I was having a conversation with a colleague of mine recently when he asked me if I was seriously considering a Superintendent position. “Someday,” I responded. “I feel like I have another good run in me and besides, I want to be a part of taking a school district to the next level. Leading an entire district would give me an opportunity to test my leadership skills on a greater scale.” Without hesitating he responded, “Why would you want all of those headaches and why on God’s green earth would you expose yourself to all of that crap?” “Because it is the most important work that we can do,” I said. “And for what it’s worth, that “crap” you refer to are not only children, but teachers and parents who ultimately only want what is best for their students and their children and who are tired and frustrated with a current system that accepts mediocrity and lacks a pool of effective leaders who can influence positive change at a district level.”
I will admit I walked away in that moment wanting to apply for a Superintendent position more than ever if for no other reason than to show this individual that the “crap” he was referring to only exists in the minds of those who are not willing to own their own leadership competence. In my opinion, I believe the job of a school or in this case, a district leader, will look like whatever we want it to look like and the experience will be whatever we want it to be. Although admittedly I have never been a Superintendent, I did spend twenty-two years as a school administrator at both the MS and HS level and worked under eleven different Superintendents; each experience giving me a pretty good glimpse into the benefits and challenges that come with such a visible and often political position. I am not naïve to think that the job doesn’t produce some serious doubts for even the most confident of leaders which at times may cause them to question their own core principles or cause them to hesitate for fear of making the wrong decision. I recall one Superintendent I worked for who on the outside appeared confident in the day to day operations of the district, but behind the scenes struggled to portray the same level of confidence whenever he faced a dilemma of which he was unsure how to handle. I have learned over the years from my experiences that leadership is not about how you behave when you know what to do, but rather how you behave when you don’t know what to do.
So this got me to thinking even more. What do the most effective Superintendents do that results in their districts rising to a higher level of success in terms of student achievement as well as procure a culture of excellence where the staff thrives as well? According to Waters and Marzano, (School District Leadership that Works, September 2006), the following practices are used by the most successful leaders in order to ensure gains in student achievement.
- Goal-Setting Process: The Superintendent involves school board members and principals in the process of establishing clear goals.
- Non-Negotiable Goals for Achievement and Instruction: Goals for student achievement and instructional programs are adopted and based on relevant research
- Board Alignment and Support of District Goals: Board support for district goals for achievement and instruction is maintained.
- Monitoring Goals for Achievement and Instruction: Superintendent monitors and evaluates implementation of the district instructional program, impact of instruction on achievement, and impact of implementation on implementers.
- Use of Resources to Support the Goals for Achievement and Instruction: Resources are dedicated and used for professional development of teachers and principals to achieve district goals.
- Defined Autonomy, Superintendent Relationship with Schools: The Superintendent provides autonomy to principals to lead their schools, but expects alignment on district goals and use of resources for professional development.
The research completed by Waters and Marzano has proven to be effective over the years in school districts across the country where Superintendents have been able to work with their respective teams in order to move their districts forwards. Yet, what I would argue is missing from this research is the importance of how Superintendents are able to build a community of leaders where together they are able to follow the six practices mentioned above. After all, we know that great leaders are able to build capacity in order to achieve high levels of success for all students and staff; recognizing that the work is too great for any one individual to manage and sustain on their own for any significant length of time. Excellent leaders understand the need to grow and develop their leadership teams and get them to work as one, a challenge that takes a tremendous skill set to be able to accomplish, but nonetheless critical and necessary if they are going to not only survive, but thrive in their current roles as district leaders. I often share in my work as a leadership coach with principals that in order to be successful, they must build three teams – an office team (admin and office staff), a staff leadership team, and one that is often bypassed, a student leadership team. For Superintendents, their ability to build teams in my opinion is even more critical, largely due to the importance of modeling to their principals the critical need to invest in their people in order to not only build the capacity to lead, but the capacity to create positive change. By building the following three teams, Superintendents across the country can begin to cultivate a culture of excellence where school board members, directors, and principals will all want to invest in and be a part of something great.
- School Board Team – first and foremost, a Superintendent must focus on getting their respective board members to set aside any personal agendas by understanding their role in working with the Superintendent and in the school community. This includes how they will hold each other accountable, beginning with carrying out the vision, mission, goals, beliefs (of the district) and more importantly, the behaviors they will exhibit in working as a team. Additionally, they must know their role in establishing and setting clear board policies, their role in public advocacy as well as their role in supporting students, parents, teachers, support staff, and school administration without undermining the job of the Superintendent.
- Cabinet Team – often forgotten is the role the Superintendent plays in growing and developing their cabinet team members. Directors, whether they are Finance, Facilities, Student Services, Human Resources, Food Service, Associate Superintendents or Administrative Assistants, are all evolving like anyone else in their roles as district leaders. They too must be supported, encouraged, and given the necessary resources needed to serve the staff that they oversee. Superintendents need to model the importance of these critical elements by doing, not just talking of its importance. Expectations need to be clearly communicated to cabinet members and then supported by valuing their time in their role as servant leaders to the administrators, teachers, staff and parents they serve. In other words, build a community that everyone wants to be a part of by giving them the vision, time, resources, words of encouragement, and trust to make it happen.
- Principal Team – the question I always ask school and district leaders is, “Who is helping you get better?” Even though our role as servant leaders is expected and must be carried out with integrity, we still must take time to reflect and grow in our own practices. Superintendents must take on the role of lead learner and make the time to work diligently, intentionally, and without interruption with their building principals on a regularly scheduled (must be scheduled) basis, without exception. Remember, even the best of leaders will fall back to status quo without intentional and meaningful interaction that focuses on personal challenges, reflection and growth.
“A leader is one who knows the way, shows the way, goes the way and grows each day.”
Start. Right. Now. – Teach and Lead for Excellence
Whitaker, Zoul and Casas
Two weeks later, that conversation is still lingering in my thoughts. As I reflect about what it was that truly bothered me about this person’s statement it hit me. What I believe ultimately caused an unsettling feeling in me was that here was an educator, one of us, who if he was willing to share these feelings with me, caused me to question with whom else had he shared these similar thoughts with in recent weeks or months for that matter. What rips at my core is the idea that we need our best people taking on leadership roles in our schools and our districts, not have them leaving the profession because of perceptions of what a job may entail. And comments like the one above don’t lend themselves to encouraging our best educators to stay in their current positions or inspire them to take broader leadership positions where they may be able influence even greater and much needed change.
We all play a part in changing the narrative of what the role of the Superintendent looks like. So let’s cut the “crap” and get to the business that truly makes a difference…putting into place the practices set forth by Waters and Marzano and then building a community of leadership teams where everyone has an opportunity to leave their legacy.
After all, the job will be whatever you want it to be. So make it great!
“You can’t build capacity if people are always asking for permission.” – @casas_jimmy