How and where does one learn to be an effective and successful school superintendent? Each of us would likely answer that question according to our own personal history, education, experiences and relationships. While requirements are in place to earn a license to become a superintendent, we know there is so much more needed in preparation for the demands of the job. The MASA Aspiring Superintendents’ Academy, a pilot program developed in partnership with AASA and NJPA, was designed to be a practical and relevant source for that additional preparation. In 2016, 5 two-day sessions were held with 23 attendees and a team of five coaches along with myself, Bruce Klaehn, as the Academy Master Teacher. MASA’s Director of Professional Learning Mia Urick designed the sessions complete with outside presenters, and educational consultant Jane Sigford was a regular contributor as well.
Everyone agrees that, to one degree or another, this thought-provoking academy has provided training, mentoring and networking opportunities that will better prepare participants for their future in educational leadership. Here are some reflections from the coaches on their experience in this groundbreaking endeavor…
Three questions that all aspiring superintendents ask themselves are:
How do I prepare for my Superintendent interview?
What should I include in my Entry/Transition Plan?
What items should I have included in my new Superintendent’s contract?
The Minnesota Aspiring Superintendents’ Academy helped cohort participants answer these questions by scheduling Kenneth Dragseth and Antoinette Johns to explain the topics referring to how to work with a search firm, how to prepare for a superintendent interview process, and what items to consider to be placed in a superintendent’s contract. A panel of recently interviewed and hired Aspiring Superintendents’ Academy participants presented valuable information regarding how they prepared for their interviews, what they included on their Entry/Transition Plans, how they “survived” the day long second interview days, and the panel provided “interview tips” from what they learned through the interview process.
Cohort members were then given the opportunity to “interview” each other with the guidance of their Aspiring Superintendents’ Academy coaches. These mock interviews used actual superintendent interview questions. The “interviewees” were asked interview questions by their cohort team members and observed by their cohort coaches who provided “helpful hints” to help “interviewees” to understand different perspectives and challenge their answers. This interview activity was well received and valued by the participants.
Values Driven Practice
When moving their organizations forward, superintendents encounter support, skepticism, turbulence, excitement-all of these reactions from stakeholders, nearly at the same time. There are questions from expected and unexpected sources about why the superintendent is recommending a particular course of action. No matter how realistic, superintendents are thought to have the answers. Thus, it is essential for superintendents to know their values and that of the organization in order to inspire others to action.
Our aspiring superintendents have been challenged to reflect on their values. Reading Start with Why by Simon Sinek assisted them in that effort. With a clear definition of “why,” superintendents can determine if a given initiative is aligned with the values they hold and that of the organization. When those elements are in synch, the chance of success grows. Next steps become clear and indecisiveness is minimalized. According to Sinek, getting the “why” right will motivate others to take action.
The aspiring superintendents cited Sinek’s book often throughout the course of the academy as they recognize the significance of knowing their purpose and values. His message resonated with this group, including the coaches. Sinek’s book was just one of many prompts for the aspiring superintendents to examine their values, yet an important one as this next generation of aspiring leaders may be called on to build hope and trust in their organizations as superintendents.
Navigating the Politics of a New Superintendent
Before you even arrive at your new job as superintendent, internal office politics are alive and well established. Who is friend, or relative, of whom? Who is in what clique? Where is the rumor mill active? Who applied for the superintendency internally and wasn’t hired? About you being hired as the new superintendent – “I have a friend who was at his/her last school and he/she said…”
External politics are also well established with unions – both negotiations and disciplining staff will be challenging, school board members – raising taxes and board elections are especially trying, community members from the far left or far right – a transgender student in competitive sports will be the test, state legislators – strong education bills will be promoted by one party, opposed by the other, and even national politics will enter your schools. I recall strong criticism from some when President Obama gave his first back to school address on school TV monitors.
Awareness is a learned skill. Learn to really listen and to observe body language and your environment. Whenever possible seek common ground among those with differing views and work to find a solution to the issue through compromise.
Two last pieces of advice:
Sleep on the big political decisions – rest assured, half of your citizens will approve, half won’t.
If in doubt, whenever possible, call a Snow Day – it will raise your popularity with staff and students immediately (unfortunately, however, not with working parents).
It has been my pleasure to work with our group of Aspiring Superintendents. It is so gratifying to see the growth in our groups as well as in our group of coaching superintendents. The future is great with our strong cohort in the superintendent cohort.
We’ve had the opportunity to explore, discuss and practice different ideas and thinking. My passion has always been in instructional practices. Our leadership matters in providing the vision, direction and focus on all students and their achievement as well as their success as learners and thinkers. We were able to read books and able to discuss them in our groups and with the whole group. From John Hattie, Gary Marx, Larry Cuban and Simon Sinek we looked at instructional leadership from many different perspective. I know a few of our aspiring superintendents left the sessions with lots of ideas and thoughts about instructional leadership.
As the program started we had many goals and aspirations. We explored the idea of developing an effective leadership team and organizational structure. This is vital for the work we need to do to help every student see succeed. As a group we had lively discussions about the future of education and the way that we can all be instructional leaders in our districts.
For coaches, we had the opportunity to work together with our group members to learn from thought leaders and others in our field to improve instructional practice. We looked at ways to align district standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development. We looked at ways to transform teaching and learning. I believe we all became better leaders and thinkers in our respective practices. We learned from thought leaders, provocative readings and discussion and from each other. I truly believe this group of aspiring superintendents are ready to take that next step with confidence and knowledge.
Building a Superintendent’s Professional Network and Seeking Mentoring
The Aspiring Superintendents’ Academy has afforded a tremendous opportunity for participants to build a professional network of peers and colleagues. Much like a university cohort, the Academy brings together colleagues and peers who have common goals and interests to work together, get to know each other, and to learn from each other’s experience.
The fact that the interests are all focused around a specific professional leadership role makes the cohort even more powerful and meaningful. Although the timeline will be different for each participant in regard to assuming a superintendent role, the contacts and relationships formed in the Academy will potentially remain as long-lasting connections.
Participants have grown from casual acquaintances as the Academy opened to cheerleaders and strong supporters of each other as the Academy draws to a close. The general interactions, shared learning experiences, professional opportunities, and scope of time together encouraged the formation of bonds that are foundational to the development of professional networks and collegial interaction.
The unique structure of the Academy, with participants having an experienced superintendent serving as a coach, also lends to a very natural transition into a professional mentoring setting. The participants have already engaged in the opportunity to connect with a colleague with some experience. The participants have grown to understand the value of sharing ideas, consulting others, and having an experienced individual to whom they can direct questions or seek advice. The practice and opportunity provides a very smooth and natural adjustment to the mentoring processes supported by MASA.
Thinking and Being a Thought Leader
As aspiring educational leaders it is important to think, dream, expand our ideas, explore possibilities, network, and have fun doing so. My role in the Aspiring Superintendents’ Academy was to be a thought leader, facilitate these processes and to create “productive discomfort.”
Topics we examined were: individual educational philosophies, role of superintendents five years ago, now, and five years from now; problems vs. dilemmas; the fractal nature of change; real life case studies drawn from current issues; politics in education; the politics of race and the achievement gap; instructional leadership; and future-focused instructional leadership.
Participants read several books throughout the course of the program to stimulate discussion. Participants were also asked to reflect individually and in their respective groups.
Educational leaders are trapped by what has been successful in the past as though that will be successful in the future. Are we “captive of the cognitive?” as stated by Dr. Ken Robinson? Dr. Ken Robinson, educational professor and consultant, said that “One of the perils of standardized education is the idea that one size fits all and that life is linear.” I would extend that idea and say we also treat schools as though learning is linear—elementary leads to middle to high school as though they are straight lines on a flow chart. Not true! Learners are not robots to be programmed with 1’s and 0’s to come to an end point. Learning occurs in moments of “ahas” and connections. To quote Gary Marx in his book 21 Trends for the 21st Century, education needs to “foresee the intractability of wicked problems” that the world is facing.P. 41. Because these trends lead to careers that we have never heard of and because we are “surrounded by a world filled with discontinuities, we desperately need to stay in touch with societal trends and how they might affect us.”P. 15
It is the job of educators to be in the vanguard of thinking about these big issues. It’s time for educational leaders to tout our expertise and toot our own horns. I call it “touting” and “tooting”. An Academy such as this one gives reflective leaders the time to engage in What ifs? What nows? Whys? It gives people time to become Future-Focused Instructional Leaders.
As educational leaders in all positions, from superintendent to paraprofessional, we need to step out of our comfort zone and do something differently if we are to get different results. Years ago, my German professor and I had a disagreement. Our final exam was to take a novel we had read in German, find the root words, and put them on index cards. Then find the permutations of that word with prefixes and suffixes. We had a HUGE stack of cards at the end. I asked him what the purpose was. My mistake! Never question a German professor. He said that learning a language was learning a skill like pounding nails into any board. It’s the same skill as a carpenter pounding nails and building a house. I replied that I’d rather be building a house. “Just do it, Fraulein.” When I turned in my cards after a week of work, I wrote on the slip, “I’d still rather be a carpenter and see where I’ve been and where I’m going.” My straight A became a C!
My point is that we have to stop just pounding any nails into any boards. We need to have a vision and we need to design new “houses” with more flexibility, unique spaces, and possibilities. We need to teach and support our leaders on this journey. •