School & District Management

District Leaders Offer Tips for Managing School’s Toughest Challenges

By Eesha Pendharkar — February 24, 2022 4 min read
Illlustration of a team navigating coronavirus issues in a boat wearing masks.
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Making the school community feel heard and taking care of the social-emotional needs of staff and students are key factors to being a good superintendent, according to three district leaders from across the country.

Superintendents from Georgia, Illinois, and Washington state spoke with former principal and Education Week opinion writer Peter DeWitt at Education Week’s virtual event, Seat at the Table, this week about how the role of a district leader has changed recently and some strategies they use that help them run their schools.

The three leaders were Mike Nelson, a former superintendent of the Enumclaw school district in Washington state, Theresa Rouse, the superintendent of Joliet Public Schools in Illinois’ District 86, and Morcease Beasley, the superintendent and CEO of Clayton County schools in Georgia.

They discussed the numerous challenges the pandemic brought and how they made decisions about masking and remote learning while dealing with heightened staff shortages and, more recently, the nationwide backlash against lessons on race and racism.

Superintendents connect the school board with the larger community of employees, parents, and students, which can make it difficult to keep everyone happy, they said. Here are three strategies Nelson, Rouse, and Beasley discussed that help them successfully do their jobs:

Address social emotional needs of staff

Over the past two years, retaining and recruiting teachers, bus drivers, substitute teachers, and ed. techs has proven to be exceptionally hard as the pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages.

“The pandemic has required us to really be innovative to retain the quality teachers that we do [have] and even to recruit when you have vacancies,” Beasley said. “One thing that we find very valuable is to assess our teachers, our staff, [and other] employees, about their opinion about safety, their concerns. So giving them a voice really makes a difference.”

On a day designated for professional development, Rouse’s district led teachers in a virtual relaxation session with a yoga teacher. The district has also added an employee assistance program for employees that provides counseling and support at no cost, she said.

Finally, for the past two school years, Joliet schools has started the year with three weeks of building personal connections between students and their teachers during which time there’s no academic work.

“It has borne such great fruit that we’re going to continue that process, because that social-emotional build has been great for our teaching staff as well as for our students,” Rouse said.

Make everyone feel heard

During the pandemic and with the uproar over “critical race theory” focused on what teachers can and can’t say about racism, superintendents have had to balance varying perspectives and make a decision they believed was best for students, they said.

Beasley said he had to speak with the school board, principals, parents, and students about their perspectives on wearing a mask, closing school, or switching to virtual learning and then had to issue a decision to keep the entire school community safe.

“While we couldn’t please everyone… we did have the support of our community,” he said. “And they understood our decisions because they were involved in that decisionmaking. And that’s key when people are involved and you’re making decisions with them and not about them.”

Even with fights over teaching race and racism descending to local school board levels, Rouse said, it’s important to hear from everyone but not let a small group of loud people disproportionately influence decisions.

“Sometimes it’s interesting that the loudest voices don’t necessarily represent the largest groups of people,” she said.

Communicate with staff and board members

Keeping district staff members updated on the decisions superintendents make is key to help gain their support and understanding, Nelson said. During the pandemic, superintendents were also responsible for interpreting public health guidance and explaining it to their employees, which made clear communication even more essential.

As the liaison between the school board and the district administration, treating board members as a team working together is essential to working well, all three superintendents said.

“We are a governance team and we’re here to support one another as we provide our students with the best educational experience that we can provide,” Beasley said.

Helping board members communicate with each other is also an important part of the superintendent’s job, Rouse said.

“Each time we had a change in a board member, we knew we became a new team,” Nelson said.

“We really studied each other’s personalities…And that was a way to empower everybody to feel like they were making a difference.”

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