Andre-Flanagan announces retirement
By Sarah Elmquist Squires
The audit reports were filed, appointments made, and last week’s Riverton School Board meeting was nearing its end, when an addition to the agenda revealed Dr. JoAnne Andre-Flanagan was preparing to say farewell. She’ll retire on June 30, after falling in love with education as a Riverton student herself, then rising through the ranks to the top administrative post in her home district.
“I kind of want to hold onto you,” new board chair Jody Ray told Flanagan.
“I remember when you took the job, you told us three to five years,” board member Carl Manning said of her tenure. “I appreciate the work you did … I think you’ve done a wonderful job.” He said Flanagan has helped Riverton grow to become an even greater district under her leadership. “I really appreciate you.”
JoAnne’s husband Lars, a school counselor with the district, also submitted his retirement during the meeting. The pair will retire together at the end of June, and during Tuesday night’s meeting, he approached the board table with a dozen ruby red roses for his wife, fitted with a kiss.
“It has been my distinct pleasure to serve this district,” JoAnne told told the board. “I feel very blessed have this opportunity … It’s a phenomenal place to be.”
JoAnne’s path to education
Growing up in Riverton, JoAnne’s father was a physical education teacher and coach at the middle school, and it didn’t take long before she realized that she’d follow a similar path in educating children. “I would say it was probably my senior year,” JoAnne said in an interview of when she discovered her love for teaching. “I had an internship at a local elementary school working with some special education kids,” she explained of the moment she set her sights on education as a career.
She attended Central Wyoming College in Riverton to get her Associate’s degree in elementary education, then transferred to Black Hills State and double majored in elementary and special education. She taught for a year in North Dakota at a small rural district, where her first classroom was a combination of first and second grade students. Her husband Lars is also from Riverton, and when the two had the opportunity to land jobs in education in Wyoming, they headed toward home. They spent 10 years in Green River, where JoAnne taught at the middle school, then rose to several principal administrative posts. When two jobs opened up in Riverton, one for a counseling seat and another as assistant principal of the high school, the two moved back. Her first graduating class at Riverton High School was in 2000.
Suddenly, JoAnne was working alongside some of the same teachers who had helped foster her love of education as a student herself. “I remember joking with them sometimes, saying, ‘Be careful what you say to your kids – they might come back and be your boss,’” she shared.
Through a sabbatical earlier in her career and long years of study, JoAnne and Lars both attained graduate degrees. She holds a Master’s degree in education administration and a doctorate of education curriculum and instruction. The two both got their Master’s degrees before their two children, now 21 and 28, were born.
When JoAnne returned to Riverton, she’d never before worked in a high school. “And I loved it,” she shared. “I really enjoyed the age level of the kids, all the activities and extra curriculars … I think I’ve graduated 14 classes from Riverton High School.” This summer will mark her third year as superintendent of the district that she knows by heart.
“I think it was probably what a lot of people say, just the ability to impact a student positively,” JoAnne shared of the driving force behind her love of education. “That connection you know that you have with kids, the relationships and the impact that you’re able to have on their lives I think is what draws you into education and frankly, what keeps you in it.” Education is an extremely challenging field.
What is surprising about a career in education? “I think it’s exhausting,” she sad. “It is physically and mentally exhausting, and I think that until you teach you don’t understand what I’d like to be on all day, every day, in front of kids. There’s never a down minute, you’re just constantly in on mode, and by the end of the day, you’re just wiped out.”
When JoAnne stepped into the role of administrator, she had the opportunity to bring her experiences in the classroom to help foster mentoring of new teachers, which she said has been one of the most enjoyable facets of school leadership. At her first teaching job in that tiny North Dakota district, her principal actually taught a combination fifth and sixth grade class, and there were few opportunities to learn from veteran teachers. “I remember distinctly just feeling very much on my own,” she recalled. “So when I became an administrator one of my most important things was really to help new staff transition in. I think hooking them up with a high quality mentor is really important.” One of her first big tasks as Riverton High School assistant principals was to launch a comprehensive introduction program for new educators. “Making sure they have good mentors and a team, and assuring them that they’re going to be OK [is important]. They need to not be afraid to ask questions or to talk when something hasn’t gone right.” Having a master teacher to lean on in your own building as a new teacher is priceless, she said.
What’s ahead? “I’ve been working since I was 14,” JoAnne shared, adding it will be interesting to not have a demanding job to head off to every morning. Yet still, she feels that there are new adventures ahead. She and Lars will travel more, visit family members, and enjoy relaxing a bit. “And then I really feel like something’s going to unfold in front of me. My career has always kind of done that. One of the reasons we’re retiring now is because I am really feeling something of a calling, that maybe there’s something else out there. I don’t think I’m ready to just be 100 percent retired … I think one of the things I look forward to the most is to just have the flexibility to be able to do things in the moment. I have no doubt that there’s something out there. It will present itself.”
The Riverton School Board was set to meet on Friday just after press time to discuss the selection process for finding a new top administrator to take the helm when JoAnne retires at the end of June. “I think the board understands the importance of getting someone who wants to be part of the community,” she said. “As a district, we really see ourselves as the heart of the community. The schools and the district are just so closely intertwined with the community as a whole.”