AS MY WIFE
and I sat waiting in a restaurant for our food, a little boy, about 6, caught my wife’s eye. He was bashfully waving while explaining to his mother, “There’s the Star Man!”
Yes, he had me pegged accurately.
After teaching at the secondary school level for 13 years, then serving 16 years as a high school assistant principal and principal, I had just been appointed superintendent of a school district that consisted of an early childhood center, five elementary schools, three middle schools and the high school where I had worked.
I realized I needed to find ways to connect with my new early childhood and elementary school constituents. I didn’t want to just be that voice on the phone robo-calls or that school leader only seen at official functions. Students should know their superintendent up close and have a chance to speak with him or her.
At the same time, I found that my well-meaning visits to the younger grades had the unintended consequence of being disruptive and a little intimidating. I was even told by one student, “Superintendents are supposed to be busy doing more important stuff than visiting classrooms!”
Earlier, as a first-year high school baseball coach, I had found myself in a challenging position — how to get the team to buy into my ideas, while encouraging them to bond and play together. To be successful as a team, everyone needed to feel valued. I had once read about a professional baseball team that fostered team unity by giving embroidered stars to players who contributed to the team’s success.
The star system was just what my team needed. So I began handing out embroidered stars to each player after a win. This small gesture proved to be the unifier we needed, and over my eight years as head baseball coach, my players proudly attached their stars to their playing caps, many of which remain proudly on display today.
All I needed was something to give my new students, just as I had done with my ballplayers. After some research, I found exactly what I was seeking — an eraser in the shape of a star! Now when I visit my kindergarten and elementary classrooms, students can earn a “Star Student Eraser” by spelling a word, answering a math problem or explaining what they have learned that day. Little did I realize just how coveted those star erasers would become and how much students in the upper grades would want a pencil with a star eraser on it.
Now when I walk into a school, students beg me to visit their classrooms and teachers e-mail me to explain what they’ve taught and to request I visit so their students can show off.
Over the past dozen years, I have become the “Star Man” to the wide-eyed kindergarteners who stop me in the grocery store and want to spell a word for me and to the nurse at my doctor’s office who lets me know how her daughter shows everyone her star and to the 1st grader waving across the tables at the restaurant.
That small token has helped me accomplish my goal. My students know their superintendent. But what has given me even greater satisfaction is that this small gesture has sparked a desire among students to learn and to succeed.
As school district leaders, we know each day brings challenges that test our leadership ability. It’s easy to become isolated and distant as we do “important stuff.” But we must find ways to connect and to inspire. I encourage you to become a “star” leader in your own way.
is superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District in Wyoming, Del. Twitter: @kfitz100