The Person Behind the Principal: an Interview with MHS Interim Principal Peg Shoemaker

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The Person Behind the Principal: an Interview with MHS Interim Principal Peg Shoemaker

Principal Shoemaker shows off her cardinal pride in her office at Four Corners.

Principal Shoemaker shows off her cardinal pride in her office at Four Corners.

Ella Roach

Principal Shoemaker shows off her cardinal pride in her office at Four Corners.

Ella Roach

Ella Roach

Principal Shoemaker shows off her cardinal pride in her office at Four Corners.

Ella Roach and Micheline Jasinski

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At the end of last school year, Middleton High School was launched into a turbulent hiring process in the search for a new principal, which ultimately resulted in the district hiring an interim principal for the high school. Many members of the MHS community were confused about the events leading up to that decision. 

 

Here’s what happened last year

In late spring of 2019, the former principal of Middleton High School, Dr. Steven Plank, decided to take a superintendent position in the Burlington school district, located in southeastern Wisconsin. 

Dr. Dana Monogue, the superintendent of MCPASD, said, “That transition happened very late in what we would consider as the hiring season for administrators.” School systems generally start the search for high profile administrators (like high school principals) in January or February.  “The later you get in the hiring season, the more challenging it is to get a large number of applicants and sometimes a really good quality of applicants,” she said. 

When Plank decided to leave the system in late spring, Monogue said, “We were faced with a tricky situation because we want to make sure we get the very best person for the job.” The district went through a typical hiring process and received a handful of “really amazing applicants,” ultimately offering the principal position to Dr. Matt Mineau from Appleton, WI. 

However, Mineau and his wife decided that moving from Appleton to Middleton would cause too much change for their two small children, so Mineau declined the position. “Which then backed us up even further into the hiring season, so it was really, really late,” Monogue said. 

Many wondered why the district did not offer the principal position to a second candidate, who the district had previously said was a final contender for the position along with Mineau. Monogue explained, “Although [the second candidate] has a lot of gifts and talents and is a wonderful administrator, we just didn’t feel that the gifts and talents and experiences she was bringing . . . were the exact right match for the position. So after Dr. Mineau didn’t take the job, we . . . decided we just weren’t in a place where we could offer that position to that candidate.”

This left the district approaching the end of a school year without a candidate for the principal position. “It isn’t unusual for school districts in that position to entertain an interim position just to make sure that we get the very best person for the job long-term,” Monogue said. “We didn’t know we’d get such a high-quality person in that interim slot as Mrs. Shoemaker.” 

 

So who is our new interim principal?

The fast facts: 

  • Peg Shoemaker was appointed to fill the interim principal position in mid-June.
  • She previously worked in the Hudson school district in Wisconsin for 28 years. 
  • After transferring from a career in business to a career in education, Shoemaker taught as a special education teacher and an elementary teacher for nearly a decade. 
  • Then, Shoemaker obtained her administrative degree and worked as a principal for 18 years, spending the past six years at Hudson High School.
  • Shoemaker led Hudson High School through a major renovation that finished last November, similar to the one taking place at Middleton High School.

Monogue highlighted the importance of Shoemaker’s K-12 perspective and background in curriculum and assessment, saying, “We need our principals to be learning leaders.” 

This year, Shoemaker has already proved herself to be a learner and a leader through her actions at the high school. But in a school of over 2,200 students and over 100 staff, it’s impossible to meet everyone. 

So who is our new interim principal? 

A risk-taker. A mother. A leader. And above all, a woman who follows her passions with exuberance and grit. 

 

A risk-taker

An interim principal is an odd job to apply for in the educational field because of its brief duration, especially for a candidate like Shoemaker, who had worked in the Hudson district for nearly three decades. Shoemaker considered applying for the original MHS principal job post but decided against it because of her roots in Hudson. “Honestly, I really think I was a little bit afraid,” Shoemaker said. “[I was thinking], I’d been here 28 years, everyone knows me here, I’ve raised my kids here . . . And I’m like, no, that’s way too risky, Peg, to do that.”

However, between the two job postings, Shoemaker’s husband was laid off from his job in the district. When the interim position was posted, Shoemaker decided she was ready to take that risk: “I don’t know if you’ve had this in your life . . . when all of a sudden, things come into view, and you’re like, this seems really, really right. And even though it was an interim, it just seemed really, really right.”

Shoemaker has had practice taking risks in her career. While working as a teacher, Shoemaker became “fascinated by leadership” and thought that she could contribute to being a leader. “I also had a series of really bad principals that made me think, I think I could support making the system better,” Shoemaker said. She got her first principal job “with basically only one administrative course,” then went on to get her administrative degree as she continued in her role as principal. 

Risk-taking extends not only into Shoemaker’s career but her entire personality, as Shoemaker loves adventures. “I’ve been skydiving; I love awesome hiking,” she said. One reason she was so excited to take a position in Middleton was its proximity to Madison, which is “a mecca for awesome kayaking.” Shoemaker has kayaked in Italy, the bayous, and the Carolinas, among other travel destinations. Along with adventures, relationships are very important to Shoemaker, especially those with her family. 

 

A mother

Principal Shoemaker smiled as she described her family: her husband; her two children; and her two Yorkie Poos. “I am pretty pumped because I’m going to be a first-time grandmother in February,” she said. “We’re having a little grandson.” She’s looking forward to growing closer with her son, a 32-year-old working in the film industry in Chicago, because of the experience. 

In the same measured tone, Shoemaker continued, her voice sad but strong: “I don’t know if you know, but my daughter died when she was 20. And she was a junior at the UW. She was going to Venezuela for a study abroad. And she went to see a friend, with another friend, just to say goodbye. And her friend was driving, and she was hit from behind with a lumber truck. And her friend survived, but she died. And so . . . that really fuels my passion to do good things for kids. And to really launch them into being ready for whatever is next for them.”

Shoemaker’s daughter would be 27 this year, so the eighth anniversary of her death will be coming up. “We always do an adventure on the anniversary of her death, which is the 13th of January,” Shoemaker said, because her daughter shared Shoemaker’s love of adventure. 

 

Connecting with students

Shoemaker’s drive to help kids journey into the next phase of their life shines through in her passion for her work. Shoemaker loves being a principal. “And I love being in high school because you really get to see that transformation into adulthood and go, what can I do to open doors for kids?” she said. 

Dr. Laura Love, the Director of Secondary Education at MCPASD, noticed Shoemaker’s dedication to student voice during the interview process. “The first question I got from her as to whether she was interested in this position was, ‘what do the students need?’” Love said. 

Monogue also commented on Shoemaker’s commitment to students. “[Shoemaker] knows that kids in high school need an amazing principal and that they need to know who their principal is. They want to know that their principal knows who they are, cares about them, is interested in their activities, is visible, is present,” Monogue said.

At Middleton, Shoemaker has already established relationships with students through her outreach to sports, clubs, and other student organizations. Before school even started, Shoemaker brought popsicles to the marching band as they practiced in the sweltering summer heat. On the first day of school, she introduced herself to the 600+ freshman and Link Crew Leaders waiting in the Varsity Gym. One of her goals for the year is to attend at least one event for every club, “just to get to know kids that way.” She also likes to attend sporting events. Moving forward in the year, Shoemaker is eager to learn what student voice organizations exist at MHS and how she can connect with student groups. “I really believe in student ownership and student agency in the school,” she said. 

Shoemaker – or “P. Shoe,” as past students called her in Hudson – is no stranger to student connection. 

At Hudson, Shoemaker had quarterly lunches with the Student Council to work on shared goals. She also pioneered a program at Hudson called the Youth Voices Project along with one of the school counselors. The idea came from “Respect Roundtables” that Hudson would do a couple of times a year, where club advisors and athletic advisors would share their experiences in their subculture of the school with the teachers and faculty present.  

“And from that came this idea of Youth Voices Project,” Shoemaker said. “And I would say Youth Voices kind of represented people that were really passionate about inclusivity in the school. One of the things that we did is we talked about the dress code. At Hudson, it was very gender-slanted; it was really slanted against women. And so we were able to bring that to our director of HR, and talk with her about how that dress code could be changed to be gender-neutral.” 

After Shoemaker finished explaining that project, she looked thoughtfully at us – reporters, but also students. “Is that the kind of thing Student Senate would work on?” she asked. Throughout the interview, Shoemaker was curious about life at the high school from our perspective and kept interjecting her stories with questions for us. “I’m a listener,” Shoemaker told us. That was evident, along with her warmth and easygoing nature. 

 

Working with staff

Listening, Shoemaker believes, is a critical part of her job, not only in relation to students but teachers as well. “It’s just, how can I listen and be supportive and at least have teachers walk away feeling like I was listened to, my opinion was valued,” she explained of how she views her role. Supporting teachers is a “key part of my job,” she said. “I trust teachers’ intentions that they’re wanting to do really good things for kids. And so I think a lot of that happens over building a relationship with them.”

Dr. Love described Shoemaker as having a “vision and a strong voice for teaching and learning,” but said Shoemaker is “not going to tell people what to do.”

From the get-go, Shoemaker has made an effort to establish relationships with Middleton teachers. Shortly after she was hired, she sent an open invitation to teachers, so that anyone who wanted could meet with her, and she plans on maintaining an open-door policy throughout the year if teachers want to discuss anything with her. She meets with the department heads weekly and listens to their thoughts, hoping to be responsive towards concerns. “An example of that is we had at our meeting that we had last week, the admin team was going to roll out something to the staff, and they had some great feedback about how staff might not be comfortable with that, and so we shifted. We changed it up,” Shoemaker said. 

As we started to ask the principal another question about teachers, she suddenly pushed her chair away from the table and stood up. She hurried to her desk and returned with an 18-19 school year MHS yearbook, spreading it on the table. “I’m defacing a yearbook,” Shoemaker laughed, “but I literally go through, and when I’ve had a strong connection with teachers, I put a square around it. And then I test myself, Okay, name all of these people.” Squares from sharpies and pens covered the pages. Shoemaker pointed out the rows she was going to test herself on that night.

This was just one of many times that Shoemaker pleasantly surprised us with her candor and openness. She expresses this side of herself to both students and staff; Monogue said, “She’s very honest and forthright in her opinions, which I really appreciate.”

Shoemaker had nothing but praise for MHS teachers. “There’s amazing, amazing teachers here,” she said. “I spent time in six different classrooms this morning, mainly math, some science, and the work they were doing to get kids to talk to one another, to get kids to think, to get kids to work together – which happens in life – was pretty amazing.” 

Visiting classrooms is “really where I find the most joy in my work,” Shoemaker said. It’s a great opportunity to interact with students and teachers simultaneously. When she visits classrooms, Shoemaker’s philosophy is, “don’t sit back, sit with.” She enjoys talking to students about what they’re learning and engaging in the classroom setting. “I want to write notes to those teachers,” Shoemaker added at the end of her explanation, gesturing to a stack of cards next to her laptop, which had an MHS yearbook sticker stuck to the cover.

In addition to a positive relationship with teachers, Shoemaker also has a very positive relationship with the administrators that work above her, which some may see as a refreshing change in dynamics at Middleton. Shoemaker had followed superintendent Monogue’s work in the Elmbrook district years before the two became co-workers here. “I was just incredibly impressed with the priority that she puts on teaching and learning for all kids,” Shoemaker said. Despite never having formally met Monogue before this job, Shoemaker had a lot of respect for her, and knew that Monogue possessed a reputation “within the circle of school administrators as being solid gold.”

When Monogue met Shoemaker, Shoemaker told her that she had followed Monogue’s work and various projects. “It was very flattering, of course!” Monogue said. Monogue, in turn, was “immediately impressed” by Shoemaker during the interview process, and has continued to get to know Shoemaker since. Monogue had nothing but praise for Shoemaker. “She’s humble, she’s respectful, she has a really interesting and personal story that she has shared, and that really helps her connect to people in a different way, which is really valuable,” Monogue said. “She’s just a cool lady. She’s someone that you know you want to hang out with, and that’s really important. She’s someone you want to be around – someone you want to know. She’s someone that I learn from every time we meet.”

 

Moving forward

At the end of the day, Shoemaker’s passion lies with education and her work. 

“I love being a principal,” she said. “To be honest, I want to be here beyond this year. I hope others will see my investment in the school and that I want to be here. But I know I have to go through the interview process to do it. So, if it doesn’t work out, you know, I’ll have had an amazing year. I hope it does work out that I get to stay. And I guess I’m modeling being a risk-taker, and trying to be courageous about it.”