Mar 18, 2020

Salinas Focus: Tim Ryan Is a “Servant Leader”

Leading the Santa Rita Union School District from “Below”

By Ed Goldman

While Tim Ryan could be a problem child if he played in a school orchestra—because he prefers tooting everyone’s horn but his own—as the Superintendent of the Santa Rita Union School District in the picturesque, diverse city of Salinas in Monterey County, he may be just what students, teachers, principals and staff need: a leader who leads “not from above but from below, helping lift up the people who do the real work,” he says.

Ryan says his particular brand of management is Servant Leadership, inspired both by his Christianity and years of experience. “Servant leaders never approach their work in an authoritarian manner,” he says in a recent interview. “Instead, the servant leader thinks about the employees’ needs first, and helps them to develop expertise, skills and empathy.”

In short, “I’m in my position to serve, not to dictate,” he says. “All of the great teachers and school administrators feel this way. They’re not out to ensure their legacy or pad their résumés: they’re there to give people the tools they need to have successful lives and careers, some of which can be learned from hard work but which also can be learned from being given—and this is a very big word for us around here—trust.” 

“If you hire people you know to be competent and caring,” he continues, “and if they happen to be creative, you don’t dictate to them how to teach. There are certain things that absolutely need to he covered in the curriculum. But how a good teacher approaches that is his or her decision.”

I found my way into Ryan’s orbit through School Innovations & Achievement, a national education software products-and-services company based in the Sierra foothills. SI&A is a client of mine and Ryan is a client of SI&A’s.

Photo of Tim Ryan courtesy Santa Rita Union School District.

Ryan says his two all-time heroes are his father—the late Jim Ryan, a World War II/Battle of the Bulge veteran who “taught his kids everything we know about treating people with love and respect because that’s how he treated our mom”—and, while he’s hardly a proselytizer,  Jesus Christ. He smiles. “I just can’t think of two better role models, can you?” he adds. 

Though Ryan has been Superintendent of Santa Rita USD for only a year, that’s a deceptive statistic: At 61, he also has a lifetime’s worth of educational know-how from his years as a teacher (he earned his bachelor’s degree and teaching credential at California State University at Chico in history and social/behavioral science), and has “worn a number of hats” as a simultaneous superintendent and principal for other schools and districts, notably the five years he spent with the Mission Union Elementary School in Soledad and his four-year stint at Orland Unified School District. 

Ryan says that teachers must adhere to “the standards of fidelity”—i.e., they need to be sure that students are taught what they must know to advance to the next level of their education. But he says “I completely love” how some teachers discover methods to make their lesson plans not only relevant and thorough but “also a good deal of fun.” 

“Some teachers use poetry to teach biography, or introduce clever hands-on activities for the students,” he says. Making sure he makes in-person observations at every classroom in his district, Ryan says, “I’ve watched kids building bridges with ice cream sticks, which was a way of teaching them proportion and dimensional theory. To teach fractions, one teacher decided to use a pie chart: a pizza pie chart. The kids did their figuring with a cardboard pizza but then got to share the real ones the teacher had bought and brought to the classroom.” It may be one of the rare times that, regardless of a child’s particular aptitude for figures, “Math left a good taste in everyone’s mouth,” Ryan says, laughing.

Ryan presides over a multi-faceted realm. The Santa Rita Union School District has four elementary schools with 600 students each and two middle schools with 700 students each. “You need to know that when I visit all of the classrooms, I’m not there to micro-manage,” he says, “just to watch. I often visit the class with the school’s principal. The only time I saw a teacher being creative but the approach wasn’t entirely making much sense to me, I didn’t have to say a word. The principal turned to me and said, ‘Yeah, this might need a little re-thinking.’ No one was in trouble. It was just a matter of fine-tuning.”

Being in Salinas affords the kids some excellent field trips, Ryan says, “and we love to do those because it breaks up the pattern—and in some cases, where we have kids who’ve been at or below the poverty line, or even homeless, a field trip allows them to see things they probably wouldn’t have had the chance to, such as the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and outdoor learning opportunities.”

Like all good leaders, Ryan reads the work of others: the aforementioned theories of servant leadership (an ancient concept but only branded that 50 years ago). Another of his favorites is Pastor Rick Warren, whose book, “The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?” is, he says, “the kind of work that reminds you a full life is about assuming responsibility.”

Away from the campus(es), Ryan and his wife of 28 years, Kelly, a now-retired registered nurse, make their home in Salinas. They’ve raised four children—one of whom is their nephew, whom they took in after the boy’s parents died—ranging in age from 25 to 42 years old. Asked if he ever misses teaching, Ryan doesn’t pause for a moment: “Every single day!” he declares. 

He says he plans to stay in his current job until retirement because, “I can’t imagine being anywhere else for the final act of my career. But I will tell you that I bought a set of golf clubs 20 years ago that I’ve hardly ever used. Now, that may change in retirement.”

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).