It’s the principal


Robbie Maher

Dick Shanley

.Morrisville native Dick Shanley has been at Northern Vermont Johnson for over a decade serving as an Adjunct Professor of Education, while supervising a multitude of student teachers over the last 14 years. Besides his tenure at NVU- Johnson, Shanley has been involved in education for nearly 40 years mostly through school administration roles. The longtime Fairfield Elementary School Principal also served his country for 25 years as a Lieutenant Colonel touring Vietnam. Between that and being an avid Boston Red Sox fan, it is more than safe to say Shanley has lived a fascinating life.

In your long career as an educator, what was the single weirdest thing that you have encountered?

“It probably came when I was the Assistant Principal and Athletic Director at Lamoille. I worked for this principal that was kind of screwy and he had us sneak around the building with walkie-talkies saying ‘I see a suspect that might be smoking marijuana, 10-four, over, rodger-dodger, over and out.’ That, looking back on it, was one of the funniest things.”

What obsesses you?

“One thing that obsesses me is I am always wondering if my teaching is effective enough, and if not, how I can make it better. I am always striving to be the best that I can be and I am not always sure if I am doing the best job for students.”

What has been the worst job you’ve ever had?

“The worst job I ever had was when I was a 16-year-old working at Morrisville Lumber Company. The dictator owner used to swear and holler at all of his help and during that summer, I think he went through three teenagers who he had insulted to the point where they all quit. An example of some of the things that this horrid figure did, sort of like our current administration, is he would load up this truck full of cement blocks at 4:45 in the afternoon, when I would only get paid till 5 o’clock. He’d then send me to Mount Mansfield Company at the top of the mountain in Stowe to deliver those cement blocks on the truck. I would only get paid until 5 o’clock, and I would get back home at about 7 o’clock. So he would get all this free time.”

The best job?

“The best job that I ever had was being Principal of the Fairfield Center School. I was there 11 years and I had the kindergarten kids who would hug me every day, and I’d have the hyper middle-level kids that were very enthusiastic as long as you kept them under control. You could do all kinds of things with the kids. We did all kinds of stuff outdoors, like skiing, hiking, biking, we did some thematic projects. We came to Johnson for a leadership training project. We’d attend theater productions, so we had the whole community involved in the school. I also had excellent teachers K-8.”

What has been the worst thing anyone has ever said about you?

“Somebody told me that I lied about something. I take pride in always telling the truth even though it has gotten me into trouble before. What you see is what you get, that is why teachers trusted me, that is why the community trusted me. So the worst thing that had been said about me that wasn’t true was that I lied about something.”

What has been the best thing anyone has said about you?

“That I was a very competent and effective leader of schools.”

If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would they be?

Mother Teresa, Barack Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, Mookie Betts, and Dave Dombrowski.

If you knew you were about to die, what would you choose for your last meal?

“Probably a seafood dinner, with scallops being my favorite.”

What is the best single piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

“To look deeply at both sides of an issue before making a decision. Also to think things through before you make that decision, even though I have relied on my gut to make decisions in the past.”

Do you think public education in Vermont is broken and if so, what would you do to fix it?

“I don’t think that it is broken. I think that teachers are working harder these days than they ever did before. There have been a lot of technology upgrades and a lot of requirements for teachers with proficiency-based learning, so I think they are working harder than they ever have. Teachers are working during the summers at workshops and conferences, and I think that kids have many needs now that they may not have had in the past because of the structures of families and so many families in need. As far as kids go, I think that kids are kids and they have been the same for years. But there has been a real concern with families and how they are serving their kids or able to serve their kids and help them in ways that perhaps they should.”

If you could live in another time period, when would that be and why?

“The 1970’s seemed to be a pretty stable time. We didn’t seem to have the horrid political climate that we have now. It reminds me of my father’s generation, which was the greatest generation where people would go off and serve their country and then come back and serve their community. In the 70’s, everybody seemed to work together to get things done for the country rather than tearing it apart as it is being torn apart today.”

What would you like engraved on your tombstone?

“He did the best he could.”

In terms of your temperament, what animal do you think you most resemble?

“Probably a wolf. Sly, pretty intelligent, but when riled up can turn the other way.”

If you were to be a university commencement speaker, what advice would you offer?

“The same advice that I have been offering at graduation speeches forever, I have done several of those. That would be to not let others tell you what you can do, or what you cannot do. Be yourself and do the very best that you can while having confidence and perseverance. Through hard work and perseverance, you can achieve success. Don’t let anybody control or discourage you.”

What was a time you were told you couldn’t achieve something?

“When I was in college at UVM, I didn’t know how to study and my grades weren’t very good for the first two or three years. I tried to transfer to the College of Education, but the dean said I could never be a teacher. He said I could maybe be a social worker since I had a minor in psychology and a major in English, but I couldn’t teach. So I graduated with a Bachelors, then went back and took all the education courses, earned a masters degree, then did my student teaching. Then I went into the army to Vietnam. Later, I became I think the youngest assistant principal in the state of Vermont. Also, in 1994, I was the Principal of the Year for the state of Vermont. So the point, back to what I said originally is to not let anybody say what you can or cannot do.”

Can you talk about your military life?

“Actually, many of the things I learned in the military were lessons I used in leadership as an administrator over the last 30 years. In the military, a good leader gives the people under him a job to do, and then they leave them alone to do the job. He holds them accountable but does not micromanage. In order to effectively motivate people to do their job, you have to be kind and supportive and have their backs at all times. I think in education, administrators will back their teachers, will communicate clearly, and will give them the power to have the latitude to make changes to their curriculum and classrooms. The other thing I learned in the military is to not make excuses. If you have a job to do, do it.”

What is the best part of working at a university?

“Working with the students who seem to be hungry to learn more and for the most part are very polite and supportive. Most of them aren’t snotty rich kids. Most of them have second jobs and they don’t drive around in BMW’s and are common ordinary kids. Usually first-generation students. You feel that you can help these kids out and they’ll appreciate what you do for them.”

Best memories in education?

“I was going to retire from Fairfield and people wanted me to stay an extra year. The students there actually kicked me out of a town meeting they were running every Friday and talked about what they could do to keep me at Fairfield for one more year. Then came the petition with a hundred or so signatures that said I was the best principal that they had ever had and they wanted me to stay another year.” Shanley did wind up commiting to his beloved school for one last year.

Worst memory in education?

“Having board members that were self-serving and that didn’t support teachers. They were only interested in cutting the budgets or not supporting what teachers were doing. They were relying on what their kids might say about teachers rather than relying on what those teachers had done effectively. They weren’t supportive of the staff, which made it very difficult to work in that situation…”

How did the running interest take off?

“My youngest boy was identified in sixth grade as being the best runner in his class, so I said, “Well, kids all have different interests and you got to support their interests.” My oldest boy was really good at basketball and played soccer. My youngest one, I’d take around to road races on the weekends and he’d win these races, so I got interested. I have run now for over 40 years. I have done four marathons, 20 half-marathons, and have done the Burlington Marathon as a team for the last 20 or so years. I am still running three or four races per year and winning my age category because nobody else is in it. So there is an advantage to getting old because you’ll win races.”