Mary Templeton wasn’t intimidated.
It was Aug. 26, 2018, two days before the 2018-19 school year was scheduled to begin for the Washougal School District, and Templeton, the newly appointed district superintendent, was hosting a “school year kickoff” luncheon in the Washougal High School performing arts center.
She climbed onto the stage and began to speak to a crowd filled with educators who had been in tense labor negotiations with the district all summer and were, at that moment, on the verge of a strike.
Templeton wasn’t nervous, however; her performing arts background gave her the confidence to feel comfortable in front of a crowd.
Facing a group of people that could’ve easily rejected a message of positivity from the person on the other side of the bargaining table, Templeton instead won them over with a clear, articulate and self-effacing speech that put her openness and straight-forward nature on display. She held nothing back.
Templeton, who was recently selected as a 2018-19 “Superintendent to Watch” by the National Schools Public Relations Association, knew labor negotiations between the Washougal School District (WSD) and its teachers had been fraught with tension before her arrival, so she decided to emphasize the importance of coming together as a team on that August day. She said nothing was stopping the district from becoming one of Washington’s best, but that lofty goal could not be achieved if teachers and administrators remained divided. She said they would persevere through the labor strife and move forward in a positive direction.
Les Brown, WSD’s director of technology, worked closely with Templeton during the labor negotiations as part of the district’s communications team.
“She didn’t back away,” Brown said of the new superintendent. “She got up in front of what arguably could’ve been a hostile audience and used humor and a bunch of other strategies to be engaging and honest about things. Despite the fact that they were set to go on strike, people found her warm, engaging, somebody they wanted to work with. That was her first interaction with a huge number of people, and that set the tone for a really great relationship.”
After her speech on Aug. 26, teachers who would vote to strike the next day approached Templeton and gave the superintendent mostly positive feedback, thanking her for her words and telling her it was nice to meet her.
“You can go a couple ways when you’re meeting with staff for the first time,” Templeton said. “You can do a big PowerPoint presentation or inspirational video. I decided that really wasn’t what I wanted to (do). There (were) no notes. There was no planned, prepared speech. I just wanted to talk authentically to my team and just say, ‘Hi. Here’s a little bit about me. Here’s why education matters to me. Here’s what I want to help us move towards.’ That’s what it was — a bare stage, me and them. It was a very intimate conversation.
“People were very responsive. It worked out really well. The teachers were willing to give me a chance.”
The strike lasted several days before the school district and Washougal Association of Teachers reached an agreement on a new collective bargaining contract on Sept. 5, 2018. The school year began two days later.
The message Templeton delivered that day in August has resonated throughout her first year at the helm of the district, a year that overall, she said, has been a positive one.
Templeton will be recognized in July at the 2019 NSPRA Seminar in Washington D.C. with 14 other honorees from around the United States.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the transformational leadership, community engagement and relationship building (Templeton) is engaged in,” WSD board member Cory Chase stated in a letter of recommendation in support of Templeton’s nomination. “She has demonstrated dynamic leadership, fast-paced decision making and shown the value of strong communications in the district’s efforts. I’m proud of our district and am certain that (Templeton) is on the right track to help us achieve great things.”
The award recognizes district leaders who have less than five years of experience as a superintendent, and who exemplify dynamic, fast-paced leadership with strong communication at its core. Templeton is a firm believer that effective communication is essential to a school district’s success.
To that end, she’s helped the district embrace social media in a way that it didn’t previously. She posts video updates to the district’s Facebook page, and writes a weekly “Message from Mary” to let district staff members know about what’s going on in different departments. She also participates in casual “coffee chats” with parents at each of the district’s schools.
During the 2018 labor negotiations, the new superintendent’s messaging stood out for its conciseness and ability to distill complicated terminology into relatable material.
“Some people think that I’m a straight talker, and I am, because I think that’s the best way for us to move forward,” Templeton said. “One of my colleagues said, ‘Straight talk is hard to get and hard to give.’ Those are both true statements, but if we can’t be truthful with each other and be authentic about where we are, we’re not going to get to the top. Authentic? Straightforward? Yep, that’s me. It has to be real because people know when it’s not.”
Templeton, who grew up in Portland and attended the University of Oregon, previously worked as a teacher for 15 years and an administrator in Spokane, Washington, for the last 11 years.
“I appreciate her boldness and confidence,” said Washougal High School principal Aaron Hansen. “People want to be able to count on their leaders. She’s made it known with her actions and words that we can count on her. That was clear from the start. She’s relatable, personable and has phenomenal knowledge of education.”
Brown said Templeton has established a work culture in which “there is a stronger sense that the status quo isn’t good enough anymore.”
“She has tons of energy, is excited about the work, is very pro-Washougal, and sees tremendous potential in the staff and community,” Brown said.
On a recent visit to a Washougal kindergarten class, Templeton took a seat in one of the tiny chairs. The students were counting to 100 before being dismissed for lunch. They started to file out of the room and waved to Templeton by bending their index finger up and down. The last girl in line looked up at Templeton and said, ‘You’re beautiful’ before running off.
That moment reinforced the feeling that Templeton had when she came to Washougal to interview. She knows she’s in the right place at the right time.
“I went, ‘I love my job.’ It was so sweet. No place else can you see something like that,” Templeton said of her visit to the kindergarten classroom. “This is the best job I’ve ever had. To come to a district where my vision or my skill sets or the things that I’ve done in the past were going to be helpful to move the district forward, that’s very fulfilling and rewarding. I am using (skills) I’ve developed to help us see Washougal rise to the top.”