Tuesday, August 2, 2016

True Grit: Finding Quality Educators Is Personal For MISD's Britni Searle

MARSHALL – The path that led Britni Searle to become Marshall ISD’s Executive Director of Human Resources didn’t begin during her childhood as a student growing up in either Chapel Hill ISD or Okinawa, Japan.

It didn’t begin at Baylor University, her dream school and the only one she ever applied to.

It also didn’t begin during the early years of her marriage to Ronan Searle, a native of Marshall, who she met as a senior at Baylor. It also didn’t begin with her career as a human resources recruiter with stops in Dallas, Florida and Longview.

No, Britni Searle’s career in Marshall ISD, for all intents and purposes, began during one of the darkest times in her life. It was a time when intense joy combined with pain and suffering and questions in the greatest of ironies.

It began at the bedside of her infant son, Matthew, as he fought for his life in Willis Knighton South’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Shreveport. During a two-month stay in which Britni and Ronan were only able to hold their premature newborn for short periods of time, with another 15-month old son waiting at home in Marshall, Britni had time to truly ponder the goals and aspirations she had for her children.

And just like it was for her in the early years, it all came back to education.

The Right Stuff

Britni Searle became the Executive Director of Human Resources in MISD in October of 2015. The new school year was a little over a month old and the annual hiring season was still months away, but the new personnel manager for the district already had a game plan.

After several meetings with district employees, including a focus group of teachers, Searle determined one overriding characteristic she was looking for in MISD employees, specifically teachers, in order to meet the needs of Marshall students.

“After I had met with and talked to several of our teachers and staff, the one thing that I found was that we were really looking for employees who had grit,” Searle says. “What is it that makes a person have that toughness, that ‘grit?’ As I internalized that with my own self, I had to ask well, what is ‘grit?’ What does that look like and how would we recognize it in a prospective teacher, or a teacher already in our district?”

MISD has already made huge strides in its recruiting and retention efforts in less than a year with Searle as its chief manager of personnel. She played a huge role in restructuring the teacher salary scale, which is now more competitive and assures that every teacher in the classroom will receive a pay raise in 2016-2017. This has been instrumental in retaining current teachers, and also making the district more attractive financially for new and former MISD teachers.

For all other employees in MISD, a three-percent, across-the-board raise has been approved as well. Searle has also worked tirelessly on processes and procedures, with clearly-defined job descriptions for all employees as well as beginning to plan ahead for staffing challenges when MISD makes the move into new buildings in the fall of 2017.

All of that has taken place under Searle’s watch the last 10 months, despite having to navigate the challenges of a change in leadership in midstream when Dr. Marc Smith, the superintendent who hired her, left the district to become superintendent in Duncanville ISD. Her new boss, Dr. Jerry Gibson, however, has already seen the results of Searle’s hard work in the district’s HR department and is very much appreciative of the strides already made.

“In her short time here she has found best practices for her department and MISD will run more effectively as we adapt to those systems,” said Dr. Gibson, who took over as MISD superintendent on July 1. “With people like her, we will get MISD to where it needs to be.”

None of the progress has been easy, but that’s okay for Searle, whose life experiences prior to coming to MISD have been preparing her for the everyday challenge of being in charge of staffing a school district with over 800 employees.

“Working in Human Resources is very challenging because you’re working with people, and not every person is the same,” she said. “Not every situation is the same. You have similarities and you gain experience with that but nothing is ever a cookie cutter. You have to look at things differently and you to approach things from a business aspect and a people aspect in order to understand what motivates people. I always try to ask myself, how can we look at a situation differently in order to have a positive outcome for everyone involved?”

Although she never had a burning desire to necessarily be a teacher, it is hard to look at Britni’s life and say she wasn’t destined to have some role in education. Her mother became a teacher during Britni’s early years as a student in Chapel Hill ISD, just east of Tyler. Her father was always involved in a sales career and is now Maintenance Director with JDS Restaurants, which owns Taco Bell franchises.

When Britni was in the fifth grade, her mother took an offer from the Department of Defense to teach overseas, which landed the family in Okinawa, Japan, for a year. The experience was a positive one for Britni, who found herself taking in an entirely different culture than the one she’d grown used to back in Texas.

“It was a lot of fun,” she remembers. “We lived in a high rise apartment on a military base. I got to go to a summer camp…my parents had to put me on a ship because the camp was on another island in the Pacific. I was gone for like 2-3 weeks in the summer, and I lived with a traditional Japanese family. In Japan, the bathrooms are community bathrooms; so the whole family bathes together. I remember as a fifth-grade girl and everybody putting on their bathing suits and just going into the community shower. It was really interesting to see a different culture.”

She immersed herself in Japanese culture while she was there, so much so that she admits she learned a little of the language and customs, such as breaking a raw egg over rice for breakfast in the morning and hoping the rice was warm enough to cook the egg.

After a year, the family returned to Chapel Hill and Britni finished school, graduating as salutatorian of her senior class in 2000. She had already made her collegiate plans, but not without some tough moments.

“I attended a summer camp at Baylor and visited when I was a freshman or sophomore,” she said. “I fell in love with the school. I remember coming home and telling my parents that I didn’t want to apply anywhere else. Of course, Baylor is a private Baptist school and it’s fairly expensive, so I remember my parents saying well, we can’t afford that. But I was determined that that’s where I was going to school, and it was the only school I ever applied to, so I just worked harder. I applied for scholarships and kept retaking the ACT and SAT to improve my score, to get more scholarship money.”

She had met Ronan Searle, of Marshall, as a senior at Baylor after a sorority sister set them up. Britni’s plans had been to potentially move to Colorado where she had been working summers at a camp, but ironically Ronan also had been working with an uncle very near that camp. Instead of moving to Colorado when that summer was over, she decided to move back home to Chapel Hill – which was less than hour away from Marshall and her future husband, she says with a grin.

That was in August of 2004, and she spent that next school year as a substitute teacher at Chapel Hill High School. She taught freshman IPC class and “loved it,” she said. However, she didn’t feel the call to full-time teaching, and soon entered the world of human resources and employee recruiting.

“That experience probably helps me today,” she said. “I tell you what, not having formal training as a teaching and walking into a classroom, I had 110 students and just understanding each one of them individually and differentiating the learning with each of them, that’s a tough job. That helps me today, knowing how we should support our teachers, how we should support our employees in the school district.”

She moved to Dallas and got into sales and recruiting, and then moved to Florida, where she worked as an Executive Recruiter for Parker and Lynch in Jacksonville. She and Ronan then married, and the couple moved back to Waco as Ronan entered law school and Britni went to work as Client Relationship Manager, in Human Resources, at Baylor.

After having their first child, Grant, the couple wanted to move back closer to home, so the Searles moved back to East Texas in 2012. Ronan went to work with his father, Dean Searle, at a law practice in Marshall. Britni, who had prided herself as a hard-working, career-minded “millennial,” found herself suddenly as a stay-at-home mom.

When she became pregnant with their second child, however, all the toughness, grittiness and never-quit attitude she now searches for in prospective MISD employees was put on full display – in herself.

Growing Pains

The emotion in Britni Searle’s voice in talking about that tough holiday season in 2012-2013 is still very piercing, which paints a vivid picture of the seriousness of her son Matthew’s birth even 3 ½ years later. Thankfully, the picture ends with a smile, but for a two-month stretch from Thanksgiving to late January, on most days, that picture was cloudy at best.

The Searles’ first son, Grant, was barely a year old when Britni and Ronan found out they would be welcoming a second baby into the family. But it also became quite apparent, very early, that her second pregnancy would be much more difficult than the first. Britni made it to 29 weeks, but Matthew was born premature at Willis Knighton South, in Shreveport, and was admitted to to the NICU there on Nov. 26.

Britni and Ronan spent the following days and weeks driving back and forth from Marshall to Shreveport, to be at Matthew’s bedside. The visitation regulations were very strict, with the toughest being that Matthew’s older brother, Grant, couldn’t come visit because he himself was only 15 months old. So Britni and Ronan found themselves living life in two different places, with their two children separated from each other and from mommy and daddy, across the state line, as the weeks dragged on and on.

By Christmas, Britni had almost reached a breaking point.

“It was…a difficult Christmas,” she said. “I remember being with (Matthew) all day on Christmas Day, then coming home thinking that something just wasn’t right. I came back to Marshall and we were having the big Christmas dinner with family and everything and we got the call from the hospital.”

Matthew’s fever had spiked, which was highly unusual for a premature baby. Britni and Ronan jumped in the car and sped back to Shreveport to be with their son, leaving behind another son, their family, and the general idea of Christmas. It was a long, tough ride.

“We saw him for 30 minutes and then we had to leave the unit,” she said. “I wasn’t going home after that. We stayed with some friends in Shreveport.”

Seeing her newborn baby lying helpless in intensive care was one thing, but overall, the strain of trying to be mommy to both young boys who were miles apart, and the stress of keeping up that schedule, had almost become too much to bear.

“I just remember our family being separated because our first son wasn’t old enough to go into the NICU so anytime we would go over to see Matthew we couldn’t take (Grant) with us,” she said. “Our family was separated for weeks at a time across state borders. It was really…really challenging. It was tough.”

Thankfully, Matthew improved gradually with each passing day, and the Searles were able to bring their little boy home for good on January 25, 2013. It was a day that Britni, for sure, will never forget.

“I remember we named him ‘Matthew’ because that means ‘gift from God,” Britni said. “At 18-20 weeks I knew were were going to have a difficult pregnancy. Probably from that point I bonded with him, even before he was born. The whole time he was in the hospital I just remember him being a gift. He’s part of my testimony every single day.”

Due to the premature birth, Matthew has had some developmental delays that the Searles have addressed. He had to do some speech therapy and occupational therapy, but the therapy was done very early following the birth and Britni says that now he is a perfect, healthy child.

“He’s developmentally great…we did all that therapy early on and then we’ve caught him up with everything,” she said. “He’s absolutely perfect and healthy to this day. It’s just a miracle.”

A year passed, and once she knew Matthew was going to be fine, Britni felt like it was time to go back to work. She found a position working as a Human Resources Consultant at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview, and hit the ground running as though she’d never left.

But she knew her heart was back in Marshall, with her husband and her two little boys. And the future for all of them was hurtling forward like a freight train.

Part Of The Solution

Marshall ISD’s Director of Human Resources position opened up in the fall of 2015. Always prepared and forward-thinking, Britni says she kept tabs on potential openings with companies in the area looking for human resource professionals. When the MISD position went up, she knew she’d found what she was looking for.

She kept going back to that one year she’d spent as a substitute teacher in the classroom, along with all of her experiences growing up with a mom teaching in two different countries. Her experience in the field of human resources and recruiting in the corporate world, combined with her upbringing in education, made for a perfect match.

“I was tickled and excited to come on board,” Searle said. “It’s been a lot of work. The toughest part has just been putting some processes and procedures in place and outlining them. We do a lot of things on paper, so coming from the business world where sometimes you have more resources with technology, I found that you have to be a little more creative and you have to go through a couple of extra steps because we are funded through public funds. Those were some of the immediate challenges and differences I faced jumping into the hiring season this summer.”

As with any company, the hiring of employees in a school district is not an exact science. It’s not about hiring every person who is qualified to do a single job, Britni says. It’s about hiring, and retaining, the right qualified person to do the job.

“I have a saying. You hire for attitude, and you train for skill,” she said. “In a school district, the most important quality for me when we look at hiring people is that we hire people who love kids and who want to be a teacher for the right reasons. They want to provide an impact in other people’s lives. I don’t necessarily look at credentials or experience only. I look at finding right person who fits into our culture here in MISD, because it is very unique, and also someone who enjoys working with a diverse population of students. It’s about finding and keeping people who fit into your culture.”

To that end, since coming on board to MISD, Searle has been helping build an image of the district to make it more competitive and attractive to teaching professionals. Across-the-board raises for both teachers and non-teaching staff have certainly helped, as has the promise of new, state-of-the-art facilities to meet the needs of students and teachers in today’s environment.

“I remember the bond and all that when it came up, and I was a community member,” Searle said. “I had young children, and I remember seeing all the positive and negative things that were out there. I just remember saying, you know what, we have to invest in our children. That’s something we have to do. Starting with that investment, yes, it’s in buildings, and the second piece of that is bringing in and keeping the right teachers on board in our district.

“Yes, I agree that buildings can only take you so far. But, it’s ultimately what goes on in the classroom and recruiting and retaining the right teachers that ultimately is what is going to make a difference and help our community in the long run.”

As Superintendent of MISD, Dr. Gibson appreciates that attitude in his chief personnel recruiter.

“What I love most about Britni is that she has bought in and she is invested in what we are going to do and who we are going to be,” he said. “She has two young sons who will be educated in Marshall ISD. We have to get it right when it comes to educating the students of Marshall and she fully understands what is at stake. She has chosen to be a part of the solution, and not a part of the problem. With people like her, we will get MISD where it needs to be.”

It is her life experiences, including fighting through the very difficult time sitting at her youngest child’s bedside as he fought through his own challenges of a premature birth, that has helped Britni Searle prepare for the calling she has now.

“I’ve experienced some true blessings but also had some challenges, and I feel like that has helped me become a gritty person,” she said. “Overcoming some personal challenges has helped me grow as a person to say that if there is a road block, I’m going to come up with a plan A through Z, whatever it takes, to figure out how to solve it and push through and make it happen. That’s the attitude I want in people we hire and people who work here. Yes, we have challenges, but we must push through and solve problems, and that requires tough, gritty people. There is too much at stake for us not to be successful. I love that challenge.”

-- Story by David Weaver/MISD Director of Communications & Public Relations