After nine classes of Leaders To Learn From, previous award-winners have gone on to helm some of the biggest school systems in the United States and to win state and national accolades. Even so, many say that the best benefit of the program was getting to learn from their fellow honorees.
The job of an educational leader—part people manager, part vision-setter, part cheerleader—can be taxing and lonely in the best of times. It has been especially so over the past few years with the pandemic. Past Leaders say that the connections they’ve made through the award have helped them develop new ways to innovate and provided necessary moral support.
“You really can get in a place in which you can’t see what could be different than it already is in your own operation,” said Joanna Burt-Kinderman, a districtwide math coach in the Pocahontas school district in West Virginia and a 2019 honoree. “I really appreciate being able to just ping ideas off of them and share when I’m bummed,” she said of some of her cohort members.
Brainstorming and troubleshooting new initiatives with district leaders who have implemented something similar delivers insight that’s “not necessarily taught within the walls of any university,” said Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of the Topeka public schools in Kansas and a 2015 awardee.
“This is practical application, boots-on-the-ground work,” she said.
‘Systems Don’t Create Themselves’ : Tiffany Anderson, Lenny Schad, and Terry Grier
Education Week spoke with award winners from past Leaders cohorts about why these relationships are invaluable—especially now.
No matter how big or small a district is, it runs on systems: plans for who’s in charge of getting what done and when. Designing good systems is hard. Getting them to run well is even harder.
That’s why Anderson says that learning about other districts’ successes and challenges can be so powerful. “Systems don’t create themselves,” she said. “They come from many people on your team gaining information.”
For Anderson, who was recognized for her work with students experiencing poverty as then-superintendent of the Jennings school district in Missouri, the Leaders To Learn From event and conference presented an opportunity to create a new network with fellow honorees Terry Grier and Lenny Schad, the then-superintendent and then-chief technology information officer in the Houston Independent school district.
Talking with them about lessons learned from the rollout of Houston’s 1-to-1 computer program—like how to build teacher buy-in, plan in phases, and provide support like workshops and student technology assistance—helped Anderson shape tech strategies in her district.
Schad, now the chief information and innovation officer at District Administration magazine, remembers the message he always stressed in conversations with other districts: “This isn’t an IT initiative, and it’s not about the device.”
“The easiest part of these initiatives is the tech. Where we really spent a lot of time was that collaboration with curriculum and instruction,” he said. Schad would talk with other district leaders about the cross-departmental structure of the 1-to-1 program and the training—for teachers and for families—that extended far beyond the integration of devices into classrooms.
“The lessons that we’ve taught people [from] Houston is not to try to eat the apple at one time,” Grier said. That applies in a sprawling district like Houston, but in small districts, too, he added.
Anderson’s also been on the other end of these kinds of collaborations, providing support and guidance to other districts that found Jennings through the Leaders profile.
“After Leaders To Learn From, there was enough interest nationally that we began inviting people to visit our Hope House,” she said, referencing the foster home the district runs. She and Jennings’ staff took groups on tours, detailing the systems they had created to support the whole child and invite parental involvement.
Even now, in Topeka, Anderson said she has had several teachers and at least one principal apply to work in the district after learning about her work through the Leaders profile. And she encourages her staff to study what new classes of honorees are doing and apply the strategies to their own schools.
“I think, collegially, superintendents and principals and teachers, we are each other’s best allies,” Anderson said. “And we are also—to me anyway—ambassadors of hope in showing what’s possible.”
Building a Community Of ‘Disruptors’ : Joanna Burt-Kinderman, Shomari Jones, and Angela Ward
Other honorees said the relationships they formed with each other helped them explore new angles of their own work. Joanna Burt-Kinderman, Shomari Jones, and Angela Ward—all featured as 2019 Leaders To Learn From—have kept in touch over the past few years.
Ward, who was recognized for her work as the supervisor of race and equity programs in Texas’ Austin Independent School District, is now the chief program officer at Transforming Education, a nonprofit that partners with districts on social-emotional learning initiatives. She also runs an equity consulting firm. Jones, selected as a Leader for focusing on closing opportunity gaps, continues to lead equity and strategic engagement in the Bellevue school district in Washington state.
Burt-Kinderman, who was recognized for leadership in math instruction, knows that her work looks pretty different from that of Jones and Ward. But she sees a through line: All three Leaders are focused on people whom existing systems don’t serve well. In her predominately white, rural district, many of her students are from low-income families.
There’s a commonality in their work, focused on justice for the kids they’re working for, said Jones, in a conversation with Burt-Kinderman, Ward, and Education Week.
“I think there’s … a real need for partnership and support to one another when you’re trying to do that work, which fundamentally rocks boats and doesn’t always make friends,” Burt-Kinderman said.
All three educators have relied on each other for moral support when they’ve faced pushback to equity initiatives, they added.
“Everyone in that group of Leaders To Learn From, we’re all disruptors for the most part … and we each had our own way of kind of chipping away at the system,” Ward said. “But recognizing that the system is very resilient, and it easily puts itself back into that position to maintain the status quo, … I knew I could text the two of them and share things that I was dealing with, and no, I wasn’t crazy. They would validate: ‘Yeah, it’s happening.’”
I think there's … a real need for partnership and support to one another when you're trying to do that work, which fundamentally rocks boats, and doesn't always make friends.
But just about a year after they met, the pandemic started to shut down schools across the country. Plans for future collaborations—including a visit from Jones to Burt-Kinderman’s district in West Virginia—were put on hold indefinitely. And all three educators had to shift their focus to confront the immense new challenges facing their school systems, as well as the strain on their own lives.
“I think I lost my center in COVID,” Burt-Kinderman said. “If you’re talking about a hierarchy of needs, and I’m a mom, I really can’t think about systems change if I’m not sure my baby’s safe. So, I shut down a little bit during this time and had to kind of trudge along into relearning things that I know how to do really well.”
Instead of focusing solely on improving math education, Burt-Kinderman had new challenges—like figuring out how to get kindergartners to press *6 on Zoom, so they could take themselves off mute and talk to their teachers. In Austin, Ward was taking on cafeteria duty, wiping down tables, and reminding students to pull up their masks. All three were checking in with staff and families daily to support them and solve problems.
Now, the Leaders said, they’re emerging from crisis mode to confront an even greater challenge: imagining what equity might look like in a post-COVID world.
Amid the pandemic, and going forward, it’s more important than ever to find ways to make staff, students, and families feel like “whole humans,” Ward said. COVID has hit marginalized communities the hardest, and their needs have to be at the center of recovery efforts, she said.
“There was great hope that the systems now being disrupted would transform when rebuilt or reestablished to be the systems that our students need them to be. And they didn’t return in such a way,” said Jones. “My question is: What’s our responsibility there? And what impact can we make to continue to push for and push toward that change?”
Burt-Kinderman says she knows one thing will be critical to answering that question: keeping connected with colleagues like her fellow Leaders who share a commitment to equity.
“It’s going to take brave solutions, folks willing to fail and be humble enough to learn, and bold enough to try things that are really outside the box,” she said. “And that requires fuel, fellowship, and some fun and a sense of humor.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘Ambassadors of Hope’: Why Past Leaders Lean on Their Fellow Honorees