Between the challenges of distance learning, preparing for a unique graduation and wrapping up the 2019-20 school year, American Fork principal Dan Weishar hasn’t had much time to reminisce.
But when he did take a few minutes earlier this week to look back on his 35 years in education, memories came flooding back.
Weishar, who is retiring, said that he has been immensely rewarded as he has worked with kids and peers at all levels of education.
“I have loved — loved, loved, loved — serving kids and teachers and the community,” Weishar said in a phone interview. “It’s been a great journey.”
He has loved sharing simple, straightforward messages. All of the kids who have been at schools where Weishar has worked are probably familiar with his slogan: “Work hard, be smart and follow the rules.”
His goal has been to never settle or be content with where he is at.
“I was always growing,” Weishar said. “If you are ripe, you rot, right? It’s about having a growth mentality and always trying to be better. I had some great mentors along the way as well. When you want to help people and do a good job, you get creative — and that hasn’t changed in 35 years for me.”
He took a moment to recall what he went through when he first started into teaching.
“It was a long time ago,” Weishar said. “When I first got into education, what I remember is that I loved it. This is a great profession. I remember not making much money and donating plasma to make ends meet. You’ve got to love the profession to do stuff like that, got to love kids and know what you are doing is making a difference.”
After graduating from BYU, Weishar was having a tough time finding work. He went to California and sharpened knives door-to-door to make some money.
“I did that all summer long until I got a job offer back in northern Utah,” Weishar said. “I was a woodshop teacher, which I taught for the first few years of my career. Then I got into architecture and drafting, which was my original focus.”
He said he feels his background in vocational areas in addition to academics like math and science has helped him developed a well-rounded view of education.
“Not all students are going to be teachers or lawyers or go into technology,” Weishar said. “They all have different aptitudes and strengths. Some are going to fix cars or put in decks or build homes. Some people just love working with their hands. We feel that all kids can learn. If you don’t feel that way, then you cut kids short. They have to find their passion and what they love doing.”
He remembered working with a student who said he “hated school” and discussing other possibilities.
“I ran into this kid several years later and he said, ‘Mr. Weishar, guess what I’m doing?’” Weishar said. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I’m building homes. I’m loving it, I’m making good money and I’m doing a good job.’ We know STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is important but there are other subjects as well.”
Returning to Utah Valley
Weishar got a Master’s degree at Oregon State and was teaching in that area when an opportunity opened up that brought him back to the area where he got his bachelor’s degree.
“At Provo School District they had an opening in the technology department teaching Principles of Technology,” Weishar said. “It was a brand-new program and they needed someone who was enthusiastic and would work well with the kids. They hired me, so I went to Independence High School in Provo and taught there for four years.”
He eventually moved on to Orem High and worked in various positions at Alpine School District.
After 14 or 15 years, he was encouraged to look into moving from teaching into administration.
“I had a couple of great principals and I liked the way they treated the kids,” Weishar said. “It was an opportunity to reach out to kids in a different way and I jumped on that.”
Becoming a Caveman
His move to American Fork High six years ago, however, was likely the most unexpected.
“The prior principal stepped down for personal reasons,” Weishar said. “I was working at the district in charge of transportation and they called me in. I asked if I had made a mistake and but they said no, then told me what had happened and said they wanted me to take that principal’s place. Then they said they wanted me to take his place tomorrow. I said, ‘You mean tomorrow tomorrow?’ I asked what they expected from me and they said, ‘Be yourself.’ The next day I was meeting the staff. I’ve had a great journey with all of them. A lot of great things have happened.”
He is proud of how the Caveman community has provided a strong foundation for success.
“We have a 97% graduation rate and the reason for that I think is because we don’t give up on kids,” Weishar said. “We give them as many opportunities as we can to help them grow. It’s a lot of work for teachers but our teachers work really hard to help kids do that.”
In four decades of being in education, Weishar has seen both good things and challenges as things have changed for students.
“People ask me if it is harder with the kids now and my response to that is yes and no,” Weishar said. “Technology has changed a lot for this generation as far as social interaction — but kids are still kids. If they know you love them, know that you care for them and are trying to help them, they still respond.”
He remembered meeting a new student at a dance who came from California and told him about having gang ties.
“I told him that the great thing was that he was here in Utah and that he could change everything he had done there,” Weishar said. “I told him that people are nice here. If you are nice, they will be nice to you. I told him that we would walk around the dance and he would be my bodyguard. Everyone was saying hi to us. We came back out and he agreed that these students are nice.”
Weishar’s voice was filled with pride as he talked about how that young man changed while he was at American Fork.
“He was the biggest advocate of the school during his senior year,” Weishar said. “When kids would drop stuff on the ground, he would say, ‘What are you doing? Where is your pride?’ Kids can change.”
There have been many hard times through the years and Weishar said that when you care like he does, those things take their toll.
“I’ve seen it get harder,” Weishar said. “I’ve seen kids suffer from more tragic things going on in their lives. I’ve seen suicide rates go up. I’ve seen collateral damage when kids have troubles. On the other side, I’ve seen kids rallying and helping each other.”
Time to move on
During the last week, Weishar has savored the unique, individualized graduation experience for the American Fork students.
“I had a chance to meet every student who came through and give them their diploma covers,” Weishar said. “It was cool because I would tell them congratulations and that we are really proud of them. They lit up like light bulbs.”
He decided a year ago that 2019-20 would be his final school year because he is in a position to do other things that are important to him and his wife. Thanks to COVID-19, however, it didn’t turn out as expected.
“My wife and I have talked about this and I’m in a position where I can do things like go on missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and serve in the community,” Weishar said. “So here I am retiring — and there is a pandemic. I’m at risk, so I’m working from home. It’s been hard but the timing for us is good.”
His advice to the next principal of American Fork High is to not feel like they need to take on too much themselves. He recommends they use the strengths of the administrative team and faculty.
“You don’t have to have all the answers,” Weishar said. “You have a group of people who work as a team. They are all professionals. You need to respect them but also draw on them to give you feedback and idea to help the school move forward. You don’t have to change anything right now. You just need to get on the team and see it evolve.”