Poor relationships between principals and superintendents can become hurdles for improving schools and serving students, but healthy connections centered on trust and communication can make the whole educational system more effective.
That’s the message three educational administrators shared as guests on Education Week’s Seat at the Table, a series of virtual discussions hosted by Peter DeWitt, a former principal and an EdWeek opinion blogger.
“There has to be a real genuine connection,” said Michael Cornell, the superintendent of the Hamburg Central School District in New York. “As the leader, I care about [principals], I listen to them, I’m not trying to be something I’m not. That really is the basis. You grow from that.”
Cornell spoke alongside Faris Sabbah, the superintendent of Santa Cruz County schools in California, and Taneka Tate, principal of Carnall Elementary School in Fort Smith, Ark.
Even well-intentioned principals and superintendents can find themselves in some tense moments, speakers agreed. That’s especially true as schools and districts navigate complications with COVID-19 recovery, a politically divisive climate, and challenges with issues like finance and staffing.
Here are three tips the speakers shared for building healthy, effective relationships between school and district leaders.
Keep your mind on the mission
Many problems and miscommunications can be avoided by agreeing to common goals and reaffirming your commitment during times of transition or challenge, the leaders told DeWitt.
“When you are in the military, it is all about the mission,” said Tate, who has a military background. “So often, we make things so personal when it is really about the mission.”
When Tate began working with a new superintendent this year, she was deliberate about discussing what student success means and how they would accomplish it together. For Tate, whose school has high enrollments of students from low-income households and students with disabilities, that meant keeping an eye on academic growth and family support as much as raw test scores.
“As long as we keep it grounded in that, that’s how we really build a strong relationship between central office and building leadership,” she said.
In Tate’s school, for example, a school counselor quietly meets two siblings, 3rd and 5th grade students, at the door each morning to help them deal with the consequences of a bedbug infestation at home. She leads them to a private room where they can change into fresh clothes she’s kept in her office overnight, and she washes the outfits they wore to school in hot water, sealing them in bags to send back home at night so bugs can’t get in.
That sort of thing isn’t always recognized as core to the work of schools, but it’s a difference-maker for those two students, Tate said. And it’s core to the mission she shares with her district.
It’s especially important for superintendents to check in with building leaders at times of transition or struggle to make sure everyone has a shared understanding of how to approach challenges and opportunities, Sabbah said. For example, it may be important to discuss how to communicate with parents who are angry about mask mandates or other COVID-19 precautions, how to spend funds, or how to shift policies as circumstances change.
“There has to be a process where site leaders and district leaders work together to review that mission and make sure we are all on the same page,” Sabbah said.
Start with humility and be present
New leaders should approach their role with humility, Cornell said. And, while meeting students’ needs is an urgent task, it can take time to build the trust that makes relationships work.
That means new superintendents shouldn’t blaze into their job with big ambitions and talking points without first getting to know the systems they will lead, Cornell said.
When he started in his role eight years ago, Cornell met with all sorts of district employees and strategic leaders, taking time for discussions before a small coalition agreed to update the district’s mission statement, which was “created before the iPhone,” he said.
All three leaders also emphasized frequent classroom and building visits as fuel for good relationships, seeking input, and gaining perspective.
“The only time leadership should be lonely is when you are taking the blame,” Cornell said. “Leadership should be a crowded endeavor. Be there in the space where the work is actually happening. Be there to appreciate it, not to evaluate it.”
Know thyself—and make sure others know you
It’s important for principals and superintendents to evaluate and communicate their own needs and priorities for their working relationship, Tate said. That can help leaders avoid reacting emotionally or unproductively when an interaction or a situation doesn’t fit their vision.
“You have to decide what’s going to be loose and what’s going to be tight,” Tate said. “What are some things you can live with and what are some things that just have to be a certain way?”
Knowing those priorities can help a principal to both “serve and be served,” Tate said, and it can give principals and superintendents tools to avoid feeling like they are on opposing teams.
For superintendents, it’s also important to communicate how larger initiatives and proposals connect to the priorities of building leaders, who are often focused on the most practical effects. For example, district leaders should be prepared to answer very clearly how priorities like professional development on racial equity will positively affect student achievement.
“If we don’t see the connection between this theoretical talk and actually making a difference in the classroom, it’s really hard to get the buy-in of people who are working directly with youth,” Sabbah said.
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