A Spotlight on Principal Susan Cassata, Nebraska Principal of the Year

Nebraska Principal of the Year describes the ups and downs of the 2019-2020 school year and why it’s worth it for her

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Photo by Lifetouch Photographer

Susan Cassata, Principal at East High School, was recently awarded the National Association for Secondary School Principals 2020 Nebraska Principal of the Year, making her eligible for the National Teacher of the Year award.

East High School Principal Sue Cassata has been awarded the 2020 Nebraska State Principal of the Year, and it’s not by accident. Ms. Cassata is truly in it for the students and staff she works with everyday. Any students who have gotten to work with Ms. Cassata have likely experienced this: she asks about family and wants to know about how people are feeling. It’s been a challenging quarter for East’s leader, in no small part because she misses seeing the students. In our Zoom meeting, she mentioned that it made her happy to see a student’s face again.

This is part of what makes Sue Cassata such an amazing leader – she cares so much about everyone she works with, and is in it for all the right reasons. She’s selfless, loves what she does, and always makes it a priority to relate to others.
The job doesn’t come without its challenges, though, and the 2019-2020 school year has been quite the year for Principal Sue Cassata. It started with the new portables and East’s overcrowded hallways, then the District One Acts accident, the Oracle print edition incident, the third quarter suspensions, and now, remote learning and the coronavirus. As Cassata describes it, “My motto for the most part is “under the radar” and that has not happened this year.”

As a principal, Cassata’s goal has always been to highlight the achievements of the students and staff, while keeping a low profile herself. In the midst of this year’s chaos, that hasn’t been easy. “One of the things that I think I pride myself on trying to do is to protect people. So I try to protect people from hard things. I try to protect students and staff from hard situations,” she explains, but this year, that hasn’t really been the case. “I’ve had to react to a lot more situations than I normally would. I’ve also had to make some pretty hard decisions that I know fit within my guidelines of what I’m supposed to do and how I need to protect students and staff,” she says.

With some of these situations she’s had to deal with, it’s hard to come up with a solution that protects all students and staff involved, and also keeps everyone happy. “Normally nobody knows who I am, and I’m good with that. They know that I’m principal, but I don’t get much notice because it goes to the kids and the staff and the activities, and that’s how it’s supposed to be,” Cassata elaborates. “It shouldn’t be about what I do, or my role, but this year in some instances it became about the things that I was doing.”

Most recently, everyone has been thrown for a loop due to the coronavirus. Because of the ‘fluid’ nature of our current situation, there’s been a lot of fast decision making required of the people in the District Office, as well as East’s administrators. “There were a lot of decisions that had to be made with partial information instead of the full information,” Cassata says. “We often found ourselves going back and forth, and making a statement and walking it back. It wasn’t because they weren’t well thought out decisions or actions, it was because whatever was impacting that decision had changed by the time that the action finally came about, so we had to change our decision again.”

Like everyone else, remote learning and being stuck in quarantine has changed the way Principal Cassata goes about her day. “My life since remote learning has been a lot of time on my Zoom, a lot of time with meetings. A lot of time orchestrating Tate’s [her son’s] day, about what he needs to do, how he needs to spend this time. I’ve had recess for the first time in 20 years!” she laughs. “I do recess with him every day, a couple times a day.”

There’s very few things about school that I don’t care for, and I’d say if a person wants to become an educator, you have to love it. If you don’t love it, then it’s just a job, and it needs to be more than that – the kids deserve it to be more than that.”

— Sue Cassata

It’s not all rainbows, unicorns, and recess though. Cassata has been working a lot on trying to figure out the best ways to help staff connect with students in meaningful ways, trying to set an example through her interactions with them. “We meet every week as a staff, and a good chunk of our time is about how we create those interactions, that collaboration, and that collegiality, because that’s a really important component to why people like being at East High, at least the adults.”

This whole quarantine thing hasn’t just changed what happens during her day. It’s also changed the way she looks at different aspects of what’s going on in her life. “I find myself planning differently. I find myself communicating differently. I find myself being more vocal about how much I miss people, how important they are to me, saying thank you. Being grateful,” Cassata says. That is certainly a lesson that’s important to keep in mind right now.

Most of the current students at Lincoln East only know Sue Cassata as a principal, but naturally, she was a teacher first, then an assistant principal. Before all that though, there’s quite the story about how she decided to study education. “So, this is kind of a lame story,” she laughed. “I went to Wesleyan, and there was an opening on the student government in the education department. I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but I wasn’t really sure. But I did know I really wanted to be on the student government, so I had to declare a major in education to get that seat. So that’s how I became an education major.” That small stroke of luck has paid off big for the East High School community.

After graduating college, Cassata started teaching social studies at Lincoln Southeast. “I saw myself not so much as a history teacher, but as a teacher of students, and the subject matter that I got a chance to spend time with was history.”

She taught mostly two classes – one was Citizenship Issues, a sort of precursor to today’s Government and Politics, the other was Western Civilization, which was World History’s predecessor. “And so I spent 12 or 13 years in the classroom, and loved everything about it,” Cassata says. “The subject matter is part of what I love, but I just love the energy of the classroom. I love the energy kids bring and I like questions that they ask, and adolescence makes me laugh, in ways that aren’t really appropriate. But I just love that piece of things and I’ve just found my niche being in a classroom and being with kids. Every year I get to be 16 all over again. And I love that.”

As almost any 16 year old high school student could tell you, high school also comes with a lot of doubt, and some level of insecurity or another. Everyone’s experienced it at some point, and Principal Cassata saw some of that this year as well. With having to make so many decisions, including on some controversial issues, there wasn’t any way to keep everybody happy. People have been particularly vocal about it, and Cassata has wondered at times if she is the right person to lead through some of these issues, and if she made the right decision with how to handle them. This is probably part of how and why Cassata relates to students so well – she understands what it’s like to doubt: she has been in our shoes before, although undoubtedly with a little bit more weight on her shoulders now.

Eventually, Cassata went back to school to get her master’s degree. “I didn’t really see myself becoming an official school leader, I just knew I constantly wanted to be at schools, and so I stepped away from LPS for a couple of years, worked for Doane College, and was a professor in their educational leadership program. And that’s when I cemented for myself, that I needed to come back to schools because the energy of school makes sense to me. I just needed to come back to public school. There was an opening at North Star at the time, so I was there for three years. It was a great three years. And then the position at East opened up and I applied for it, and was lucky enough to be chosen.”

It was in this capacity as principal at East that her “under that radar” motto again kind of went out the window. Last spring, Cassata was nominated for, and ended up winning the District 1 Principal of the year award, which led to her being awarded the State Principal of the Year award this spring. “This has been a really humbling experience. The nomination came initially from a person who came to do our external visits, who was just in the school a day, and really noticed the culture and the climate of the building, and that’s what the nomination is based on. I’m very flattered by that, but I guess I’m just lucky enough to be at this time where we’re getting some recognition.”

“The award that I got last year was for the region,” Cassata explains. “So the state is broken up into seven regions for the Nebraska secondary schools. It’s done by the NASSP, the National Association for Secondary School Principals, but there’s a Nebraska chapter of it. So I was the Region 1 Principal of the Year [2019] and then I got bumped to a state competition. I’ve been recognized as the State High School Principal of the Year. The state can then enter one candidate for the national competition. And so they forwarded my name for the national competition.” The results will come out in October for this year’s National Principal of the Year award.

But in the end, it’s really the students and staff that make it worth it for Principal Cassata. “Each week, teachers send me samples of students’ work, and it’s been breathtaking. The ingenuity and the creativity of you and your peers. I wish I was half as smart as all of you. You’re amazing! So that, that’s what makes it worth it for me. And hearing how teachers describe the work that they do, and how they love what they do. I love that. And I love everything about school,” she finishes.

As for any who might want to be teachers or administrators in the future, Cassata says that you just have to love it. “You have to love the energy and the chaos and the enthusiasm and the drama and the questions. And you have to love them through all of those pieces. I think that’s the one thing that I just continually reinforce. There’s very few things about school that I don’t care for, and I’d say if a person wants to become an educator, you have to love it. If you don’t love it, then it’s just a job, and it needs to be more than that – the kids deserve it to be more than that.”