Inside AASA

Valerie Truesdale on Leadership Services

Valerie Truesdale
VALERIE TRUESDALE JOINED AASA early in 2019 as an assistant executive director responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience in the superintendency and roles in instructional technology, she knows that AASA’s Leadership Network can be a substantial resource for school leaders trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing delivery of K-12 education.

Truesdale is enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge as well as learning from others. During her first weeks on the job, she gathered with superintendents in cohorts focused on personalized learning, digital learning and redefining the readiness of graduates for career and college. She also leads AASA’s work as a Wallace Foundation partner.

Truesdale served as superintendent in South Carolina’s Beaufort County and Oconee County districts before becoming chief technology and transformation officer for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. She serves today on the national board for the Consortium for School Networking and the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network.

She recently discussed her new role with AASA in an interview with freelance writer Joetta Sack-Min.

You’ve been a superintendent and, most recently, a chief technology and transformation officer. What were some of your most memorable experiences in the job? Are there any responsibilities or anything you will miss about being a school district leader now that you’re at AASA? How does your on-the-ground experience translate to the association realm? 

What I miss most is seeing students and working with teachers on a regular basis. One of the benefits of the change has been sharing my experiences and learning from other superintendents on issues such as personalized learning. For the past six years in CMS, we have been working on increasing personalization of learning for students and staff, and I was fortunate to work with AASA in its personalized learning cohort. It was intriguing to see the growth of the personalized learning in my former school district in Charlotte Mecklenburg and I am excited now to see the growth of personalization nationwide through AASA’s work. We were recently with a cohort of superintendents visiting North Penn School District in Pennsylvania to see their promising practices in personalization. My AASA position provides an opportunity to support superintendents and other educational leaders in their transformation work. 

What do you see as some of the most urgent issues facing the field of school administration and, in particular, the superintendency? 

As a member of AASA, I valued having the opportunity to network and share innovative ideas with colleagues. Being able to learn and grow in a safe space is a true gift. An urgent need is for folks to network, share ideas and see promising practices as we seek to redesign education on a large scale. The pace of change is exponential. An essential question is, “How do we keep pace with rapid change, ensuring that our students have the relevant skills and competencies for their success?”

In addition to sharing transformational work, I see another urgent need in preparing the next generation of school and district leaders. Schooling is hard work. It’s extremely rewarding work, and it’s hard. Having a robust pipeline of talented educators ready for pivotal leadership roles is a critical need as many educators retire. As a superintendent in two districts and a state department of education leader, I felt the need for a robust development program for talent so that we would have an array of leaders prepared for school and district level leadership. I have learned so much from colleagues engaged in research supported by the Wallace Foundation, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the other districts applying the strategies. Now at AASA, I am excited to be able to work with Wallace Foundation’s research as a communications partner.  

What are some of the barriers to recruiting more qualified candidates to the school leadership field? Why, in your view, are there are so few women—about 25% in recent AASA surveys-- at the helm of school districts, given that teaching and education tend to be female-dominated fields?

One of my many mentors once shared, “The superintendent’s job is the loneliest job there is.” And he’s right. No one else in a school district community has the same, or even a similar, job. A district leader has to have family support to do the job. While it is a greatly rewarding and fulfilling job, superintendents may not get to see many of their own kids’ soccer games. The job itself is all-encompassing—when I served as a superintendent I was frequently out five nights a week. It’s hard to have a family and serve as a superintendent. Timing is important.  

Do you plan to use any particular strategies to land more women and minorities into superintendent positions – or is this something you can’t impact owing to the school board’s governance role?  

To prepare talented educators for top leadership positions, AASA has many programs, from Aspiring Superintendent Academy to National Certification programs to Urban Superintendents Academy. The Urban program partners with Howard University on the East Coast and the University of Southern California on the West Coast and has been graduating leaders for five years. AASA also has a National Women’s Leadership Consortium. In this program, female school district superintendents join with corporate and nonprofit business leaders to discuss women in leadership roles. 

As you are working with the Wallace Foundation, what is some of the most exciting research that you’ve seen on school leadership? What are some of the emerging issues that need to be examined? 

One of the emerging issues we’re seeing is the need for support and skill building for principal supervisors, and that’s one strand of Wallace research. It’s been fascinating to see the Wallace grant from the communications side because in Charlotte-Mecklenburg one of my responsibilities was to work with the team leading the principal supervisor work. I know the Wallace research from a district’s perspective, and now it is fascinating to see how other districts are using the principles across the country. In April, Wallace released an important study of ten years of research, which highlighted that a systemic process for developing and promoting school leaders is a feasible, affordable and effective way to improve schools.  

In their formal education, including pursuit of doctorates in educational administration, many educators probably are not introduced to systems thinking. Do you see a need for getting superintendents to think and act more systemically in leading their school districts? 

We talk about systems thinking and design thinking in professional learning communities of educators. We advocate designing school districts not as a collection of independent schools but a true system of learning experiences that are interdependent and codependent. 

We need to ask, “How do you design a system that provides the positive outcomes that all students need?” We have some students who are succeeding in school and are well served by our current systems of schooling and some students who are not. When we disaggregate data, we see trends that are disturbing to conscientious educators. To ensure that all students are able to compete in a global economy, we have to think systemically and we have to think about living in a 2030 world. Some essential questions come to mind: How do we revamp outdated teaching practices to be more personalized so we meet students’ needs? How are we getting our schools and school leaders ready to lead in a world where children can be curious any time they want? How can we build learning experiences wherein students must problem solve, think critically, collaborate with others, as they are demonstrating their natural creativity? We just have to not box kids in.

Do you see AASA positioned to be able to help address these issues through the Association’s member services?

I do. There is a hunger for networking and growth from educators and a commitment by the Association to support that growth. Through the leadership networks that we are fostering, wherein educators are asking themselves and their thought partners tough questions, we examine promising practices and learning from one another.