Education Opinion

Response: Teachers & Superintendents Must “Work To Understand Each Other”

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 11, 2013 17 min read
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(This is Part Two of a two-part series. You can see Part One here)

Last week’s question was:

How can teachers best relate to Superintendents -- and vice versa?

A few days ago, we heard responses from a teacher perspective: Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers; Dean Vogel, President of the California Teachers Association, and Barnett Berry of the Center For Teaching Quality contributed to that post.

Today, we’ll hear from three Superintendents (along with comments from readers): Joshua Starr, Pamela Moran, and John Kuhn.

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.

Response From Pamela Moran

Pamela Moran’s career in public education includes serving as a secondary science teacher, science coordinator and staff developer, elementary school principal, director of instruction, assistant superintendent for instruction, superintendent, and adjunct instructor in educational leadership for the University of Virginia’s Curry School and the School of Continuing Education. She graduated with a B.S. in Biology from Furman University and holds a Master’s and Doctoral degree from the University of Virginia. She believes that public school educators represent the most important profession in America. Follow her on twitter @pammoran and her blog, A Space for Learning:

“How can superintendents relate to teachers ... and vice versa?” When Larry Ferlazzo posed this question, I considered perspectives upon both roles, ones I’ve evolved over decades as a career educator. Perhaps, there’s not as much distance between the two as we might think. Teacher and superintendents both hold power to influence, even shape, the lives of others through core ethical purpose. Both can connect with face-to-face professional learning communities and virtual professional networks, remaining open over careers to all the rich possibilities of continued growth and learning. Both may share similar beliefs about what’s important when it comes to educating young people. And, while the position descriptions and positional authority may differ, there is much that’s similar when teachers and superintendents begin with the common ground that they’re both educators first. Finding that common ground defines the first relational step between teachers and superintendents. Here’s how I perceive it. I need to relate to teachers first - and their efforts to make a difference for contemporary learners and the challenges faced in doing that work. It’s why I seek out opportunities to teach, even if brief. Keeping current with changes that impact teachers is a challenge - from mass standardization of pretty much everything to demographic changes, new technologies, and neuroscience research with implications for pedagogy. This past summer I taught a higher education course on professional learning communities. I agreed to teach this course if I could create and use blended, project-based, tech-rich, textbook and paper-free curricula, assessment, and instruction. It took more hours than I envisioned creating content, interacting with students in both face-to-face and virtual environments, using social media, and assessing tech- based projects that were far more complicated than traditional research papers would have been. I sought feedback after each class and it helped me to hear what worked and didn’t work from adult learners, all teachers in their own right. If I’m not willing to walk the walk of developing skills and improving competencies, I don’t know how I can expect teachers to do so. Even as I, on occasion, teach in K-12 classes, I understand my distance from teachers’ daily work. Similarly, the “my classroom” perspective that teachers hold makes it difficult for them to cross the distance to understanding the superintendent’s position, one with full responsibility and accountability for a district’s assets and outcomes - across schools, learners, employees, departments and funding. Superintendents make tough, often Solomon’s choice, decisions regarding people and resources. But, teachers do, too. Superintendents whom I call colleagues and friends worry a lot about doing what’s right for the people they serve, knowing they can’t please everybody. Teachers feel that as well. I believe we often share the same feelings and responses to our work, regardless of our positions, which leads me back to Larry’s question. Relating to each other occurs when communication is open, fluid, and even spontaneous. But, superintendents often control access in a variety of ways - assistants screen email, social media is filtered, and scheduled meetings reflect talk at the dominant data wall. Federal and state bureaucracies consume time. Superintendents and teachers both express frustration with that. However, superintendents and teachers today have power to create horizontal communication, increasing the potential to relate to each other. What matters? 1. Sustained dialogue matters. Relating - teacher to superintendent and superintendent to teacher - means reaching out to hear each other’s narrative. This comes from “face-time” together, listening to each other’s perspectives. Understanding comes with an investment of time and emotional energy. Superintendents who schedule informal time in schools connect with the daily lives of teachers and students - and reflect upon why they must lead and support as they see faces and hear the voices of those they serve. 2. Flipped agendas matter. Most “advisory” type agendas don’t do this. Flipped meetings create wider spaces for conversation about topics of critical importance, building knowledge and understanding of challenges as well as opportunities for collaborative leadership across roles. Today’s technology allows information to be processed ahead, preserving precious dialogue time.3. Social media matter. The professional learning playing field can be leveled inside social media so educators, regardless of position, “chat” together on equal terms without positional power trumping knowledge power. Social media create accessibility outside the educational bureaucracy as never before. Teachers can easily share resources and ideas with superintendents and vice versa- both learning with others inside and outside districts.4. People matter. Teachers and superintendents. Enough said.

Response From John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a small school superintendent in Texas and an advocate for reforming school reform. He was the first person named to Diane Ravitch’s honor roll of those who stand up for public education. You can follow him on Twitter at @johnkuhntx, and you can also read his latest commentary:

I don’t think I’ve ever met a district or campus administrator who didn’t at some point tell staff, “My door is always open.” Those are easy words to say, but leading a work life of authentic openness and connectivity (not the technology kind, but the human relationship kind) takes more than platitudes.Honestly, the onus for staff-superintendent relationships rests on the shoulders of the superintendent. A purposeful leader doesn’t just utter phrases about his or her door being open; he or she walks through it to go where the teachers and students are. Building bonds with staff is a deliberate decision, and a necessary one. Teachers’ feedback is crucial, as their fingers are on the pulse of learning, community relations, morale, and climate every single day. Big talk about “excellence for all” and “a climate of high expectations” is nothing but big talk if there is an absence of what we might call an informal feedback avenue. If the only feedback a superintendent gets is in some formalized setting such as a district planning meeting, the leader runs the risk of letting dynamics like groupthink, flattery, and saying-what-we-all-want-to-hear affect the directions the district will take. Surveys are fine as far as they go--unless they are designed to generate glowing praise instead of legitimate critique--but for real ongoing improvement for all, nothing beats authentic community and a leader willing to honestly engage with those affected by decision-making, as an equal partner.That said, there are things teachers and staff can do to help a superintendent better engage and form bonds outside the comfortable confines of the central office, and they should do these things as an expression of their commitment to the good of the organization and, by extension, the good of the children and the community.First, understand that your superintendent is a regular person who is probably filled with insecurities. He or she may hide it well and carry him- or herself with an aura of confidence, but, in my case at least, there are days when I wonder if I know what I’m doing and other days when I’m fairly certain everyone in the entire organization hates everything about me. I’m not asking you to feel sorry for your superintendent: he or she gets paid plenty to make up for the pressures of the job. I’m only asking for you not to place him or her on a pedestal or cling to impossible expectations for him or her. Let your superintendent be as imperfect as you are.Second, invite your superintendent (or, in larger school districts, his or her staff) to come to your room. I have a staff member who loves to do cool labs in his science class. He regularly invites me to come see them. (Depending on your school’s protocol, you might need to okay the invite with your campus principal first, though in the interest of an easy, open, and interaction-welcoming environment, I would hope not.) This teacher’s invitations are perfect for me because I want to see what’s going on but don’t want to be the kind of superintendent who barges into classrooms like I own the place. I am sensitive to the corrosiveness of constantly looking over teachers’ and principals’ shoulders like I think they’re too stupid to do their jobs without me there to share my amazing wisdom and expertise with them. I know that teacher evaluations are part of school management, but there’s a difference between an appraisal system and an environment of arrogance and mistrust.As a campus administrator I was once required to be part of one of those teams that walks into classrooms in groups of four or five, all of us armed with clipboards jotting things down, and the experience traumatized me. It felt so wrong, so unnatural. I can still see the 2nd graders’ faces looking up at me like I was one of Darth Vader’s Stormtroopers come to do something awful to their teacher. I’m embarrassed at the memory of my part in that top down, tone deaf circus of arrogance. Because of that memory, I don’t go into classrooms enough. I’m aware of that, and I’m bothered by it: I wonder how many teachers are waiting for me to pop in so I can see the amazing work they are doing. I don’t want to miss their excellence, but I also don’t want to be the random jerk in a tie who shows up to judge people. So an invitation would help me know you want me there. I feel guilty when I stay in my office too much: an email saying, “Mr. Kuhn, next week my class is showing Prezis they made about the Globe Theatre and they’d like you to come watch” helps drag me away from paper data, to expose me to real-time data in the form of human interaction. (It’s a good idea to say “The kids want you to come.” No one can say no to the kids. Plus, superintendents have been out of the classroom for years and don’t remember any of the negatives about teenagers.)Last thing, feed the supe. If your Spanish students are bringing sopapillas and flan on Cinco de Mayo, that is something I need to know. The fact that I’m overweight is irrelevant.In all seriousness, teachers can help grease the skids and make it easier for an administrator from across town to get into the trenches and remember the joys and challenges of teaching and the needs of teachers and students. An out-of-touch superintendent hurts everyone, and it’s in everyone’s interest not to let him or her slip off into a cocoon.Even if he or she is a jerk. Even if he or she is generically socially awkward--like yours truly--and tends to stand silently off to one side. (Some superintendents go through life pretty sure anything they say will come back and bite them in the end.)Ultimately, the superintendent must make staff connectedness a goal or it won’t happen, but deliberateness on the part of staff members can help him or her stay (or get) in-touch. Make an offer he or she can’t refuse, and any superintendent will come out of his or her shell.

Responses From Readers

Anthony Cody, Education Week Teacher blogger:

I spent 24 years in Oakland, and worked under perhaps six superintendents and a handful of state appointed administrators as well. As a relatively new teacher, in my first six or seven years, I did not have much to do with my superintendent. Then as I began participating in professional development more, I got involved in several of the reform initiatives that the superintendents were leading. I found out that often there is less to these sorts of thing than meets the eye.I began to look for opportunities to build professional communities of teachers that could exist somewhat autonomously within the District. I looked for grant money that would support this sort of thing. When I had connected with a few dozen of my colleagues spread around the District, we were able to initiate some innovative projects of our own. We created a district-wide middle school science program called Curriculum in Focus, which developed hands on curriculum and led workshops for teachers. Later we created a mentoring program called TeamScience, which carries on today. What does all this have to do with relating to a superintendent? My experience was that if I worked with my fellow teachers in a lively community where we supported one another, we could usually make that fit in with what the superintendent wanted done. And if we had a strong sense of what we wanted, and some financial support from outside the district, we could preserve our sense of autonomy. The good and great superintendents understand that this sort of professional leadership is golden, and they will encourage it.

Michele Woolnough:

I believe a huge dichotomy exists between the worlds of the classroom teacher and that of a superintendent. I am a secondary science teacher who works with people who have no idea what the roles of a superintendent are. Additionally, many superintendents do not make their presence known throughout their respective school districts, thereby isolating themselves from other employees.Although the head of a school district is usually overwhelmed by the demands of the job, he or she can apply some basic tactics in order to remain a visible entity amongst employees by attending important school functions and by holding periodic question and answer sessions with teachers, administrators, and the general public. Additionally, superintendents should take an active role in the professional development of their teachers, utilizing their expertise to present topics that align with the visions of their districts.


I think teachers must respect their superintendent and if concerns are expressed in a non-confrontational way they are most likely to ce considered because the integrity of the superintendent is not being challenged.

Thanks to Pam, Joshua, John, Anthony, Michele and Amber for contributing their responses.

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