Q&A WITH METHUEN SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT JEANNE WHITTEN

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METHUEN — Jeanne Whitten took the helm as Superintendent of Methuen Public Schools on Aug. 1 after a long career as an educator and administrator.

Growing up in Cambridge, that was first place you worked as a teacher for more than 12 years, what grades did you teach?

Mostly elementary. I started out as an early-childhood specialist, so I worked with very young children and then I started to do work in the field of special education with young children who were struggling and having difficulties. Cambridge was an interesting city because, while it still is very progressive, they had a very progressive way of looking at education. They really used a British model. So, I taught multiaged classrooms. I taught ages 3 and up through ninth grade.

How did you become an administrator?

I started doing some work for the (Network of) Innovative Schools (Inc.) in Andover, some consulting work. Cambridge was very good to me; they allowed me 20 professional days away from my responsibilities in the school to go out and teach teachers. In return The Network Inc. paid for my substitutes so it was a nice collaborative effort between the two organizations. What it did for me was it gave me the opportunity to see if I really liked working with adults as much as kids, and I did. I did a lot of traveling when I was doing that consulting. I traveled all over the country and when I went back to Cambridge, I started thinking about what makes the most sense for me and I started looking at administrative positions and I became a coordinator of Gifted and Talented Education for a couple of years in Amesbury.

What brought you away from Amesbury?

I really started thinking about becoming a principal. I had gone back to graduate school and had gotten my certification in administration, then I had my first principalship, which was in Lowell. I worked at the Pyne School for a year and then I was shifted to the Washington School in Highlands of Lowell. … That was just a wonderful time for me because it was my first administrative opportunity and I was 34 or 35, so I was a very young principal. I had a wonderful experience in Lowell. I will always treasure those moments.

From there I had the opportunity to interview in Watertown, which was closer to my family and it was a rather large school, 750 to 900 kids in elementary. Not large compared to Methuen standards, but still large and I thought this would give me an opportunity to do some more creative work as a principal.

At what point did you start thinking about becoming a superintendent?

When I was in Watertown, I was working for a superintendent, Sally Dias, who had been a great influence on me. She really helped me to understand that I really needed to get a doctorate and I needed to pursue education at a higher level if I really wanted to affect change at the policy level. She was a wonderful mentor for me. With her help I wrote my thesis and finished my doctoral degree.

After serving as an assistant superintendent and then an interim superintendent in both Lincoln and Melrose, why didn’t you apply for the superintendent position without the word “interim” in those towns?

I wanted to go somewhere to have a fresh start. … When you’ve been anywhere in one capacity that’s how people think of you. In Cambridge, I was that nice kindergarten teacher or nice multiaged teacher. I don’t think people could have ever seen me in a higher position. Same as with the assistant superintendency. … My personal feeling is it’s a lot better to go to another district where you are brand new and people look at you as ‘OK, you’re the superintendent’ as opposed to ‘You were this and now you’ve become this.’

Why Methuen?

I liked this community. I came up and rode around a little bit and I knew Phil (Littlefield) because we had been in the graduate program together at UMass Lowell. I had the opportunity to call him and talk with him about this operation and thought it was right for me. So I applied for the position and I was privileged enough to get the position.

How do you feel about coming into a job where there were so many people in the community pushing for a local candidate, Methuen High School Principal Arthur Nicholson?

Many communities go through that struggle. They had a person who is much loved in Mr. Nicholson and I’ve grown very fond of him. He is a wonderful man and a wonderful educator doing some really nice work, so it makes sense to me. He was passionate and I respect that passion. I have it inside me. He wanted this job very much and the votes went the other way for whatever reason. I’m fine with it, he’s fine with it. Arthur and I are working really closely together and I think we’ll actually — I know we’ll have a great relationship.

What are your goals as superintendent in Methuen?

Phil Littlefield did really good work here. He’s really managed these schools well and led them well and this district is really on a forward moving pathway. I will continue that work that he has started. … I really need to understand what it is that makes Methuen Methuen. It’s all those things I don’t know that are so important. That’s why I am anxious to talk with anyone so I can find out about Methuen from the source — its citizens.