At first sight, it’s easy to take the lanyard and ID card Auburn High School Principal Jeff Gardner wears around his neck for a coach’s whistle.
Indeed, the sports memorabilia and pictures in his office coupled with the man’s up-tempo demeanor suggest a leader, a maker of leaders, a “get-down-and-give-me-20,” and “great job” sort of guy.
“I take that as a compliment, it’s part of my pedigree,” the former Stadium, Black Hills, Puyallup and Bonney Lake high schools head football coach said of the vibe he gives off. “I’ll always be proud of being a coach.”
Raised in Puyallup, the Reno, Nev., native is the product of sandlot football and baseball, hanging out with the neighborhood kids without the folks around, of games of kick-the-can lasting until 1 a.m., in summers of glory.
When Gardner was a junior at Franklin Pierce High School in 1977, a program there plugged students into different classes during the last three weeks of school, so that instead of having six classes, kids took two classes they liked – one on-, the second off-campus.
“I gravitated toward athletics in the afternoon. We got to go out to Pacific Lutheran University with our high school PE teachers and do all kinds of things there, like play water polo and handball. That’s where I got to know my PE teachers well and hear about their quality of life. At that point, I was kind of hooked. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Gardner recalled.
Gardner went on to Western Washington University – he was a backup quarterback there and a teammate of the late Bob Jones, former AHS athletic director – and graduated in 1978 with a degree in physical education.
And when the coaching jobs opened up along the way, he took them, and, as he said, “loved every minute of it. I haven’t missed a high school football game since 1982. But I’m just a fan now.”
Taking on a new job, challenge
Perceptive friends and colleagues past and present, however, spotting something else inside the PE, history teacher and coach, suggested he consider making the move up to administration.
“He said I had a lot of the qualities they were looking for,” Gardner recalled of a memorable conversation with one of the administrators at Kent-Meridian High School in the early 1990s.
Ultimately, 25 years into his high school teaching and coaching career, Gardner took his first administrator class – and realized how right his friends had been. He coached his last team eight years ago when he was a vice principal at Bonney Lake High School.
“I have no reservations about the decision I made. I don’t get to work with a football team, but I get to work with different teams of kids. It’s just led me down a great path,” Gardner said.
Gardner was attending Jones’ memorial service last March in the AHS gymnasium when he learned that the principal position was opening up. At first, happy with his then-job at Ferndale High School in Whatcom County, he demurred but ultimately changed his mind.
As for how he handles himself on the job, he prefers a light touch with the kids – a guiding, not a hard, hand.
“If I have to make decisions for kids, I will, but not by doing it in a badass way; I’ll do it in the way of being supportive and helping them see the bigger picture. And I’m sure for a lot of kids, in that initial moment, it might feel a little bit like I’m being a hammer, but if they stick with it – and just about every kid I’ve ever worked with has – at the end of the day they’ll realize I’m just there to help them.”
Being around kids energizes him.
“I think I love the freshness that comes from kids. Sometimes they’re not always well thought out, they have great intentions, and helping them get to what their intentions are, their goals. I love that,” Gardner said. “Same thing for adults, just helping get people to where they are successful, I think is what I love most about leadership. It really is about them; it’s not about me. I love the energy kids bring every day, especially the kids here at AHS. They’re so friendly, they come up, they’re really curious, and they’ll say, “What are you ethnically?”
For the record, Gardner’s mother is of Japanese ancestry, his father is Irish-English.
He sums up his educational philosophy with a two-word phrase: “all kids.”
“Look, we’re a high school,” Gardner explained, “and the function of a high school is to get our kids launched into life in the most successful way we can. And in our society, that comes in the form of a high school diploma. And when we talk about on-time graduation rates, or graduation rates, AHS is sitting in the high 70s, when the state average is about 80. And as I told our kids at the assembly we had today, ‘You know that’s average.’ We’re kind of with the state average. And I don’t want to be with the state average, and I don’t want our kids to be average.
“A wise old coach once told me – and this is the analogy I use – ‘Gardner, average means this: you are the worst of the best, or the best of the worst.’ That has always bothered me. So, at this school, we’re going to go for a 100 percent graduation rate. And why wouldn’t we go for that? We have 100 parents in here, why would I say we’re only going to go for 89 percent? That means 10 parents will say, ‘What about my kid?’ So, we’ve got to do everything as a school to help every kid have every possible chance at being as successful as they can, marching toward graduation,” Gardner said.
Gardner and his wife, Carolyn, live in Puyallup. They have three adult children: sons Zach, 27, Nick, 24, and daughter Linsey, 22.