At 7 feet tall, Chris Gubbrud is easy to spot as he walks the hall at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School. He towers above faculty and staff, and positively dwarfs the young students he helps guide through their education as principal of the school.
The former Mitchell Middle School teacher and college basketball player said his height does sometimes draw interesting reactions.
“It was funnier at the middle school, because most middle school kids are not shy,” Gubbrud said. “But kids here will just kind of look me up and down and smile. They’re not exactly sure what to say.”
Gubbrud, 40, said his height makes for a good ice breaker in conversations. And it served him well as a basketball player. The Huron native played high school basketball and attended Huron University before moving on to Mount Marty College in Yankton with an eye on a future in coaching.
But something along the way made him consider the classroom over the basketball court.
“I wanted to try coaching, especially once I got into college,” Gubbrud said in a recent interview with the Daily Republic. “I thought it would be a fun thing to do. So, I knew that if I became a teacher there would be an opportunity to coach basketball.”
But college opened his eyes to the pleasures of teaching students. It paralleled, in many ways, the leadership needed to successfully coach a team as they made their way through the season.
“At some point learning about teaching and education surpassed, or at least equalled, my interest in basketball. Basketball is an extension of the classroom, because there are a lot of teaching skills you can use,” Gubbrud said.
He read deeply on the subject and immersed himself in the art of teaching in the classroom. After college, he started a career in teaching that eventually took him to Mitchell, the hometown of his wife Tara, to begin teaching at Mitchell Middle School.
Soon, an unexpected opportunity arose. Vicki Harmdierks, then-principal at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary, planned to retire and her position would be opening.
“I had been interested in leadership my whole life. I coached for 17 years, held a million summer camps. But it was time to change it up,” Gubbrud said.
Having graduated from the master’s program at Dakota Wesleyan University as well as the educational specialist program at the University of South Dakota, he applied for the job. After an interview in a Gertie Belle Rogers classroom where the chairs and tables were all comically small for him, Superintendent Joe Graves offered him the job.
He accepted, and found himself on a brand new team.
“It’s been great. The staff here has been absolutely unbelievable. We have such a great collection of people. We have some people with an absolute wealth of experience and some just starting out that are really good and open to ideas,” Gubbrud said.
He draws upon those staffers to help guide him through his first time working full-time in an elementary school environment. He said the professional enrichment he experienced working with Mitchell Middle School principal Justin Zajic and L.B. Williams Elementary School principal Becky Roth were invaluable, as has been his time working with other teachers and administrators in the district.
“I have an advantage. There are two other elementary schools in the district where other people are dealing with similar things. I can go to them with all kinds of things,” Gubbrud said.
That includes his wife, who taught at Gertie Belle Rogers before moving over to Longfellow Elementary School. He said she provides him valuable insight into the challenges and mindset of elementary school teachers.
He takes pleasure in knowing he is leading a different kind of team that looks to him for guidance throughout the school year. He hopes to foster a culture where teachers feel empowered to teach to their strengths and the needs of the students.
“I’m a big believer in giving teachers as much autonomy as I can. I want them to feel empowered and free to do it how they want to do it within the boundaries of what we do as a district, but still give them the space to do it,” Gubbrud said. “How can we get the results and behaviors we want by instilling that culture?”
As is often the case when a new administrator arrives at a school, Gubbrud expects there will be gradual changes. Those will come after conversations with faculty, students and other school administrators, he said. They are all on the same team, after all.
“Sometimes when people step into leadership positions, it’s easy to assume that it’s all about them. It’s not. I just happen to be lucky enough to be in this position with people who are very caring and are great teachers, and I’m surrounded by other administrators in the district who are more than willing to help,” Gubbrud said. “And without that, I would completely fail.”