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7 Questions with Paul Gessner
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7 Questions with Paul Gessner
Name: Paul Gessner
Current title: Head of School
Current organisation: Monsignor Donovan Catholic High School
I have 24 years of experience in the field of secondary education. The first 8 years were in a Milwaukee Public Schools high school classroom as a history and government teacher. Promoted to to Curriculum Generalist and Assistant Principal in the same school, I was on the path to retire from MPS.
After 6.5 years in public school administration, I was approached to assume the Head of School / President position of St. Joan Antida High School, an all-girl Catholic high school serving 98% students in poverty and 90% students of color. 46% of these students were not Catholic.
In 2018, I assumed the position of Head of School at Monsignor Donovan Catholic High School in Athens, Georgia. Being the only Catholic High School in Northeast Georgia, I felt called to take this position and strengthen the school for long term viability.
1. What have you found most challenging as a Christian school leader?
There are many reasons to choose a Catholic school education, but Catholicism is not at the top of the list. Academic rigor, small classes, individual attention, etc. are all reasons given to select a Catholic school. The very purpose for the school not being why you’re chosen creates the need for hyper vigilant attention to the mission.
2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
After waking, I start my day with prayer. After getting ready and having breakfast, I drive 6 minutes to school.
I usually arrive at 6:00 am while teachers and students start arriving at 7:30. This gives me time to complete tasks that require concentration and less contact with students.
I meet parents in the carpool lane every morning and greet students welcoming them to school. At 8:00 am I go to the chapel for morning prayer.
When the day starts I “take the tour” of school and often observe a class as the day starts. It’s usually a class where my visibility is needed. A new teacher, a class with a student having academic or social trouble, or just a class that I haven’t seen in a while.
I call 3-5 major gifts prospects every day. This includes parents, donors, founders, grandparents, and alumni. Managing relationships is key to my position. If I ever miss 3 people, I try to ensure I make it up so that there is a minimum of 15 contacts per week.
I usually walk through the cafeteria at lunch. I meet with leadership team members for 1:1 meetings to address their needs and review their weekly progress toward their assigned strategic goals. School dismisses at 3:00 pm.
After school I go to athletics competitions or events that are required for making contacts and connections for the school.
When I get home, if no event, I eat dinner with my wife and spend the evening with her. My goal is to be in bed by 9:30 each night. I pray before falling asleep.
3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
An employee who is well liked and who works hard cannot be allowed to remain an employee if they are openly critical of administration, strategic decisions, or openly embrace cultural norms that are contrary to the teachings of the Church.
4. What's one book apart from the Bible that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
The Lives of the Saints for Every Day in the Year By Fr. Alban Butler
Role models that have been held by the Church as examples to emulate provide guidance for any situation.
5. How do you find and keep great Christian teachers?
With the help of School Growth, Inc., we developed a talent rubric that aligns with our mission. When we interview teachers, we ask questions that correspond to this rubric. We do not hire academically talented teachers if they do not align with our Catholic Christian values.
Once hired, we do what we can to invest in teacher professional development. We offer regular support and have an employee recognition program. What we cannot pay in salary, we offer in benefits and culture.
6. What's most important as a Christian school leader for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?
Regular prayer is critical. There is a body of research on contemplation and mindfulness in education. As a Catholic school, what better way to promote this well being than through prayer?
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a Christian school leader so far?
Over the past two years, I have had Catholic children credit the Theology program and priest on staff with their “reversion to Catholicism.” I get chills when I think of these conversations. These kids openly question if they would be Catholic without this education and opportunity to grow with spiritual guidance. This is why we exist!