So, what are you looking for in your top educator?
They should be a good listener and a good communicator. A good leader and team player. Experienced and a forward thinker. Familiar with the community, the school district and its past.
Grounded? Intuitive? Easy-going? Personable? Progressive?
Gary Messinger, Jr. checks a lot of boxes.
Messinger is the newest superintendent of the Northern Lebanon School District. And while he brings a lot to the table, perhaps the most important thing he will provide is stability.
Messinger is Northern Lebanon’s fifth superintendent in the last three years. He takes over for Jack Corby, who served in an interim role after superintendent Erik Bentzel resigned following the 2018-19 school year.
Messinger is a Viking through and through, and is believed to bleed blue and gold.
“When you don’t have someone in the superintendent’s office, and you’re not establishing a plan or developing a vision, it’s difficult on the administration and the teachers,” said Messinger, during an exclusive interview with LebTown. “I think they’re looking for some stability. I have a five-year contract. I hope I’m here longer than that. I hope we can build relationships that are strong, and that people are proud to be a part of Northern Lebanon. When I hear that there’s a lack of pride that hurts. To foster that would be the ultimate success for me.
“When you’re hiring someone for this position, you’ve got to consider experience,” continued Messinger. “When you look at Northern Lebanon, they’re looking for strong leadership and they’re looking for someone to develop relationships. The most important component of this position is leadership. There are a lot of aspects of it that can be taught. What you can’t teach is leadership and the ability to get along with others. As we build a team, I want someone who can work with people and understand children.”
In many ways, taking over as Northern Lebanon’s superintendent is homecoming for Messinger.
A 1987 graduate of Northern Lebanon, Messinger officially assumed his new role on October 1. His hiring was approved by the district’s board of school directors on August 13, after Messinger had been an elementary school principal at East Hanover, in the Lower Dauphin school district.
Messinger was chosen as Northern Lebanon’s new superintendent after a search identified 27 qualified candidates for the position.
“To me, as an alumni and a part of the community, it’s hard to describe in any other way than as a dream come true,” said Messinger. “I see it as an opportunity to serve the district. There have been some challenges. But there’s a great deal of potential in the district and people are anxious to see it happen.
“Initially, [the superintendent turnover] makes it more challenging,” Messinger continued. “There are a number of areas, like academics, safety, leadership styles, that constantly will go in one direction, and someone will come in and take it in a different direction. But it also provides an opportunity to sit down with different stakeholders and establish a vision together. My primary goal is to build relationships. We want to figure out how to move the district forward. It puts me behind the eight-ball a little bit, but it also gives me an opportunity.”
During the mid 1980s, Messinger was an outstanding multi-sport, student-athlete for the Vikings. He matriculated to James Madison University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree.
In addition, Messinger earned a Master of Education degree and completed an administration program at Penn State. Messinger has also served as an elementary school teacher in the Cornwall-Lebanon and Carlisle school districts.
Messinger’s father, Gary, Sr., was a long-time building principal at Jonestown and East Hanover elementaries in the Northern Lebanon school district. His mother taught at Fredericksburg elementary.
Messinger currently lives in the house he grew up in. He is the father of children attending the Northern Lebanon school district.
“The advantage for me is I have a lot of relationships with people here,” said Messinger. “I’ve heard some positives, but I’ve also found out about some things we can work on. I think there are a lot of good things happening across the district.
“I wasn’t in education initially, partly I think because of my parents. I resisted it a little bit,” added Messinger. “I got into teaching when my fiancée—now my wife—was teaching school in Maryland. I would go and help her on my days off. The principal offered me a fifth-grade teaching position, then gave me three days of training. At the end of the first year, I was actually the lead teacher for my grade level. It was certainly a different path.”
Geographically, Northern Lebanon is the largest school district in Lebanon County, encompassing some 150 square miles and the townships of Bethel, Swatara, Union, Cold Spring and East Hanover. About 2,300 students in grades kindergarten through 12th attend the Northern Lebanon school district.
“Right now it’s still early, but at the end of the day I feel good about walking away and saying we grew,” said Messinger. “I’m not always going to agree with my administrators or agree with my teachers, but I want to develop a relationship with them where we can say we don’t necessarily agree, but we can work on it. No one likes confrontation. But in the end, I think people want to work together to make this school district great.
“It’s hard when you hear about a struggle of an employee,” Messinger added. “I equate staff to a family. There are days when you get mad at a family member, but you still have to live with them. You work it out and move forward. You want to fix it for them, because they’re part of your family. You hurt for them.”
One of the methods of successful leadership is to surround oneself with excellent team members and then provide the support that allows them to do what they do best. But make no mistake about it, excellence is established at the top and flows down from there.
“There are certain management things that you’ve got to do,” said Messinger. “You’ve got to present a budget. And there’s a problem-solving component to it. Things come up quickly. The biggest component is establishing a vision and then developing the communication side of it. It’s my responsibility to address concerns and develop a plan for the district, a plan for where we want to go. But we’ve got to communicate it. We have to make sure people know where we’re headed.
“What’s important, for anyone in a leadership position, we want to promote and develop people to be the best leaders they can be,” continued Messinger. “There’s trust involved. You want them to learn how to develop new things and have them become the best leaders they can be. But I need details to know where we are and how we got here. You have to get the back story first. Right now, it’s about learning from them as much as it is them learning from me.”
Education is in a constant state of flux. Messinger’s vision for Northern Lebanon involves a certain degree of flexibility.
“I’m focused on how we can educate the kids at Northern Lebanon to the best of our abilities,” said Messinger. “I think we have some incredible teachers here. A mark of a good teacher is that they want to continue to grow, and I think we have a lot of teachers who want to do that.
“Every district can look at things and say this needs to improve,” concluded Messinger. “Every district can look at things and say, ‘We do this pretty well.’ But you want to make sure you grow. There are some things we need to re-invent, and there are some things that are good that are already in place.”
And it would appear that Messinger is the right man, at the right time, for the job.
This article has been updated to clarify that Messinger was a teacher at Carlisle and Cornwall-Lebanon. He became a principal when he went to Lower Dauphin. We sincerely regret the error.
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