July 6, 2016
Your grandson Ollie’s K-8 school district enjoys an excellent track record and great community satisfaction: our test scores are high, our children are happy, and our teachers are proud to work here. But what a busy first year as a superintendent this has been! Like all good school districts that strive to provide the best possible experience for their students, our efforts to evaluate and improve our practices are never-ending tasks.
Internally, we worry about ensuring that our instruction engages students and supports the development of their critical thinking and creativity. Some elementary school parents report that instruction feels more traditional; our middle school staff worries about students who have become disengaged from their learning. And when we track our students’ performance in the regional high school, we find their college admission rates are lower than we would have expected from their strong performance through middle school. While teachers have shared with me the areas that need to change, they acknowledge that moving away from established practices can be hard.
However, it was clear upon my hire that the Board of Education recognized change is necessary, and they were looking for a leader who could catalyze that change. My challenge was that many educators in the district felt inundated by initiatives in recent years, and not everyone welcomed further change. In the past three years alone, our teachers have implemented new standards in English language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science. The teacher evaluation system has changed dramatically; our student assessment system has changed as well. In light of these sweeping changes, it was clear to me that the success of future changes would require an especially clear purpose and shared vision. Above all else, I needed to be attentive and responsive to the staff’s needs in order to successfully promote change.
Your recommendations for 21st century district leadership this year have been very useful to me. I believe this first year’s work has positioned us successfully for a great deal of progress in the years to come. Thus, I wanted to share my experience and suggestions with other new superintendents, in the same spirit that you’ve shared your suggestions with me.
1. Begin by Listening
I agree completely with your advice that “listening is probably the most important thing a new superintendent needs to do.” My first 90 days were focused on implementing a clearly described entry plan that provided crucial opportunities for me to listen. I began by sharing my own beliefs and theory of action with the Board of Education, and summarizing it for other stakeholders. Then I met with every administrator, and held multiple meetings in each school to hear from staff. I also formed a parent advisory group, met with lots of community members, and interviewed each Board member individually. At the end of my first 90 days I shared what I had learned with all the stakeholders, in many cases in face-to-face conversations.
2. Collaborate with the Board and District Leadership to Create a Vision
When you visited in October, you helped our district leadership team understand why we need to change for the future, and why the 4Cs are the most important focus for this change. In November, I continued to build our board’s capacity to support systemic change by educating them about the 4Cs and 21st century pedagogies, as we started to articulate a clear direction for our schools with a vision that embraces these priorities. Our board is comprised of former public school teachers and administrators, and several professors in higher education: they enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on their own classroom practices, and got very excited about the future of our schools. Our administrators continue to embrace our new direction as well: most recently, several attended the EdLeader21 Professional Learning Day in Boston, and were inspired by new strategies to teach and assess critical thinking in our schools.
3. Seek Input from Stakeholders
To support the board’s continued work, I sought input on the evolving district mission and goals from administrators, teachers and staff, parents, and members of the broader community. We organized focus groups and surveyed a wide range of stakeholders, asking about their hopes for their children and for our schools. We learned that teachers clearly want to provide more for their students, but worry about the impacts of new practices on traditional performance measures. Parents, on the other hand, want our schools to reflect the values and identity of their community: they are less concerned with traditional performance measures than ensuring their children grow to be well-rounded citizens of the world. They even took exception to our use of terms like “achieve success,” feeling such terms were overladen with values at odds with their own. This input from a wide range of stakeholders was absolutely essential to the board’s continued strategic planning.
4. Be Direct when Necessary
The concern I heard about most from teachers was the need for clear curriculum in the language arts; I embraced this as an important early opportunity to infuse the 4Cs in our instructional program. Working with our literacy coaches and a committee of representative teachers, we identified a new instructional model for use in our K-6 classrooms, and designed a multi-year implementation plan in conjunction with a strong professional learning program. We have titled our program “A Student-Centered Approach to Literacy.” Although we have lots of nervous teachers, some of whom might be happier going back to an anthology-based direct instruction approach, we have promised lots of support and will not turn back.
5. Establish Structures to Support the Changes
In the past, our schools operated as silos, often lacking horizontal and vertical alignment within and between schools. Administrators gathered for routine management conversations, but rarely engaged teachers in the most important work of the district. I believe wholeheartedly that one of the most powerful ways to bring about change is to experience it: if we want to put students in the center of their learning, and engage students in critical thinking and creativity, then teachers need to collaborate and experience the same things. To honor this principle, we have created teacher leadership positions, introduced a committee structure for curriculum development, and started training teacher leaders in Understanding by Design. We have also been reworking our enrichment program to embed the 4Cs in classroom and schoolwide enrichment experiences, so that our enrichment teachers also develop the skills to become 4Cs leaders in our schools.
I encourage any new superintendent interested in bringing the 4Cs to their schools to think and act strategically: your suggestions helped me to reflect on how best to position myself and engage with stakeholders. Listening to those stakeholders, and working with the board and district leadership team to create a vision, were the most critical steps of all for me. As a result of these commitments, we are well positioned for much more progress to come.
My first convocation message focused on who I was, what I believed in, and what I hoped we could accomplish together. This year at convocation I will share more about our new direction, which will not only build on the strengths of our organization and the skills of our staff, but also respond to the important concerns and hopes of our stakeholders. Ollie and his peers have much to look forward to in the future.