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Posts Tagged ‘Superintendent’

This is the third in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

Before doing this research, I definitely had some pretty clear ideas on the experience levels of the 60 BC school superintendents.  I had assumed most superintendents had at least five years in their current job, and had between 10-15 years of experience in their districts.  I was very wrong on both counts.

Fifty-nine percent of BC superintendents are in their first five years in their current job. This high percentage is stunning. While there may have been a particularly high turnover in recent years, having such a high percentage of superintendents new to their job offers a huge challenge and opportunity in support for these leaders.  The narrative I often have heard is that rapid superintendent turnover is an American phenomenon and Canadians superintendents tend to spend far longer in their positions.  The data does not support this.

While the study did not look at the reasons for such a high rate of change in the last five years, given the level of experience of superintendents when most assume the position, it is likely that many superintendents retire out of the job in under five years. Those who support superintendents, including universities, boards, and their own association, must recognize the high level of newness in the group and the need for ongoing support and mentoring.

I assumed that many superintendents had experiences similar to mine, which would have seen them move into the district in a board role and advance to the superintendency, thus often having between six and 15 years of experience in their current district. The data shows that almost three-quarters of BC superintendents fall into two categories—they are either in their first five years in the district, which likely means they moved into the district to become superintendent or have more than 16 years of experience which likely means they grew up through the system in their district from teacher to school administrator to district administrator and superintendent.

There are likely very different kinds of supports required for superintendents who are newcomers to a school district compared to educators who have spent their career in a district and move into the position.  For those new to a district, there is an entire culture to learn on top of a new job, while those who advance in the same district have the experience of redefining themselves in a new role as a key challenge.  This career trajectory for superintendents is important for the Superintendents’ Association and Ministry of Education to understand as they support their leaders.

The level of experience of BC superintendents was largely unsurprising. Most superintendents have worked from 16–35 years in the system. It is interesting to see that nine of the leaders have worked for more than 35 years. Educators reach their full pension at 35 years in BC, so it is often discussed that there is little financial incentive for them to continue working beyond this point.

One regret in this part of the research was not asking for superintendents’ ages, whether they thought this job would be their final job, and how many years they planned to work until they retired. All of this data would be useful for further study to understand the position better. Given the data around experience, one could assume that almost 75% of superintendents definitely plan to retire in the next decade, but it would be useful to have this information more specifically.

While there were striking numbers of new superintendents, their experience with how they spent their time was not much different from their more experienced colleagues. In looking at 33 management and leadership tasks, the level of involvement of superintendents in their first five years was largely the same as those who were more experienced.  Whether it is human resources, facilities or student services, the differences between the level of direct involvement from superintendents in their first five years and those more experienced was minimal.

It was noteworthy in looking at the time new superintendents reported spending each week on educational leadership that four of the five who indicated they spent more than 21 hours a week were in their first five years, and 10 of 14 who spent at least 16 hours a week were in their first five years. This data may indicate a shift in the type of people being hired into the superintendency that are more focused on making time each week for educational leadership related activities, or it may indicate that superintendents early in their tenure invest more time in educational leadership activities.

Of all the data in the survey, learning that so many of the BC superintendents are in their first five years is something that really stands out.  There are real needs to support a group of superintendents who are often new to districts and where over half of those in positions are new to them in the last five years. Superintendent recruitment and retention is an ongoing issue. It is also worthy of further study to learn more about the commitment of less experienced superintendents to educational leadership activities and whether this potential trend indicates any changes in the focus of educators being hired into the position.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the struggle superintendents have between being a community leader and an educational leader.

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This is the second in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

It won’t surprise anyone that the size of a school district impacts the work of the superintendent.  It is true in likely almost any organization, the smaller the organization the more hands-on the boss is in the daily work.   

While BC has 60 school districts, they have a tremendous range in student populations. Two districts, Surrey and Vancouver, combine for a greater student population than the combined population of more than 50% of the other 58 school districts in British Columbia.  The 60 districts range in populations from a few hundred students to more than 70,000 students.  As an example of the diversity, the Stikine School District (School District 87) has fewer than 300 students in an area of over 80,000 square kilometers—twice the size of Switzerland.

It seems that providing all 60 superintendents with the same support when their populations are so different is a poor idea. Superintendents in the smaller districts regularly commented in the study that they had to take on a greater number of roles, as there are just not enough staff to take the different responsibilities. Often, superintendents of the smallest school districts described a job that seemed completely different from those of the larger school districts.  In many ways, it seemed as those the superintendents in the study were reporting on two different jobs – those done by superintendents in the largely urban, higher student population school districts and those done by superintendents in the largely rural, lower student population school districts.

In looking at 33 management and leadership tasks, my study confirmed what other researchers had found before, the unsurprising finding that those in smaller student population districts are more directly involved in the daily operations than their large student population colleagues. In mapping the data though, it was not as simple as plotting all 60 districts by population and you would see the shift in levels of direct responsibility continuously decline from the smallest to the largest district.  

Superintendents with student populations below 6,000 and particularly below 2,000 students had higher levels of direct involvement in tasks, but above 6,000 students, there was not very much difference. Superintendents of districts with between 6,000 and 10,000 students reported a lower level of direct responsibility than each of the three higher population categories.

Superintendents in districts of 2000 students or fewer averaged 2.77 on their level of involvement on the 33 management and leadership tasks (this is based on a 4 point scale, where a 4 would indicate primary responsibility for all tasks). The next highest were the districts of up to 6,000 students, at 2.48. All of the remaining superintendents in the other four population categories averaged between 2.23 and 2.38. It appears there is a threshold at which superintendents’ direct involvement drops, and then it levels off.

A superintendent of a district with a population of about 8,000 students would likely have the same level of direct involvement in activities as a superintendent of 18,000 or 28,000 students. It seems that at a threshold of about 6,000 students, a district is large enough that it has senior-level staff that can be delegated some of the specific tasks that take place in the board office. The remaining tasks stay with the superintendents as a primary responsibility even in the largest school districts.

Superintendents from smaller districts were far more likely to spend additional hours each week on educational leadership than those from larger districts.  Educational leadership includes tasks like spending time with teachers and administrators focused on learning initiatives, being in classrooms, and supporting the district efforts around curriculum and assessment.  Thirteen of the 14 superintendents who spent at least 16 hours a week on educational leadership related activities were from districts with student populations of no more than 6,000 students. Conversely, three of the six superintendents from the largest districts of more than 22,000 students indicated they spent more than 21 hours a week on average with their Board.

Moreover, superintendents from smaller districts had more time for educational leadership activities than those from larger districts, who often spend a lot of their hours with their board and on governance issues. In the districts of up to 6000 students, 25 of the 31 superintendents reported they spent more than 10 hours a week on educational leadership activities, while only seven of the remaining 28 superintendents in districts with more than 6000 students reported they spent more than 10 hours a week on educational leadership activities.

So, if you want to be a superintendent and spend time on educational leadership, one of the conclusions you could make is that you want to be a superintendent of a school district of with a population of no more than about 6,000 students.  Of course, if you want to be immersed in board governance, one of the large districts may be the right spot for you.   

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the level of experience with BC School Superintendents.  

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This is the first in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

For my study, I surveyed all BC school superintendents, collecting demographic data and information on how they spent their time.  Following the data, I wrote more on gender that I had anticipated I would.  The data showed a real gap in the gender of superintendents, and also a difference in the work that male and female superintendents do in the job.

A critical factor in understanding the work of superintendents is who they are and what experience they bring to the job. And while women occupy a higher share of superintendent positions in BC than in the United States, there is still a dramatic difference between the percentage of female superintendents in British Columbia relative to teachers and principals and vice-principals.

In BC, 64% of school superintendents are men, which is lower than the 76% in the United States but far higher than the percentage of male teachers (25%)  and school administrators (40%). While both teachers and administrators are continuing to become more female-dominated professions, the gender mix of the superintendency has stayed quite consistent for at least a decade. Researching for a blog post in 2011, I found that 67% of superintendents were male, so this gender divide is basically unchanged in a decade.  Of the 60 school districts in BC, 21 had female superintendents in the spring of 2021. 

Female superintendents lead some of the smallest districts in BC, 15 of the 21 women head-up districts of 6000 students or fewer. They also lead some of the very largest, as three of the six districts with more than 22,000 students are led by women. However, mid-size school districts seem to lack female leaders, as only three of the 21 districts in size from 6001 – 22,000 students have female superintendents.

In looking at the work of female superintendents, four of the five superintendents in the province that reported spending at least 21 hours a week on educational leadership related issues were women. In American literature on school and district leaders, female leaders were far more likely to have a background in teaching or curriculum. This background may help explain the time female superintendents spend on the topic.

Considering time with their Board, five of the seven BC superintendents that spent at least 21 hours a week on governance were also female. It would be worth further exploration to consider why female superintendents were more likely to spend higher numbers of hours both on curriculum and on governance related issues than their Board.

For the research, all BC school superintendents were surveyed for their level of involvement in 33 management and leadership tasks – everything from purchasing and busing to facilities decisions to interactions with governments.  Superintendents scored their direct involvement on a four point scale.

Female superintendents were slightly more likely to be involved in the 33 leadership and management tasks than male superintendents, with an average score of 2.59 versus 2.45 for males (on a 4-point scale in which a 4.0 would mean they had primary responsibility in all areas). However, with female superintendents occupying the position in many of the province’s smallest districts, the district population could also be the driver, not gender, for their higher level of involvement. It is true that, on average in BC, female superintendents have more direct involvement in leadership and management tasks and are more likely than their male counterparts to spend 21 hours a week or more with their board and on educational leadership activities.

There are real opportunities to understand better how more women can move into the superintendency. Tom Glass, writing for the AASA in 2000 on the US experience, argued, “The two most widely cited reasons for the paucity of women in the superintendency are that women are discouraged from preparing for the superintendency and school boards will not hire them”. It would be useful to understand if American experiences for females aspiring to the superintendency are similar in British Columbia. Further exploration would also be needed to understand the findings that such a high number of female superintendents are the heavy time spenders with boards and on educational leadership.

If our teaching staff and principal and vice-principal pools are becoming increasingly female, it is important for organizations like the those who support superintendents and the Ministry of Education to look at how they can ensure females are supported into the superintendency.  And I was left with other questions, like why are women superintendents in the smallest and largest districts but not in the mid-sized districts?  Why do female superintendents spend more time in a week both with their boards and on curriculum and instruction than their male counterparts?  While not data collected in my study, is there ethnic and racial diversity in the female superintendent pool (for that matter the superintendency in general) in BC?  If the pool of candidates (teachers and administrators) is increasingly female will this change the make-up of the superintendency?

There is a lot of useful American literature looking at gender and the superintendency.  My research has nothing truly profound to say to answer the question why there are not more female superintendents or what we should do about it (that was not within the scope of the research).  It does seem clear that the public dialogue about gender and the superintendency in the United States is one that we should also be having in British Columbia and Canada.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the impact of student populations on the work of the superintendent.  

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This post is a duplicate of the article in the  AASA – February 2021 School Administrator Magazine.  

The issue (here) is dedicated to the shift to remote schooling.

It was mid-March, and suddenly everything around us was closing. Our school district had entered spring break with a foreboding sense we might not come back in two weeks, but it was still a little surreal. 

Suddenly everything was moving quickly – national borders were closing, toilet paper was flying off the store shelves and general panic was setting in. People kept asking, what about schools? I knew I needed to say something. I thought writing about curriculum reform or budget planning seemed poorly timed and I didn’t have any certainty to bring to the fate of schools after spring break.

So, instead, I wrote a blog post about my cancelled Hawaiian vacation. I shared a more personal story about how we were trying to take a rare family vacation in our oldest daughter’s 12th-grade year before she left for college. In the end, we tried to salvage some sense of festiveness as we enjoyed pineapple and macadamia nuts on our rainy back patio.  

 

Human Touch

Thousands of people read the post and dozens commented and then shared their stories, empathized with our family’s challenges, and otherwise just connected. It was a reminder that people do not just read our blogs to learn about education. At its core our blogs are about connection. And in times of uncertainty, district superintendents are among those people in our communities look toward for guidance, advice and reassurance.    

 In the hundreds of posts I have written, two of the most common responses I get from colleagues are “how do you find the time?” and “that seems like a lot of work.” And even as you have read dozens of articles over the last decade in School Administrator magazine and elsewhere, the number of superintendent bloggers is relatively low.

As we look to a post-pandemic world that will differ from our world before, it finally might be the right time to start.  

 

Time to Proceed

Let me suggest five reasons why now is the time for a superintendent to be blogging.  

  • People are looking to connect on a human level. Our families are “Zoomed” out. Many of our students and families have spent large parts of their lives over the past 10 months in their homes and with limited contacts. Our blogging as school district leaders can humanize us and our work. We are facing the same challenges as our families and doing our best to make decisions that are unprecedented. 

 

  • Old communication channels have disappeared. Before last March, I could speak to parents at a school or to the Rotary Club or various other venues. Large gatherings do not exist right now, and they may never come back in the same way. We need to have our channels of communication to connect directly with our community.

 

  • Our school system is changing fast. Regardless of your delivery model this fall and winter, we have made changes in weeks or months that would normally take years. Constant communication with our parents is crucial to understand the what, the why and the how of all the different ways learning is continuing.

 

  • We can offer certainty in a world of uncertainty. With so much confusion and change in our world, superintendents are looked to by the community to be honest brokers of information. We can use our social capital to keep our community onside with how school changes fit into larger global changes.

 

  • Our kids need models, so why not us? I am pretty sure all students across North America are writing more online than they were one year ago. This is probably not going to change anytime soon. If we say we want our children to be learning to engage in this world, we can help model the way.

 

Digital Presence

When I started blogging 10 years ago, it was a bit of a novelty. Now as we start 2021, the urgency seems greater. The world is changing, and the tools we use are changing. What a great time for us to lead the way in this digital space.

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To the Grads of 2020

This has definitely been a different kind of year.  Here is a video of my message to the grads of 2020 with the script below.  Congratulations again to all our graduates!

It is my pleasure to bring congratulatory greetings to our graduating class of 2020. 

If I were giving this speech in February, I would have expected great cheers for being the Superintendent who gave you 2 snow days in your grade 12 year!  Of course, there can be too much of a good thing, and I am sorry that the final three months of this thirteen-year journey were not in school with your friends and your teachers.

I know Mr. Rauh, Mr. Anderson, Ms. Tanfara, and the staff at West Vancouver wish the same.  I am glad we are all virtually here together to share this occasion.

Like everyone else in our province, under the guidance of Dr. Henry, you have totally nailed this social distancing thing and here we are to celebrate the full 13 years of experiences.

You are graduating at an anxious time in our world, but also at a very exciting time.  You can feel the social change that is sweeping British Columbia, Canada, and the World, and it is being led by the young.

I have seen this in the last few years as you led the changes around sexual orientation and gender identity – you told us it was ridiculous that adults were debating about bathrooms, you told us you wanted to learn more about Indigenous history particularly the Squamish Nation, and then this past fall you joined millions of students across the world to make the case for prioritizing the health of our planet, and just in the last few weeks, many of you have reached out to me directly and told me that Black Lives Matter and we all need to do a better job of anti-racism education.  I hear you.  We all hear you.  And I am excited to be part of a world which you, the graduates of 2020 will help shape and lead.  You will be the ones to protect our planet and change our world. 

In this grad class we have graduates about to embark on post-secondary careers across Canada, North America, and the world. 

No pressure – but West Vancouver graduates are difference makers.  Whether it is in government, the social sector or with our highest performing companies, one rarely has to look far to find West Vancouver grads.  And me, your teachers, and really all of all us are counting on you – to be unwaveringly committed to a strong public education system – the system that has served us all well and is the answer to the question about how we build a better world.

I know students that you and your parents have options – so thank you for your faith, trust and commitment to public education in West Vancouver.

While many often talk about how slowly education shifts, and how your schooling largely resembles that of your parents – you are leaving a very different system than you entered.  You leave a school and a school system that is digitally rich, that is focused on allowing you to follow your passions, a school system that embraces problem solving and student ownership. 

At its core, our schools, your experiences, have been rooted in the connections you have made with fellow students and teachers.  We are blessed to have an amazing teaching force.  Of course, they have outstanding training and always looking to improve their teaching – I am sure very few had ever had a Google Hangout before April.  Our teachers see teaching as a way of life – far more than a job.  You know that from the teams they coach, to the productions they plan to the extra help they give you with homework or helping you navigate life.

And it is their relationships with you and your relationships with each other than are defining of the high school experience.  It is these that will endure and be the stories you tell years from now – about people and events.  The content of courses will fade but how you felt will stay with you.

While personalization and specialization have their place, we have tried to offer a well-rounded education – so do not let this go.  Yes English, socials, science and math matter.  But just as much do drama, music, art, and athletics.  Aristotle was right when he said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

I know we have graduates who will forever talk about their food class with Ms. Seo, their IB discussions with Mr. Capier, or playing volleyball for Mrs. Finch.  Hold these memories tightly.

It is a unique bond you have.  The grads of the COVID year. 

Decades from now, you will tell stories unlike those of any graduates before or likely after.  Embrace this.  Graduating is a big achievement under any circumstances but that is particularly true this year.

It is an amazing honour I have to be Superintendent of this school district – a jurisdiction like no other in our country. My thanks to your parents for their support, to your teachers for their dedication and to you for enriching our school and community.

All the best for a wonderful graduation.

Go and chart our path forward.

Stay safe.

Thank You. 

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When you do a lot of speaking and writing, at some point your own words will come back to bite you.

I have often used a sports coach analogy when speaking about the superintendency.  The argument being that like sports coaches, no matter how good they are, superintendents very often have a shelf life.  And at some point change is necessary and it is far easier to change the coach than the players.  It is an argument that is often made more generally around school administrators as well – that there is a term – somewhere about 5 years which is the right length of service for any school.

It is always interesting to see data around the superintendency out of the United States where in many urban districts the position can turn over every few years.  While I do not have Canadian data, I suspect the tenure of the average superintendents is much longer.   We seem to have less of the “sports coach” mentality north of the border. Perhaps disappointing those on both sides of the argument, the research out of the Brown Center on Educational Policy  suggests neither long-term superintendency nor the hiring of a new superintendent have a link to improved student achievement.

I am writing this post as we are bringing the 2016-17 school-year to an end.  This marks my 10th year in West Vancouver, here in the position of Superintendent that I was appointed to more than seven-and-a-half years ago, and have held for six-and-a-half years.  Along the way I have become the longest-serving Superintendent in Metro Vancouver and one of the longest-serving in the province.

And I have changed my tune.  I am far less absolute about the sports coach analogy.  Maybe this is a case of you don’t know what you don’t know.  I do find a need to ensure we are continuing to have a culture that embraces fresh ideas but there are other ways to do that than just changing the Principal or Superintendent.  I know for us some things that have helped keep ideas current and the challenging of the status quo constant have included:  hiring of a mix of internal and external candidates for leadership position,  using outside experts to provoke our thinking in our district, continuing to visit schools and districts with unique programs and ideas, and staying very focused on the overarching goals of the Board’s Strategic Plan and our own objectives within this larger context.

There is a definite danger in complacency that we need to continually challenge over time.  When a new principal arrives at a school or a new Superintendent in a district, there is a burst of energy.  Whether the predecessor was highly regarded or the community was glad to see a change, the change brings curiosity, which in turn often leads to engagement and excitement.  Of course change is not the only way to bring about this energy.  I often hear from staff at the school and district levels that they can “wait out” any leader as they just come and go.  When the culture of leadership changes, so does this attitude.  I think of several schools of ours where principals have been in the school for five or more years – no longer is there talk about “outlasting” them – some of the cynicism is gone and people are getting down to work together.

In the beginning one of my greatest positives I offered was that I was from outside and came with ideas about different ways of doing things.  Now, 10 years in, I bring the assurances that come from people knowing who I am, what I believe and how I think we can move forward together.  It is also incredibly rewarding to not only start initiatives, but to see them through.  Longevity helps ensure we are committed to short-term and long-term results.

I am a little nervous in writing this, that some will read it that I am about to leave or perhaps I will never leave.  I have no plans either way, but my thinking has evolved.  I have come to realize there are more ways to ensure a district stays fresh than reshuffling the leadership deck chairs.

Finally, on the topic of year-end, here is  a video celebrating the 2016-17 school year in West Vancouver:

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sculptureIt is interesting what stands out in one’s mind years later.

I was thinking this past weekend about a talk I heard Chris Kelly, the then Superintendent of Richmond School District, give at the BCPVPA Short Course about 15 years ago. The BCPVPA Short Course is generally for new administrators. At the time, I was an aspiring vice-principal.

Chris brought to the podium a kinetic chrome figurine like the one above. I remember these as popular at the time, a regular “executive” gift for one to put on their desk.  They were the kind of figurines that you had to carefully balance one part on the other, or it would fall.   Chris said it was one shared with him by a principal in his school district.

He used the sculpture to talk about the balancing act of leadership.  As someone just entering the school vice-principalship at the time, I am reminded of the phrase, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Chris spoke about the great balancing act of school and district leadership – with so many competing interests – the Ministry, the District, parents, teachers, students, and others.  And the amazing diversity of the work, one minute you can be talking about reading strategies with a teacher, the next you are thrown in the midst of a parent squabble related to custody, then you are off to support the music production, and the next you are disciplining students for smoking on school property.  The good leaders are those who are able to keep it all in balance.

That talk and that notion has stuck with me for fifteen years.  I was used to teaching in my classroom, and there were largely defined start and end times to work – classes were built around a bell schedule and my work was largely defined by lessons, units and courses.  The biggest shift I found moving into school administration is that work was rarely “done”.  At some point one has to leave it where it is, and pick it up tomorrow.  I have found this continue in district leadership.

As a teacher, I could often be very concrete with the answer, “So what did you do today?”  As a school, and now district administrator,  I find this more difficult.  It is not that there is not a lot of work, or that one is not making a difference, there is just a lot that is ongoing.  There seems to be a lot more that does not tie-up nicely.  I find there is a continual ongoing nature of the topics, whether they are parent concerns, budget recommendations, curriculum implementation or ongoing working with the Board.

I look at the variety of tasks that our school administrators complete, and look at what my own days looks like – and diverse would be an understatement.  Chris’ notion of balance is still very much alive for me.  I often think positions like the one I currently have are like being a juggler at the circus, working to make sure all the balls stay in the air.

Our best leaders in schools and districts are able to balance all of these priorities without ever looking “busy”.  They always have time for a question, rarely look rushed or flustered, and recognize that each encounter, no matter how significant it is for them, might be pivotal for the person they are interacting with.

I often think of Chris’ chrome balancing figurine.  It feels like the story of my life – an endless balancing act.

 

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Social-Network-Stock-PhotoThis post is a copy of an article in this month’s School Administrator Magazine

“When you hire me, you don’t just get me, you get my network.”

At least, that’s what I argued four years ago when I interviewed for the superintendency.

An hour prior to the start of the interview with the board of education trustees, I was given a question. And without hesitation, I was on my computer sharing the question on Twitter.

Over the next several minutes, I fielded a dozen responses from my network. There were a few quotable quotes, some links to helpful research on the Internet and a couple of “good luck” wishes. I took their thinking, blended it with my own and put together a presentation. Although the school board might have been curious about what I thought, I figured they were probably more interested in knowing I could find the best thinking, synthesize the ideas, contextualize them for our location and then share them in a thoughtful way — all in a timely manner.

Had I attempted this just a year prior, I may have been asked to leave the interview, or even been accused of cheating. It shows how quickly our world is shifting — what might have been considered disingenuous or even cheating a decade ago is now considered effective professional networking.

Since that interview, I have only become more reliant on my network, both in the face-to-face form and in the digital world.

The Network’s Power
The value of a strong network is nothing new, and social media serves to extend the reach of that network. Now, more than ever, it is not just what you know but who you know.

Traditionally, our personal and professional networks included the people with whom we went to high school or college or with whom we work and engage on a daily basis. These networks now extend globally. Social media allows us to build diverse networks with those in similar roles, across different segments of the community that have an interest in education. We not only get to connect with those we agree with but build a network that transcends the echo chamber we sometimes can detect in our daily connections.

Certainly, traditional structures where we gather in role-alike groups still exist — there are sessions for teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and the community, and sometimes we bring these groups together. Online, the roles tend to blur, and it is the ideas that become the focus, with the most current thinking and range of views. Tremendous power is available in being able to ask a question and engage so many in the answer.

District leaders can (and do) build networks across North America to learn from and with educators, such as Michael Smith, superintendent in Tuscola, Ill.; Pam Moran, superintendent in Albemarle County, Va.; Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent in Burlington, Mass.; and the hundreds of other district leaders who publicly share their ideas through social media.

Model the Way
We are continually encouraging our teachers and students to embrace digital tools. Leaders have a role to play in modeling their use, as well. We want students to take the risks in their learning and not to be afraid to make a mistake. Increasingly, we want them to engage with the real world, to own their learning and to create content for the digital world. We can help by modeling all of this.

True, social media can be daunting for school district leaders — the technology is new, and there are many waiting to pounce on any misstatement. This, though, is the world we want our kids to participate in.

What we can do is model the integrity, honesty, compassion and care in this space that we would want all others in our community to show. Our blogs as superintendents can lead to principals blogging, to teachers blogging and to students blogging. Our participation can model for others in our organization the power of the tools and also serve as the example for others to follow. Our participation does model the engagement we want for our communities in the serious issues of teaching and learning and does so in a respectful and appreciative way. District leaders can move (and model) beyond talking about it and start being about it.

Admittedly, I find blogging scary. I do it every week, but every time I hit “publish,” I worry I may have committed a spelling mistake for the world to see or said something that will be misconstrued or gotten my facts blatantly wrong. I have been in schools as a student and educator for about 35 years; I can only imagine the stress students must sometimes feel when they put themselves out there publicly — and it is also good for me to understand this.

Real and Connected
The superintendency often is seen as a role disengaged and detached from the reality of classrooms and schools. Social media can change that perception.

I clearly recall one angry parent who came to see me with a concern about a decision made about his child at one of our elementary schools. He explained his situation and ended by saying, “And I trust your opinion on this. I have read your blog and know you have four kids in school, so you obviously understand what it is like to be a parent.” In a way, my blog validated my credibility, not because of anything I had said, but because it helped to make me more real.

Social media engagement also allows leaders to keep tabs on what is being said in the community and elsewhere about your school or district. One can follow students, teachers, parents, media, politicians and others and then engage with them. Often, what is in the newspaper tomorrow or the day after is being discussed on social media today. The community wants to know what the superintendent thinks, and blogging lets us do this on our own terms.

Our Own Words
There are many people who are happy to provide a version of what the superintendent thinks and says. The local news media often paraphrase the remarks of the superintendent, as do union leaders and others in the community. Social media allows us a platform to connect directly with the community to tell our story. Instead of lamenting that our stories are not told factually and fully and that the only news reported is bad news, we can change that — by telling our own stories through social media.

The proliferation of social media had led to more public gossiping than ever. By the same token, the use of social media can help us reach our community unfiltered. I know my blog posts — typically two to four a month — influence the watercooler conversations in our schools. When I wanted our district to engage in a conversation about final exams, a blog post on the topic laying out some of the positives and negatives helped guide the conversation.

The profile and political nature of our job and the relationship with the school board and government officials all can give pause. I am careful and clear about the areas I discuss in social media and those I don’t. My focus is on teaching and learning. While I spend time discussing budgets and labour contracts with our board, those are issues for them to speak about publicly.

While others will gladly say what we believe if we let them, social media does help break down some of the traditional barricades to reaching the people we want to teach. It also can humanize us and allow us to share our thoughts and stories in our own words.

Professional Benefits
Professional learning and development for educators used to be scarce. Educators depended on monthly magazines, professional journals and occasional conferences. Now phenomenal resources are available just one or two clicks away.

While school districts’ physical boundaries remain well-defined, when it comes to professional learning, the district geography is blurry and becoming ever-less important. We are finding ways to connect and engage online that have little to do with geography. And just what can you find online? Without question, another superintendent in another school district is wrestling with the same issues you are dealing with.

My digital professional network has enhanced my face-to-face network. At last year’s AASA National Conference on Education, I connected with many colleagues I had known only digitally until then. I have found a common trend that I connect with people online and then meet them and then continue online — the combination of both digital and face-to-face connections has made these relationships far stronger than those I know exclusively online or in person.

Through Twitter and blogs, I have discovered we can connect with others in the field, solve problems, and open ourselves up to new ideas and learning.

Doors to Opportunity
Social media opens up opportunities. It gives space to highlight the work in our school districts. Each week I am sharing the best practices and programs I see in our schools — from teachers using inquiry, to students being able to self-regulate to maximize learning, to schools using digital devices. And then we can connect this work across the district and around the world.

Being engaged also opens up personal opportunities — from speaking and consulting opportunities to first insight on job openings. Social media means you have the power of your network to bring to any future job.

Anyone who sees participation in social media as another demand on an already full schedule hasn’t yet discovered the power that participation can have. None of us is truly too busy to blog, tweet or otherwise engage in social media. If we aren’t doing it, we just haven’t yet realized why it should be a priority.

West Vancouver is a school district of just over 7,000 students in British Columbia, Canada. But through involvement and engagement of our staff in social media, we are known around the world.

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I find one of my important jobs is getting the ‘tension’ right between schools and the district. Tension is often a word with negative connotations, but it provides a necessary balance throughout the system. People look at me questioningly when I acknowledge and even encourage healthy tension between competing interests (but we are all teammates in the bigger picture).  At each hierarchical level, whether provincial government, school district, school or classroom, there needs to be autonomy to be innovative and creative to meet specific needs. But, the work must be connected because we are more than a collection of independent contractors and a sum of ideas. I described some of this in a previous post on flexibility.

When faced with a topic or issue, I regularly consider if something is primarily a school focus or a district decision.  There are many issues that districts should simply stay out of, and leave to schools who are more nimble and quicker to make changes as required.  Further, for new initiatives to take hold, they often come from passionate teachers, schools or communities and not from a district decree.

Schools tend to look at issues through the lens of the school first and foremost; a district takes a more global view of the school district as a whole and, as a district leader, this is the perspective I take, for example, when a school wants to start a new program.  The case is often made “how it is right for the community,” and I then take into consideration the impact the new program would have on other schools and the district as a whole. Some programs that have been suggested would have done very well, but would have also moved student populations and emptied out other schools — good for the school but bad for the district.  It is also very easy in a district job to think we know best and make more decisions centrally (but we would NEVER want the provincial government to do that with school districts).  There are other times where the district can help transform a community by suggesting the consideration of a new program.  The placement of programs like French Immersion, for example, are often crucial ones for a district to make as they look at the larger view of community interests and population trends.

As a principal, the ‘tension’ was in wanting to be encouraging of innovation, but also wanting to ensure, as a school, we were moving in a common direction.  As a district leader, the ‘tension’ is more in trying to set direction for the district but giving the freedom and flexibility to schools to each have their own “signature” one that is informed but rarely prescribed by the District.

I will often talk about our commitment to inquiry, self-regulation, social-emotional learning and digital literacy.  And, at each school, these ideas will take on different shapes and direction. I use this blog and other opportunities to engage, discuss and draw connections between the different approaches to the same larger goals.  All our schools develop their own narrative, but they are part of a bigger story.  Similarly, I feel that our district is part of a larger provincial story – one of a highly achieving system looking towards where it needs to go next.

I have often heard teachers and administrators say of their districts “I don’t know where we are going.” Hopefully, I am finding ways to be clear about where we are going, but not prescribing a single narrow path to get there. I will continue to consider whether we are getting the ‘tension’ right.

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fish

I often speak and write about how the principalship and the superintendency need to look different in the era of social media. And, while it can be difficult to distill  ideas to a few key points, a recent post from Brian Verhoeven does a great job of summarizing what that leadership looks like, and while the post was not specific about schools or school systems, I think the messages are right on for our system.

Verhoeven’s post summarizes a discussion by authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant of Humanize:  How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.  The messages and the five key points about what makes a good organizational leader are very straightforward (my own thoughts are added below each point):

1.  They provide clear direction.

This list rings true for our education system.  Districts should set direction for schools, schools set direction for classes, and then leaders should step back and not micro-manage.  This action allows staff autonomy to find their own solutions, with superintendents and principals providing clarity of direction, and not necessarily all the answers.

2.  They use positive language when things change. They embrace change.

Principals and superintendents are often regarded and turned to in times of change, whether the changes are from government, in demographics, or in our understanding of teaching and learning, we always need to be out front and curious, with change not for the sake of change, but for different and better.

3.  They are transparent and share information freely.

The era of control is over, or almost over.  In the era of the instant, spending time thinking about “managing the message” has passed.  There is an expectation of timeliness and that we remove the secretive nature of the work.  Information is just that; the job of leaders it to make sense and direction of that information.

4.  They reinforce the value of experimentation—even failure.

The quote I often use, borrowed from a former colleague in Coquitlam, is that “you don’t have to be sick to get better.”  For us, in the West Vancouver school district, it is the notion and practice of a ‘culture of yes’, of thoughtful experimentation, and risk-taking, knowing we do not move forward unless we leave our comfort zone.  The best school and district leaders are supportive of staff and students taking the risk, quick to give praise when it works out, but just as quick to shelter those taking risks from criticism when it doesn’t.

5.  They talk aloud sharing their rationale and understanding with the team. They leverage the expertise of others to help them solve the tough problems.

Although the final decision is often made by one, along the way there are huge opportunities to leverage the brainpower of the room (whether that be a physical or digital room) to help ensure the best decisions are made. And, with such powerful and accessible networks, we would be remiss not to take advantage of this opportunity to make the best possible decisions.

A very straightforward, five-point list. Yes, but a very effective way of showing what we need today in educational leadership.

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