The weight of occasional trouble has chiseled Rob Varner’s leadership skills, and have helped him lead Julia Randall Elementary School to excellence.
Varner, originally from Nevada,
started teaching in Phoenix’s Cartwright District in 1984 as a middle school history teacher. He eventually decided to earn a master’s in counseling from the University of Nevada, but chance led him away.
One spring break, he returned to Arizona to visit friends and he met his future wife.
“I just never went back,” Varner said. One year later, they married.
In February of 2006, Varner was again working in the Cartwright District, this time as an assistant principal. He and his son hiked Four Peaks that month, and afterward, they decided to find Mexican food. They drove through Payson, ate, and decided they loved the town.
Soon after, a principal position at Julia Randall opened and Varner applied. He got the phone call with an offer before he hit Fountain Hills on the drive home. “Apparently I did really well” in the interview, Varner said.
Good things emanated from Cartwright. Namely, Varner learned about the Professional Learning Community, which is the technical name for the weekly meetings where grade-level teachers gather to plan lessons and discuss teaching.
Even the not-so-good things about Cartwright carved Varner’s identity as a principal. Many of the children came from troubled backgrounds, and the area was violent.
“Gunfire was not that uncommon,” Varner said. They had coyote houses, gangs and drugs. The school also had 1,200 kids instead of the 469 enrolled this year at Julia Randall.
“That’s (where) I cut my teeth,” Varner said.
In Phoenix, Varner might arrive to work and discover a teacher had been arrested for drunken driving. Dealing with such transgressions could devour his day.
In Payson, Varner said Julia Randall’s teachers have always exuded professionalism and passion for their jobs.
“I think the cultural shift that I brought was the collaboration,” he said.
Julia Randall Bulldogs pride themselves on academia. But they place equal weight on collaboration.