Ralph Breaks the Internet
Not everyone succeeds in landing their dream job. It generally takes a lot of hard work and more than a little bit of luck.
Thompson Elementary School Principal Ralph Wisner counts himself as one of those lucky ones.
Wisner has been a principal for 10 years, but the idea of leading a school has been on his mind for much longer.
“Most people in high school or college want to become a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher so I could become a principal,” he said.
It’s easy to see where his passion for education comes from: The most influential person in Wisner’s life — his mom — was a teacher and elementary school principal.
Wisner was born Casa Grande, Arizona, where he spent his first six years living with his older sister and his mom. It wasn’t always an easy childhood.
“My family was impacted by poverty. We grew up with generational poverty,” he said. “My mom wanted to become a teacher so she could help other people around her the way she was helped by teachers.”
The family eventually moved to Southern California when Wisner’s mother got a job as an elementary school principal in San Bernardino.
Wisner was an athletic kid who played all kinds of sports, but he especially loved basketball. Then, in the summer before his freshman year in high school, he grew three inches and gained about 100 pounds. That’s when he decided he might be better at football.
That turned out to be a good idea. Wisner excelled on the field, playing both offensive and defensive tackle. In fact, he was good enough to get a scholarship to play football at nearby Redlands University.
He played three years before injuries forced him off the field. He later graduated with a dual degree in Spanish and liberal studies, and while he knew he had a passion for education, he wasn’t entirely sure about his next step.
Looking for a bit of adventure, young Mr. Wisner decided to travel to Ecuador for a study abroad program. In addition to taking Spanish classes, Wisner volunteered to teach local children. He was shocked to learn that instead of working in a normal school classroom, he would be teaching students at an enormous landfill, where poor families spent their days sifting through garbage for food or valuables.
Even though he grew up poor, seeing the poverty in Ecuador was a jarring experience.
“That really opened my eyes,” he said. “We’re sitting on dirt floors, cinder blocks, no chalkboards, no materials. It was amazing to see that most people — the kids and the adults — just wanted their kids to have a better future than themselves,” he said.
Wisner’s experience in Ecuador solidified his desire to become an educator. At the time, he vividly remembers asking himself how he could do the most good in his life, and he came to the conclusion that teaching was his best option.
After returning to college to get a master’s degree, Wisner took a job teaching dual language at an elementary school in Oregon. He loved it, but he thought he could affect more people as a principal
Speaking about the difference between being a teacher and being a principal, Wisner said, “In a (teaching) career of 30 years you could impact 600 kids very, very deeply. But there’s also an opportunity to impact 600 kids a year. Not at the same depth, because teachers have the best connections and relationships and ability to impact a kid’s life, but if I can help teachers be even better and have more resources to do their best, then I can have an impact, too.”
After four years in the classroom, Wisner was named principal at the very school where he began his teaching career. He was just 27 years old, and many of the people he worked with as a student teacher were still at the school.
It was challenging transition, but one that he has never regretted. He spent five years leading that school before moving to Washington for his current job at Thompson.
What brought him to Thompson was the school’s Dual Language Immersion program, which was just in the planning stages when he accepted the job. Now in its fifth year, Thompson’s Dual Language program has gone from a curiosity to one of the most popular programs in the district.
The K-5 program teaches students in both English and Spanish as a way to develop stronger academic skills while also expanding cultural literacy.
Having worked in other dual language programs, Wisner knew how much power the programs can have for students.
“Dual language allows us to see the world as it is, in that there are always different languages and different cultures,” he said. “Our job as teachers is to help our kids understand not the world they’re in, but the world they’re going to.”
To say Wisner’s run at Thompson has been a success would be an understatement. Since he took over, Thompson has been named a National Title 1 Distinguished School, earned two school School of Distinction awards , and Wisner himself was named Pierce County Region Principal of the Year.
Wisner credits much of that success to his relationship with his staff, and their ability to all pull in the same direction.
“We are all working together for the same goal. It’s not my school or the teachers’ school. It’s the kids’ school. The teachers and I are here to serve the kids,” he said. “We’re not always right, but we’re not afraid to be wrong.”
When he’s not working, Wisner likes to spend time with his wife — who’s also an educator — and their teenage son. Leading a school can feel like a 24/7 job, so when Wisner needs to clear his head, he goes outside and does yard work. The family lives on 15 acres of land, so there’s always an opportunity to get outside and think things over.
One thing Wisner thinks about is getting back into the classroom. At this point he’s been principal far longer than he was a teacher, but deep down he still considers himself a teacher first. He has no plans on stepping down as principal, but somewhere down the line he plans on taking another crack at classroom teaching.
“I’m going to end my career teaching,” he said. “I’m going to go back into the classroom because that’s where I want to be.”