Thursday, August 8, 2013

Starr: "I think I'm a better superintendent now..."

Education Week:  How can teachers best relate to Superintendents -- and vice versa? Response From Joshua Starr Joshua Starr is the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools: In my first Superintendent position I was 35 years old and had been brought in to rapidly reform a system that was failing a significant number of children. I was serious, focused and determined to be a relentless advocate for great instruction for every child. During my first few months I spent as much time as possible in classrooms in order to understand the state of instruction. In my first mid-term evaluation with the Board, a few members told me that some teachers had said that I seemed distant and unfriendly when I visited their classrooms. I was devastated. I immediately heard my wife's voice in my head, warning me about "the look" that I have on my face when I'm deep in thought; it can be mistaken for annoyance.I told the Board that when I visit classrooms I never want to interrupt the teacher and I don't want instruction to stop because I know that teachers have to make the most of the time they have with their students. I would sit and watch the children intently (with "the look" on my face). Given the fact that I was a new, young superintendent who had never been a principal, charged with shaking up the system, I completely mis-gauged how people would perceive me. I failed to realize that one of my major responsibilities was to simply connect with teachers and others as people and fellow educators who are deeply committed to children. I think I'm a better superintendent now that I'm in my second superintendency and have passed Gladwell's 10,000 hours. I offer the following thoughts about how superintendents and teachers can best relate:1. Superintendents and teachers live very different lives and have very different demands. It is inevitable that neither fully understands what the other is dealing with so don't make assumptions about motives. Work to understand each other before rushing to judgment.2. Active listening is essential. Teachers are rightly focused on their work and don't necessarily think about the bigger world of the system. Sometimes, superintendents don't see the individual parts as clearly because they are focused on the whole.3. Keep explaining. Despite a superintendent's best efforts to communicate the vision, the details of a plan or the reasons behind a decision, you can guarantee that many teachers may be hearing it for the first time.4. Connect and share. Most superintendents were teachers once and have lives, families and interests. I'm always impressed when I listen to teachers about how they juggle their work with their other involvements and interests. Use that to connect as people.5. The principal is necessarily the primary lever for change. I've never seen a great school without a great principal; hence, superintendents have to focus on serving and building the capacity of principals so they can in turn can serve their schools well. I know teachers sometimes get frustrated when the superintendent doesn't solve a teacher's problem, but we have to work through the principal.6. Use social media. There are so many ways to connect electronically today; use them to share stories, celebrate success, generate ideas and communicate a vision.7. Talk about vision often. Superintendents and teachers must connect around a shared vision for what students need to know and be able to do and what adults need to know to serve children well. Too often the conversation is about the plan or the decision and not the vision.8. Teachers should be great problem solvers. Superintendents can't, and shouldn't, solve everyone's problems, don't wait for us to do so. School communities must be the primary problem-solvers and teacher leadership is key.9. Crowd source. Teachers must actively participate in district change efforts. We need your expertise, opinions and participation, it only makes us stronger.10. Take risks. Curriculum and assessment data are starting points for collaborative teams to determine what they need. It's essential that teachers engage in honest conversation within schools and with the central office about the impact of reform efforts and how to innovate locally.As an educator and the father of three, I sometimes wish that I could build a school system from the ground up and fulfill all of our dreams for kids and adults. I know that some teachers (and parents) get frustrated when their seemingly common sense solutions to help achieve those dreams don't make it through the bureaucracy. Please understand that superintendents must orchestrate incredibly complex systems rife with politics, statutes, regulations and competing demands. The decisions we make within that complexity are ones we think are best for children. Sometimes we will make mistakes. Please seek to understand and help us to ask better questions, make better mistakes and, ultimately, better decisions. Full article at Education Week:  Response: Teachers & Superintendents Must "Work To Understand Each Other"

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