649. THAT IS
the number of Willard School District employees I set out to meet by this past May, the end of my first year as superintendent in Willard, Mo. This figure includes bus drivers, nurses, cooks, paraprofessionals, occupational therapists, physical therapists, preschool teachers, administrative assistants, custodians, maintenance and grounds workers, counselors, teachers and administrators.
This internal audience became my Big Hairy Audacious Goal, or BHAG in the vernacular of author Jim Collins. The idea came to me in response to a goal our board of education had set for me: to connect with the community. Willard Public Schools serves about 4,600 students in pre-K through 12th grade.
To meet every employee meant I rode every school bus. It gave me the opportunity to see the geographical span and diversity of our district, which is spread over 113 square miles. The district has a rural portion, suburban housing and a small urban feel closer to Springfield, the state’s third-largest city to the south.
This process has been invaluable by generating significant data to fully understand the depth of our district. But what the process represents may supersede the actual process.
Meeting one-on-one with each staff member for 15-25 minutes demonstrates the value of every member of our Willard family. The first question was always “tell me about yourself.” During this time, I found out where the individual grew up. Not surprisingly, most grew up in southwestern Missouri, and many are Willard alumni who have returned home.
I also asked about the employee’s family, while learning how each path led to Willard Schools. This personal knowledge allowed me to connect on a deeper level with each employee as I built relationships during my encounters around the district.
My next questions were designed to gain insights about our district. I asked what the employee wanted to accomplish professionally and sought their impressions of the district. I asked what makes our district unique.
This was a great opportunity for me to hear about strengths and opportunities for improvement. I also asked how they would assess my performance as superintendent. Many laughed or responded, “I do not assess you.” But I would explain, “It’s my job to serve you, and I want to know what you value.”
What our Willard family values most is the visibility of the superintendent around the district and community. They like that their superintendent knows their names and knows who they are. They realize I care about them. One of the most thoughtful comments I received was this: “With your visibility and conversations, when you make a decision, it is based off knowing the district and not just making assumptions about it.”
A Photo Record
The final question I asked of our staff was to identify the top two or three school programs in which our community takes the most pride. I love knowing how our schools bring pride to our community. Then, the staff member and I took a photo together in his or her workplace, and I tweeted it out as #Willardshines
. If you visit this hashtag, you will see our amazing Willard family.
I’ve learned through this process that our teammates chose to work in Willard because of its stellar reputation in southwest Missouri or they work here because they want their children to attend school in Willard. It is definitely a destination district. Many who work here are proud alumni, including some third- and fourth-generation graduates. They see us as kid-centered and family-friendly.
By the end of my first year, I had visited with 649 district staff members. It was time well spent.
is superintendent of Willard Public Schools in Willard, Mo. Twitter: @DrMattTeeter