John O’Dell likes to talk about servant leadership, but he’s even more passionate about putting it into practice.
“I believe the only moral basis for leadership is service, and I try to do everything I can to serve,” said O’Dell, the principal at Chase Middle School and soon to be the next leader of Ferris High School.
“There’s so much coming at families these days,” O’Dell said. “My job is to create a culture where kids feel connected. The more kids feel loved, the more they can flourish and learn.”
That holistic approach goes beyond the classroom, something that O’Dell believes can’t be overstated as schools and communities begin the hard march back to normalcy from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m not taking a deficit mindset,” said O’Dell, who worked at Ferris for 10 years before going to Chase. “It starts with social-emotional learning, caring for the students and their families.”
O’Dell has been doing that for more than two decades.
A Montana native descended “from a long line of teachers,” O’Dell graduated from the University of Montana in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in history and minors in political science and secondary education.
O’Dell spent the first five years after college as a youth pastor in Missoula, teaching, counseling, organizing and leading – an ideal start in educational administration, even if he didn’t know it at the time.
Long attracted to Spokane, he and his family moved here in 2006.
O’Dell needed only six weeks of long-term substitute teaching at Garry Middle School to earn a permanent position at the northside school for the next two years.
By the fall of 2008, he was teaching history at Ferris.
“I love teaching and I love the classroom,” O’Dell said. “My fellow administrators say I’m still a history teacher.”
However, O’Dell also shared their passion for making a difference on a larger scale. During the next four years, he worked as assistant principal under Ken Schutz, who is retiring this summer.
O’Dell has a breadth of experience as a high school administrator. His first two years in the office were devoted to the curriculum side and the last two in student services.
In the fall of 2017, he took his collaborative approach to Chase, less than a mile down 37th Avenue. “Chief servant of Chase middle school students, families and staff,” his resume reads.
The job is far-ranging, allowing O’Dell to develop an inclusive management style that impressed district leadership.
“John has a proven track record of building relationships, the type of environment that we value in our schools,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said.
“He’s been really successful at Ferris and Chase, and the feedback that we’ve received is that he epitomized the idea of keeping students first, of keeping kids at the center.
“I absolutely love Chase, and this has been a great experience,” O’Dell said. “I love middle school kids – it’s funny, because they have one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood.”
Now O’Dell will be moving on to Ferris with many of his current students, plus those already there.
Schutz, the man he’ll replace, expects a smooth transition.
“I think our leadership styles are similar,” Schutz said. “You put people in a place where they can be successful, and our kids and teachers feel the same way.
“He’s personable, approachable and visible, and he has high integrity. He loves Ferris, and the fact that he’s coming home is really cool.
“This is the one job he wanted.”
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