Q & A with retiring Southeast Principal Brent Toalson

We recently interviewed Lincoln Southeast High School Principal Brent Toalson via Zoom for episode 68 of the LPS podcast, Stories from Lincoln Public Schools. Toalson recently announced his retirement after 29 years with LPS, the last eight at Southeast. He talks about his love for Southeast and the difficult decision to retire. The following is an edited and condensed version of that interview. 

LPS Communications: You've dedicated so much of your life to education - 29 years with LPS. When did you know you wanted to be a teacher, which is how you started?

Toalson: So I have a degree in political science from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln because I was thinking I might pursue a career in law or politics. I started law school - and that lasted about a semester. I kind of had an epiphany of sorts, that maybe that wasn't the career path for me and had always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a teacher. I come from a family of educators. And I thought that by being a teacher, I could make a positive difference every day, through relationships and helping kids understand important content and opportunities to lead and serve.

LPS Communications: And you started off as a teacher at Southeast, right?

Toalson: Right. I graduated from Southeast in 1982, so to have the opportunity to go back and start my career as a teacher there in 1991 was really special for me.

LPS Communications: So at some point you made the move to administration and out of the classroom. Was that a hard choice and why did you make that move? 

Toalson: Yeah, it was a really difficult choice. I loved my teaching career. I was in the classroom for 16 years. I taught a variety of classes within the social students department, content and subject matter that I was really passionate about. I also was sponsor for student council, and I really enjoyed my work with students and helping develop their leadership and service mindset. So it was tough, but at some point I started thinking about my view of myself in terms of a leader and how I might expand my circle of influence, if that makes sense. You know, as a teacher, you work with a certain number of kids every day and that's a great experience. But as an administrator, I felt like I might be able to expand that circle of influence and do some good, positive work for a larger community. 

So I finished up teaching in 2007...and then was offered the position of associate principal at Lincoln High School. So I was there from 2007 to 2012 as an associate principal and Mike Wortman was the principal at that time. I appreciate that he gave me that opportunity. I did a lot of work with students. I really enjoyed helping kids through their struggles, whether it was discipline or academic struggles. I got to work with a number of the families there. I did the master schedule. I really enjoyed my time at Lincoln High and kind of thought that I might just stay there and eventually look at that principal job if it would ever come up.

LPS Communications: But then the Southeast job came up and you got the job, of course. What did that feel like? Can you remember first walking back into the building as the principal and walking those hallways where you once were a student? That must have been kind of surreal.

Toalson: You know, in some ways it was. I really enjoyed my time as a student, and so I could remember where my lockers were and I remembered activities that I was involved in. Southeast was really important in my own development as a young person. I thought as principal, how could I make that same experience possible for as many kids, if not all kids, at Southeast - how could they experience success? How could they become more competent as learners, as leaders, as people that see an opportunity to serve and give back to the community? Because those are all things that I learned as a student at Southeast. And when I was a teacher I could work with a group of kids, but now I have the entire Southeast community that I was responsible for. So yes, it was kind of surreal. I remember walking into the principal's office where Dr. Lauterbach had worked - he was my principal as a student. He hired me as a teacher. And I remembered a conversation that we had had. Probably it was my first or second year of teaching when he called me into his office and asked me if I'd ever thought about being a principal someday. And so it really came full circle. He had passed on his gavel and a little bell that he had us back in the day to call us together for staff meetings. So that went to Nancy Becker and then it went to Pat Hunter-Pirtle, and then it went to me and now it's gonna go to Tanner Penrod.

LPS Communications: What are you gonna miss most about walking into Southeast every morning?

Toalson: I'm going to miss a lot of things about being the principal at Southeast. Mostly I'm going to miss relationships with staff, students and families. It really feels like not a day goes by where you can't use those relationships to help somebody in some way. And that was the best part of my job: every day, I knew I was going to get to help at least someone - a student, a staff member, a family member. I'm going to miss that opportunity.

LPS Communications: Your Southeast roots run very deep. The school is obviously very special to you - what makes Southeast so special?

Toalson: Well, I hope this doesn't sound too cliche but I would point to our mission statement: learning, leadership and service. That's kind of been part of my own core beliefs, growing up and teaching and then being able to work in a school where that really aligned with who I am. So I've really taken that to heart. That's what we want to be. We want every student that comes to Southeast to feel empowered, to have a pathway to success, and to feel that sense of accomplishment and pride in being a Knight - that sense of excellence. So as Southeast has changed demographically over the years - and it's changed quite a bit since the time I was a student and then as a teacher, and even from when I was at Lincoln High - my focus has been on equity and how do we help all kids have a pathway to excellence? And it looks way different than it did back when I was a student and a teacher. That's been a challenge that I've really embraced - the opportunity to move in that direction. I think that’s something I'm really proud of.

LPS Communications: In what ways have kids changed during your time in education? In what ways are they the same as ever?

Toalson: I think probably the biggest change that I've noticed is just how kids are connected through cell phones and social media. That really changed, obviously, from my time as a student and then even as a teacher. We all know with social media, there's some really positive things that have enhanced education and technology in general, beyond just social media - all of our kids have Chromebooks. Now, obviously, we've had to lean heavily on the use of technology in a remote learning environment. And our teachers are becoming way more comfortable and confident in their ability to teach with technology. 

For kids, I think the thing that's stayed the same is, whether you grew up and attended high school in the late 70s and early 80s, like I did, or now, it's still a very formative time of your life. And it's really a time of growth around identity and growing independence that comes with the age of being a young person. And so what I see are students that come in as freshmen and grow and mature. I see them trying new things and having new experiences and learning about themselves. And I see them making new friends and making lifelong memories around that experience. That was true for me. And I know it's still true for our kids and our seniors that are graduating this year.

LPS Communications: Talk a little about your decision to retire. What when into that decision? 

Toalson: I talked about this being a really difficult decision with others, because I wasn't ready to retire this year. I enjoy my job and I describe it as a dream job. And I felt like there's still some really important unfinished work that I was looking forward to. I was also knowing that we are going to need some strong leadership coming off of nine weeks of remote learning and the uncertainty of starting in the fall. What kind of pushed me to make the decision ultimately was my family and being able to do what's best for them, and especially my oldest son, Alex, who's 25. Alex lives with us. And he has some significant medical needs as a result of being diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy when he was about two years old. So my wife and I care for him and monitor him 24 hours a day. We don't have the help that we had before COVID because we just can’t risk exposure from people coming into our house, and it just wouldn't have been fair to my wife to have not been at home and it certainly would have been a huge risk to go to school and have to worry about potentially Alex getting sick. In the end, I just don't want to have any regrets. And one of the things that my staff knows about me is I always talk about family first. And when staff come to me with issues or concerns, that's the first thing out of my mouth: what do you need to do to take care of yourself or your family? We'll figure out the rest. So that's just how I've lived my life. I'm very comfortable with my decision and feel good about it for those reasons. But yes, I'm going to miss Southeast. Quite a bit.


Published: July 8, 2020, Updated: July 8, 2020