Educator to Retire, but His Inspiring Style Stays On

Times Staff Writer

A basic principle of leadership, says school administrator John Lingel, is to catch people in the act of doing something right and then tell them about it immediately.

Lingel, who is retiring this month as head of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s 67 elementary and junior high schools in the South Bay, also believes in giving subordinates the widest possible latitude in doing their jobs.

He says he has rarely given orders in his 22 years as a top administrator--the last eight as Region A superintendent--"because human achievement is in some direct proportion to people’s freedom to be creative, to develop and use their own inner resources. My approach is to give people options and then ask them what I can do to help them succeed.”

People also are motivated by the feeling that they have a personal stake in the success of a venture, the 65-year-old Lingel believes. So he is noted for his efforts to involve everyone--teachers, parents, students, businesses, the public--in the operation of his schools.


‘Go the Extra Mile’

“I love it when people want to take ownership in an idea or an institution,” he said. “That means they want it to succeed and they will go the extra mile with us to be sure that happens.”

Lingel’s friends say his positive, people-oriented approach has inspired legions of other educators in his 40 years as a teacher and administrator in the Los Angeles district. Many of them attended his retirement party Saturday at the Sheraton Grande hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

“I was a new classroom music teacher in the early 1960s when I first met John Lingel,” recalled Stanley Bunyan, principal of the 15th Street Elementary School in San Pedro. “I thought I was the worst teacher who ever stood up in front of a bunch of kids, but John kept telling me that I was the greatest.


“He saw something in me that I couldn’t. So I just took his belief and ran with it. A lot of people have.”

‘Hates Paper Work’

Bunyan and others said Lingel has never administered his district from behind a desk. “He hates paper work,” Bunyan said. “Every morning he goes out to visit the schools. When he shows up here, I almost have to run to keep up.

“He has a phenomenal memory and knows practically everybody by name. He loves to talk with people and find ways to praise what they’re doing. If something goes wrong, he insists on taking part of the responsibility.”


School board member John Greenwood, whose district includes Region A, suggested that generous praise is only part of Lingel’s secret of success in management.

“John is very good at spotting talented people and then motivating them to do an outstanding job,” Greenwood said. “He gives people his trust, and in return he gets back an intense loyalty. People will work very hard to win his respect.”

No Soft Touch

But Lingel has not been a soft touch, Greenwood added. “If there’s a real problem that can’t be worked out, John has never hesitated to demote an administrator or teacher.”


In a recent interview, Lingel acknowledged that he has not spared the rod on occasion, but noted that for “every case of demoting someone, there have been a hundred in which we have been able to help people achieve their goals.”

The main thing, Lingel said, is to “put people into situations where they can win through their own efforts, and of course our mission is to apply that concept, first of all, to the children.”

To help instill a winning spirit in youngsters, Lingel prompted his schools to expand their programs for recognizing achievement. They range from music festivals and art exhibits to math contests and spelling bees.

“Did you know that Wilmington Junior High won the national drill team competition, tops in the whole country?” he said. “And I just found out that Dotson Junior High was one of the four highest in Los Angeles.”


‘It Means a Lot’

Winners are not limited to the most gifted students, he said. They can be youngsters who show the most improvement, “or maybe a kid who has been in trouble all year long, but he gets an award and all of a sudden he’s a celebrity with his picture near the door where everybody can see it. Maybe it’s corny, but it really means a lot to these kids.”

Lingel disavows any Pollyanna elements in the positive approach. Some people, he said, are determined to fail, no matter what is done to help them. “Everybody should be given an opportunity to succeed, but if they don’t take advantage of it, I’m not going to lose a whole lot of sleep,” he said. “We just don’t have the time and resources to give unlimited assistance to people who will not help themselves.”

The resources of public education are already stretched thin by new demands placed on the system, he said. Besides serving as surrogate parents and administering a wide range of social programs, schools have the “monumental task” of educating a new population of immigrants.


“Twenty years ago, everybody spoke English and came pretty much from the same cultural background with essentially the same set of values and modes of behavior,” he said.

‘Era of New Problems’

Now there may be dozens of languages and cultures represented at a school and that, he said, “gets us into an era of new problems, controversies and opportunities.”

One of the big controversies is whether to teach immigrant children in their native languages or to opt for total immersion in courses taught in English, he said.


“I can show you documentation proving whatever you want to believe,” he said. “But whatever approach we use, we must teach these kids to speak English by the time they leave elementary school, or they will not have the chance they deserve to compete in this society.”

Lingel said economics and parental support, not racial and ethnic backgrounds, are the key factors in academic success. “The kids in the Palos Verdes and Beverly Hills schools are always at the top in test scores, but they know how to read even before they get in school and they’ve been to Europe twice.

“Other kids have never seen the ocean, never been inside a classroom even though they’re 9 or 10 years old,” he said. “We must give them the tools to succeed. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves because when they win, we all win.”

Lingel’s enthusiasm naturally extends into the future. He said he sees a much higher status for teachers, smaller class sizes, longer school years and expanded use of computers to enhance learning and reduce management chores--especially the paper work that ties up so much of the time of teachers and administrators.


The school campus, he said, also will become only one of many learning centers as junior and senior high school students spend more of their time “in that outside world, learning and working in businesses and institutions and taking courses in community colleges.”

Exciting Times Ahead

“I think the next five to 10 years in education are going to be exciting, filled with tremendous challenges and opportunities,” he said. “I envy the people who will be staying on here.”

Although officially retired, Lingel said he expects to remain active in education through consulting work and teaching at colleges. A spokesman for district Supt. Harry Handler said last week that Lingel’s successor in Region A has not yet been selected.


Lingel’s enthusiasm for education is shared by members of his family. His wife, Geri, teaches in the Palos Verdes Peninsula school district and both of the couple’s daughters are teachers in other school systems.