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What it takes to lead in K-12

Superintendents have a tall order to fill. After all, there are few responsibilities more important than ensuring an entire community’s young people are educated and cared for.

And in addition to serving students and families in their communities, district leaders are tasked with supporting staff members and building bridges to a wide range of organizational partners.

How do they keep everything humming?

We sat down with district leaders from some of the largest and most influential districts in the country to get their take on the pillars of leadership.

Getting started on the right foot: New beginnings and legacies

First-time superintendents and those who are moving on to a new school district have an important challenge in front of them: building trust.

Making connections and moving swiftly

“You could only go at the speed of trust,” said retiring Superintendent Addison Davis of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida. “The biggest thing is having the conduit from the district level to be able to be present in our schools, building relationships.”

At the same time, district administrators know there isn’t a moment to waste—and starting off strong matters.

“I can’t tell a second grade family that I’m going to get it right in 10 years when their child is a senior,” said Dr. Christopher Bernier of Florida’s Lee County School District. “We need to get things right now so that when their children are seniors, they’re fully prepared to go out into the world.”

Building on the contributions of those who came before

Dallas Independent School District’s Dr. Stephanie Elizalde benefited from the built-in mentorship of her predecessor and the strides he made for schools in the area.

“It’s a good opportunity to really build on the success that he has created,” said Elizalde. “There was a time when we needed some big changes—now is a time, though, for us to help refine those changes.”

No matter what a superintendent’s entry point is, it’s important for leaders to be connected with the community’s history and to make a strong effort to build relationships from day one.

Setting the tone: What kind of leader do you want to be?

There’s more than one way to be an effective leader. Beyond certain steadfast competency requirements—knowledge, capacity, and dedication among them—each leader has an individual style and specific attributes they want to highlight.

Head coach for the district staff

Many leaders are focused on teamwork and collaboration. For instance, Dr. Kimberley Cantu of Texas’ Mansfield Independent School District draws on her background as a basketball coach to help rally people together. In particular, she explained how problem-solving sessions go in her office.

“Let’s throw it all up on the wall,” said Cantu. “What are all of our ideas? Now, let’s narrow it all down.”

As soon as plans, responsibilities, and a timeline have been established, recurring touch points help keep contributors on task and accountable.

Like Cantu, Dr. Andi Fourlis of Arizona’s Mesa Public Schools believes collaboration is paramount.

“A collaborative style of leadership is very important to me because I know that to solve complex problems, we cannot just listen to one voice and one perspective,” said Fourlis.

And let’s not forget that teamwork means sharing the load. Relinquishing some control can be a bit difficult at first, but with the right people around you and strong communication, it can be a great boost for the central office.

“You have to surround yourself with amazing team members who believe in the same vision you do,” said Dr. Monica Goldson of Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.

A servant leader who puts students first

When Dr. John M. Craft told us about his time in Texas’ Killeen Independent School District, he described his affinity for a style of authentic and approachable servant leadership.

“The position that I have been graciously allowed to pursue allows me to serve students,” said Craft. “I understand that we are to support our campuses—to support our teachers—because ultimately, that is what impacts our students and our students’ success.”

An example to aspire to

Dr. Melvin J. Brown sees his office as an opportunity to serve as a positive example of what students in Alabama’s Montgomery Public Schools can achieve.

“I say it all the time: I am my kids. I’m no different from them,” said Brown. “You can overcome whatever your circumstances are, and it’s our job as teachers, as principals, as administrators, as school districts to assist kids in moving in that direction and getting those impediments out of their way.”

Building bridges throughout the community: Stakeholder engagement

Public schools fill a profound role in our communities, and for leaders to make sure their districts are preparing students to live, work, and lead in those communities, dedicated administrators have to be connected.

Hailing from Webb City, Missouri, Dr. Anthony Rossetti used an apt metaphor to describe his school district’s place in the community at large.

“I call it the three-legged stool: We have the chamber, we have the city, and we have our school district,” said Rossetti. “It’s a whole bunch of different things together that make Webb City what it is.”

Dr. Angélica M. Ramsey of Texas’ Fort Worth Independent School District (ISD) listens directly to staff members and engages with institutions throughout the community to make sure she’s in the know and ready to implement solutions that benefit students and the wider public.

“I really asked two questions: What do we do well in Fort Worth ISD, and how can we improve?” said Ramsey of her districtwide stakeholder engagement initiative.

According to Ramsey, the district also added community liaisons to help individual schools engage with nearby groups and organizations.

“At the next level is training our principals on how to better bring in the community, and then at our level, I really think it’s important for me to be part of the community,” said Ramsey. “So I’ve already joined nonprofit boards, I’ve been to the city council, I speak to our city manager once a month, and I just met with our county judge.”

Elevating your staff: Management and leadership

Time and again, superintendents told us about two key areas of focus when it came to managing their teams: supporting teachers and developing leaders.

Recognition for dedicated educators

To state the obvious, teaching is hard work. But for many of our most talented educators, this profession is more than just a vocation—it’s a calling. Superintendents play a strong role in ensuring teachers have what they need to remain successful in their careers.

[READ: “4 ways district leaders can help avoid teacher burnout”]

In accordance with state-level guidance, Dr. Monifa B. McKnight is ushering in new forms of recognition for teachers in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools.

“[The plan] has required some very different criteria for how we go about doing our work,” said McKnight, “like incentivizing teachers through their pay and bringing the salary up so that we can continue to encourage recruitment.”

Similarly, Superintendent Bernier pointed out the importance of looking for ways to improve the entire compensation package—including insurance and other benefits—while also helping staff members to connect to a sense of purpose.

Pathways toward advancement

One of the great joys of being in a leadership position is having the opportunity to provide encouragement and support to the people who will come after you.

Dr. Marvin Connelly Jr. of Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina told us that building up other leaders was one of his top aspirations.

“I want to make sure that along my journey, I have developed other people to become superintendents or whatever they might do,” said Connelly.

We also heard from other district leaders about how they’re working hard to provide career pathways for teachers to become school principals and for site-level administrators to begin their journeys in the district’s central office.

For some, partnerships with local colleges and universities can prove mutually beneficial. In New Mexico, Scott Elder of Albuquerque Public Schools pointed to a leadership development program for aspiring principals. This initiative is operated in conjunction with the University of New Mexico, which is located in the city.

“We put them in schools, and they get to practice the skills as they’re working toward licensure,” said Elder. “It’s a really, really good program, we’re really proud of it, and I think it’s really effective.”

Elder also noted that his district is investing in its current principals by providing focused professional development and executive coaching.

Looking toward the future: Continuous improvement

Realistically, nobody can expect to be perfect all the time. But the drive to learn from every mistake and improve one’s performance makes for a strong leader.

Douglas County School System Superintendent Trent North told us that in his Georgia district, he’s focused on growth. North paraphrased Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles, who said after his Super Bowl defeat, “You either win, or you learn.”

“You spend more time learning what you didn’t get right than you do celebrating the victories,” said North.

Even with numerous accomplishments and achievements to point to, the leaders we spoke with said they’re always looking ahead to what’s down the road. How can they improve things for the next school year? What’s different about this year compared to the last?

As Dr. Calvin J. Watts of Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools explained, the world is a very different place today than it was in 1635. That’s the year Boston Latin School was founded—a pivotal event often described as the start of public education in what would become the United States of America.

“I believe there’s a reason why innovation is a part of public education now,” said Watts. “If we continue doing what we’ve done for the last 388 years when our students and families come to us with very different needs and different circumstances, we’re probably not going to get the same results, or even close to that.”

Leading with determination

The unique circumstances of recent years exemplify how quickly things can change. But with committed and dedicated leaders helming our public schools, we can steer toward calmer seas together. We extend our gratitude to the steadfast superintendents who took the time to chat with us about what it looks like to be a leader.

Want to hear more from today’s top education leaders? Check out the other installments in our latest Leadership Voices series.

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