On Solid Ground

On Solid Ground

Harold Winkler, Cabarrus County (N.C.) Schools

After descending a cliff known as Table Rock, Harold "Butch" Winkler's mountain climbing excursion came to a halt. He started seeing blue and white, and it wasn't the sky and clouds. He was sure it was a heart attack. As he waited four painful hours while a friend sought help, Winkler knew it was crucial to remain calm. A line from a poem stayed with him: "The joy of a raindrop is to return to the river."

The superintendent made it through that day in 1997, and his district is all the better for it. The ordeal inspired him to create a stress management workshop for Cabarrus County administrators called Split Your Gear, named after a key rock-climbing rule. His own outlook as a leader also reflects the three rules of climbing.

"The heart attack was my doing," Winkler says. "I'd never really tried to deal with stress. It was always strive, push, strive, push, always going higher, trying something more difficult." He knew he must--and could--do the same job, just as well, without putting his health at risk.

The Three Rules of Climbing

"If I live through this, I will be a better person."

That means focusing on the positive. Take the district's graduation rate, for instance. It has gone from 68 percent in 1995 to 87 percent in 2003. Minority graduation rates are up by about 21 percent. And the number of students performing at grade level has risen from 67 percent to 91 percent during that time.

There is a "real personality and a real person there [who] cares about kids," says Marion Bish, principal of C. C. Griffin Middle School. Jeanette Trexler, Winkler's executive assistant and a district spokeswoman, adds that her boss "is very in tune with students."

"I don't care about being a better person. I just want to live."

"You have to remain calm... because you are charting the pathway of the successful climb for people below you."

In his workshop, Winkler likens this rule to No Child Left Behind. "I am certainly not sure of a way through it, and, at this point, I am not convinced of a greater good that is going to come through it. I just want to survive it!" he says. But an effective leader will look for the "holds"--the greater good that others might not see at first.

"If you die, we split your gear."

Winkler's heart attack made him realize he needed to take life day by day. Eventually, when he retires, someone new will assume his duties. But there are no plans to leave yet, as Winkler is grateful to be spending more time in a profession he loves. "There's nothing better in life than to feel that the path you've chosen is a heartfelt path," he says.

Sharing His Passions

Winkler thrives on student progress. While visiting classrooms, he'll introduce Native American studies, because of his part-Cherokee heritage, and other topics. "Teachers love to use him because he brings perspective to the real world," says Trexler.

Outside the classroom, the lessons are on wilderness skills and rock-climbing. As a Wilderness First Responder, he's undergone the most complete medical training for an outdoor pro.

On the home front, Winkler has literally turned his yard into a National Wildlife Habitat, where a multitude of flowers and seeds attract a variety of critters.

Given the gift of time, Winkler intends to use it wisely--to continue surpassing district goals and to truly enjoy all life has to offer.

Michelle Lawler is editorial assistant.


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