Sean Whalen said the most complicated thing he did last year was learn how to knit hats. The new Student Services Director for the Peninsula School District spent all of last year volunteering at a small bookstore at a retreat center in the North Cascades.
His life figures to get a little more complicated now, although Whalen said he’s ready to take it on.
“I thrive on having challenges and big things to do,” Whalen said. “This district is going to give me an opportunity to really do that.”
Before he took a year off to volunteer, Whalen worked as a school psychologist for five years. He specialized in crisis intervention and helping at-risk kids.
“My career has usually surrounded serving the most difficult, disturbed kids in schools,” Whalen said. “I started out as a school psychologist with a special emphasis on pretty seriously emotionally disturbed kids.”
He hopes his background in psychology will translate well to his new position. The Student Services department is tasked with facilitating provisions for all special education programs across the district, as well as supporting principals and teachers.
“I think I’m going to be pretty well prepared to help to develop the programs,” he said. “It’s a pretty natural progression from school psychologist to administration. There’s also a chunk of this job that’s supporting principals and teachers — it’s not just supporting kids. So understanding how things like work-related stress affect a teacher’s effectiveness, and how to maximize the potential of the adults, as well as the kids, is going to be helpful in supporting the staff.”
Whalen was the special education director for the Fife School District, a position he said gave him valuable experience in an administrative role.
“What I was best at in Fife — and what I think I will bring here — is that I was really good at finding resources to do the things we wanted to do,” Whalen said. “I was directing during the time when budgets were shrinking every year, and yet our program never shrunk, because I was able to consistently find and leverage resources so that even in the context of shrinking district budgets, we were able to continue to maintain really high levels of service.”
Whalen said since he’s only been on the job for six weeks, it’s too early to tell what the district’s biggest need will be. He plans to spend the year refining existing programs, serving students and determining what the biggest needs are.
While each school district has unique needs, Whalen said he takes the same approach.
“I have always viewed the greatness of society as being measured by how well it treats the people who need the most,” Whalen said. “I’ve taken that approach everywhere I’ve worked. Who’s the most marginalized? Who’s the least well-served? Who, when they leave the school system, is going to have the hardest road ahead of them? Those are the kinds of things that I’ve put the energy into, making sure that the school district meets their needs as best as possible.”
Whalen said the job won’t be easy, but he’s optimistic about the future and excited to work with his colleagues to make the district exceptional.
“This is definitely going to feed my desire to achieve and to take a group of people and do something really, really hard — and do that together,” Whalen said. “We’ve got a great team of administrators and professionals in the district, and we can accomplish some really great things.”