The individual recognition is “humbling,” but Austin Nunn says being honored as one of the top 30 educators in Alberta is more an endorsement of all those who support his goals.
The principal of Cardston Junior High School was recently named a semi-finalist for the 2015 Excellence in Teaching Award.
“I guess what it means to me is that our school is doing good things and our teaching staff has worked hard to accomplish lots of good things,” says Nunn, adding the accolades also reflect the work being done across the Westwind School Division. “I’ve had awesome mentorship from other administrators in the Division and other principals that I look up to and I’ll even steal ideas from and incorporate them in our school.”
He’s made a name for himself, but it’s CJHS that Nunn wants to put on the map. When he was hired as principal in 2010 he set a goal – to make the school “world famous.” That lofty objective was inspired by the ‘FISH! Philosophy’ born out of the incredible energy and commitment to service shown by the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle.
“I want Cardston Junior High School to stand out on a map as a school that is innovative, creative and unique, where we educate every child that comes through the door and help them reach their maximum potential,” he says.
Alberta Education received nominations for almost 300 worthy candidates this year from parents, school jurisdictions and staff. Thirty semi-finalists were then named, with 20 eventual award winners recognized at a special banquet.
Among the criteria for the award is fostering the development of students, involving parents in student learning and working collaboratively with colleagues.
Lisa Comin has had many opportunities to see Nunn interact with teachers, parents and students as the chair of the CJHS School Council.
“In every interaction, it is clear to me that his first priority is to ensure the intellectual, social, emotional and physical growth and well-being of his students,” she wrote in nominating Nunn for the award. “It is during this time that Austin has served as principal of Cardston Junior High School, the school has become a place where students want to be, teachers love their job, and parents feel both welcome and informed.”
The source of Nunn’s nomination is not lost on him. Parental support – which comes from being informed as well as interested – is a must in his books.
“They are the voice of the community, and the voice of the students and they really should help drive education,” he says.
A supportive family also helps. The school environment is a family affair for Nunn, wife Kaylynn and their four daughters, who range from elementary to high school age.
“They’re awesome. Our most cultural events together are school plays and band concerts,” he says, pointing out his wife is a member of the CJHS School Council.
“She gives me lots of input on school. Not ‘hey, you’re doing a good job,’ but ‘you might want to look at this – this might be a concern.’ ”
Westwind School Superintendent Ken Sommerfeldt says when Comin approached him about nominating her principal for the award he was totally supportive and delighted.
“I recall the day we decide to hire Austin. He made a very favorable impression on the Board and administration, and he has lived up to those impressions from day one,” he says. “He has a natural blend of vision and capacity to inspire that makes him a truly outstanding educator.”
Staff also praised Nunn in the nomination package, noting how he inspires students and shows true educational leadership by trying innovative and new techniques to improve the school’s learning and teaching.
“In all my years of being in education, if I was to put together an all-star team of educators, Austin would be a top pick and I would be hard pressed to find anymore more deserving of being the team captain,” they wrote.
Nunn would like to describe himself a ‘servant leader’ for his staff, a philosophy outlined in James Hunter’s ‘The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership.’
“Some people might think that just means you serve others, but you still have to step out and lead ahead and show love,” he explains. “In the professional world that means really stepping out of your way and making somebody else’s job easier and giving them the tools they need to be successful and then let them run with it.”
For Nunn leadership also extends to his students. He doesn’t want to be the principal students only see when they’re in trouble. He relishes opportunity for positive interactions like shaving his head for a Christmas fundraiser or kissing a goat for another. More importantly, it means encouraging trusting relationships with his students.
“I want to greet them with a smile. I don’t know what their life has been like outside of school – when they go home at night – so I want this to be a happy, healthy, safe place for them to be and I need to be included in that,” says Nunn.
A number of his students get to see him in another light, as Nunn teaches junior roping classes and is involved with high school rodeo and a winter rodeo series.
“His background in rodeo allowed him to reach out to many First Nations students and it was clear that the foundation of trust and genuine concern for each student steadily grew,” wrote Sommerfeldt, in the nomination package.
As for his lofty goal for Cardston Junior High School, Nunn believes they’ve made some significant strides in student learning but knows it’s a life-long quest.
“I think the school was well on its way there before I arrived. I’ve just tried to take the horse by the reins and go on with the ride,” he says.