By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript
Patrick Nolen’s almost four-decade career as an educator has placed him in public and private schools, gymnasiums, classrooms, administrative positions and in the
perilous passenger seats of driver’s ed students.
Though the soon-to-retire assistant superintendent has worn many hats in multiple settings throughout the Oklahoma City metro, one thing has remained the same.
“After 38 years, I still wake up excited to get back to work,” Nolen said.
Considering the demands of managing personnel for Norman Public Schools’ district of roughly 15,000 students and 900 teachers, this is no small statement.
“Outside issues in the classroom — if a door doesn’t lock, the roof leaks, a substitute teacher doesn’t show up, two students get in an altercation — an administrator can have the perfect day planned out and it will change hourly,” Nolen said. “You have to be flexible and know that you won’t have a moment to yourself from the time you enter the building to the time you leave. In this job, there are times of the year where you’ve got to pull 10 to 12 hours.”
For someone as passionate about the job as Nolen, this isn’t a problem — it isn’t even a deterrent, even after 38 years. Following his retirement date of Aug. 9, Nolen will take a (mandatory) 60-day break and return to the district as a part-time compliance officer.“I hate to start something and not see it through,” Nolen said. “There are initiatives and changes coming that I want to help with, but I knew I couldn’t keep doing this for four or five more years. It’s time for fresh blood and I don’t want to have a heart attack over my roll-top desk, so I’m going to take more time for myself but still stick around,” Nolen said.
Nolen called personnel administration “the best of all,” getting emotional as he described the enthusiasm and spark of the district’s teachers and the extraordinary, selfless service of NPS support staff. Even in the difficult task of disciplinary action or termination, Nolen said treating individuals with respect and compassion was paramount, and such instances weighed on him.
Though administration has been Nolen’s territory for some time, his beginnings as a coach, physical education teacher, classroom instructor and, later, assistant principal provided some of the most defining moments of his career.
Pointing out a framed letter signed by a young woman nicknamed “Bones,” Nolen described how the girl’s father made a deathbed request that Nolen ensure she graduated from high school. Once “Bones” graduated, Nolen got her into college and even moved her into the dormitory.
“I’ve had three instances in which students called me to say their goodbyes before committing suicide, and I was able to either talk them down or get to their house to prevent it,” he said.
As unforgettable as these experiences were, Nolen said the greatest moments were in the day-to-day interactions.
“The real success stories for me are those kids who come back years after they’ve been out of school and remember something small you did for them,” Nolen said.
“I ran into one former student who was installing carpet in one of our buildings and while I was assistant principal, he had issues with authority and I had to suspend him,” Nolen said. “He told me the following school year, he was dreading coming back and seeing me again, but on the first day of school, I told him, ‘Look, last year’s over — go do well, this is a fresh start.’ He said he’d never forgotten that ... you never know what little thing you’ll say.”
As a firm believer in life-long learning and a passionate advocate for education, Nolen’s title and daily responsibilities are the only aspects of his daily life which will change in the near future.
“We should learn every day as long as we live. I can learn something from a first- or second-grader, and the main thing I would tell anyone working in education is we’re here for the kids. Everything we do is about what’s best for the students.”