almost 30 years. When Jill Kidd, MS, RD, became child nutrition director for Pueblo (Colo.) City Schools, she called the Colorado state agency, and the director told her “I needed to know Mary Mitchell, a director in a neighboring district. At the time, she was serving as president of the Colorado School Nutrition Association for the third time. She encouraged me to join and become active in SNA. I attended my first Annual National Conference three months later,” Kidd recounts. “I love to network and borrow excellent ideas from other districts. Throughout my 27 years in school nutrition, I always remember to do for others what Mary did for me.” Carol Sykes, SNS, child nutrition director, Dare County (N.C.) Schools, encountered two of her school nutrition mentors, Pauline Holloway and Roger Sawyer, while she was still a graduate student at Virginia Tech. “They both introduced me to school nutrition and allowed me to conduct my research project for my master’s thesis in their schools,” recounts Sykes, crediting the generosity of their time and infectiousness of their passion with her choice to pursue a career in school nutrition. In Little Rock, Ark., Barbara Cole, child nutrition director for the Arkansas School for the Blind, declines to identify her mentor by name, but doesn’t stint on extending compliments to the director in a neighboring school who provided inspiration: “She was a professional in every way: well-informed, wise, a visionary, a strong leader who achieved excellence in her program and our state association.” In particular, Cole appreciated her mentor’s company during various conferences and seminars. “She had many acquaintances around the country, and I felt at ease with her by my side.” The Power of Your Peers What happens when you’ve reached the top rung of the career ladder? You’re in your dream job with numerous opportunities for staying challenged and engaged without moving to a different district, position or volunteer leadership role. You might turn your attention to mentoring someone seeking to follow in your footsteps (more on that in a bit). But you also might recognize that you can continue to benefit from peer-to-peer mentoring. Back in 1997, three female administrators working in St. Paul Public Schools sought to match some of the natural mentorship they witnessed among their male counterparts and invited several other women to form a group of contemporaries intent on providing ongoing mentorship to one another. Jean Ronnei was among the original group of 10 participants who continue to meet regularly 16 years later. Ronnei recounts her surprise at being invited to join the exclusive group, which was intentionally designed to be for women within the district administration who were in leadership roles. “I didn’t have a doctorate or a master’s, but I was still considered a valued participant,” she notes. “I wasn’t ‘just the person who plans the food.’” Ronnei reports that all the women in the group have varying skills, and she has learned a lot over the years about navigating a large organization. While school nutrition professionals have a long history of mentoring one another, this was a new experience for Ronnei and the other members of the women’s group, especially because most of her contemporaries in the district’s operational area were men. Today, the group is still “going strong,” and at press time, Ronnei was looking forward to an upcoming retreat together. It’s safe to suggest that peer-to-peer mentoring is especially prevalent in school nutrition. “I have always said that one of the most amazing and fun things about being a school nutrition program director is that we all share anything we have with anyone,” asserts Donna Martin, SNS, who heads up the foodservices operation in Burke County (Ga.) School District. “I have always gone by the philosophy of ‘If I look good, then you look good, and if you look good, then I look good!” According to Martin, “There’s probably not a week that goes by that I don’t have at least one phone call, asking me to share with someone something about our breakfast-in-the-classroom program, summer feeding program, supper program, reimbursable vending machines, etc. Our jobs are so tough that there is no sense in anyone reinventing the wheel.” Martin believes she’s been mentored in similar ways, by “going to conferences, reading SNA’s magazine, listening to webinars and networking with other directors at meetings.” Martin is always seeking inspiration in what her peers across the country are doing. “One of my favorite mentors has been [school nutrition consultant] Dayle Hayes. Just following her School Meals That Rock website blows me away.” In addition to getting fresh ideas, Martin is buoyed by Hayes’ encouragement: “Her constant telling me that I ‘rock’ when I do something makes me want to do that much more!” Martin also gives a shout-out to former Illinois operator Connie Mueller, SNS. “She always had such a great attitude and never made me feel dumb when I did not know something about school nutrition,” Martin recounts. “She was always doing innovative things before they were popular, like Fuel Up to Play 60 or being a part of a purchasing cooperative. If she could not answer my question, she always knew someone who could.” Paying It Forward “I hope to encourage and help future leaders as much as I have been encouraged and helped. We need each other to help our programs stay strong,” asserts LaRae Doll. “When you see talent in people, you look to help them get to the next level,” echoes Jean Ronnei. Many of the operators interviewed for this article can take credit for nurturing members of their own staff, promoting from within and helping to position some to take charge of school nutrition operations at other districts. In addition, many have encouraged peers in their states or regions to step up to leadership positions within the Association. Some host dietetic interns in their departments. Wanda Grant, who recently retired as director of nutrition services of the Palm Springs (Calif.) Unified School District, counts 14 former employees who are now running districts of their own. In addition to giving them the confidence to step up to leadership, Grant says she’s shared many of the lessons she learned from her own mentors. In particular, she notes, “I’ve taught them to always take the high road. Shut up and listen, instead of being defensive and pushing back.” That doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be stepped on, Grant clarifies. “Create your own reputation. Write your own history—don’t let someone else do it for you.” Mentoring can take many forms (see the box on page 30). But a first step is ridiculously simple, as described by Barbara Cole: “A new director was hired by my neighboring school … and I took it upon myself to go and introduce myself to her. We have not only become colleagues, but good friends, as well.” What will you do to inspire the next generation of school nutrition leaders? Other Memorable Mentors “My major professor, Mike Olson of Virginia Tech, was a wonderful mentor. He made me stand by his desk, in his presence, and place a call for an interview for my first school nutrition job. He wanted to be sure I pursued this opportunity and did not procrastinate! Some of his advice included: Keep a box of tissues in your desk, because folks will be crying in your office from time to time; behave, because when you work for schools, people will know who you are and there are no secrets; and do not get consumed with operations, because others can cover that, while you direct the program. You would not believe how many times I have used his advice!” —Carol Sykes, SNS, Child Nutrition Director, Dare County (N.C.) Schools Other Memorable Mentors “My father was involved in community organizations, professional organizations and local politics. I learned from him that if I want to make an impact, I need to be involved and give my time to the cause. I enjoy learning and developing my own opinion about things. I have learned to voice my opinion and take responsibility to work toward the changes that I am passionate about.” —Jill Kidd, MS, RD, Child Nutrition Director, Pueblo City (Colo.) Schools Other Memorable Mentors “One of my mentors was Ken Baer, when I worked for him in Seattle. He was incredibly important to my career and took me to every national and state conference. Another was my supervisor at a foodservice management company who took me out of college and trained me in every aspect of the administration and operation of institutional foodservice. The best lesson I ever learned was ‘Engage brain before operating mouth.’ But also to be bold and courageous.” —Wanda Grant, RD, retired Director of Nutrition Services, Palm Springs (Calif.) Unified School District Simple Ways to Mentor • Make educational session presentations at state and national school nutrition conferences. • Work with dietetic interns who are interested in learning more about school nutrition. • Share recipes, menus, sample bids, policies and procedures with other directors, supervisors and managers. • Welcome other directors to visit your district and tour the operation. • Be a resource to food brokers and manufacturers’ representatives. • Encourage leadership. • Share your passion for school nutrition. • Never forget that others are watching the example that you set, so model the behaviors you want to inspire. Other Memorable Mentors “Marilyn Bosso has been my mentor. I had worked in healthcare in Kansas City for 10 years, and when I was hired to work in school foodservice, she had just retired after working for 30 years as the foodservice director in Independence, Mo. [She shared] her actual working knowledge in school foodservice, was always willing to listen and help problem solve—she would say to me, ‘Have you thought of this from this direction?’ [She taught me that] communication is the key to success: Communicate with your employees, your boss, school board, parents and students about what you are doing.”—Nancy Coughenour, SNS, Director of Foodservice, Shawnee Mission (Kan.) Schools SNAPSHOT • Many school nutrition directors mentor employees to help build the profession and identify an eventual successor. • The sharing of best practices among peers is considered an essential mentoring resource. • Paying it forward is commonplace in this business. Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of School Nutrition. Illustrations by chuwy and T-Immagine/iStockphoto.com.
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