15 Tips For New Superintendents

Being a public school superintendent is the hardest job I’ve ever witnessed or experienced. It is enormously complicated. The politics are personal and multilayered. It can be the best and worst job in the world on the same time. There is no role where an individual can have more influence over the future of a community–how it thinks about itself and its future–than being a public school superintendent.

If you’re new to the job or know someone who is, here are 15 tips for your first few months.

First 90 Days: Create Impressions

  1. Make good first impressions–as many as possible. Meet as many people before and during the first 90 days as possible. Visit every school and classroom (if possible). If you want your students to have a growth mindset, you should model it in your first 90 day meetings.
  1. Assess your leadership team. Make any obvious changes as first steps toward building a high trust, high capacity team.
  1. Hone your personal narrative–where you come from, what you’re doing there, what animates you, what you value–you’ll have a hundred opportunities to share it during your first 90 days.
  1. Open your political capital bank account and make initial deposits. Join the chamber board. Find and support parent groups and leaders. Begin building parent and business support–political capital deposits.
  1. Create transparency and candor about what’s working and what could be better–do it online, in person and in writing. Invite people inside and outside the system to tell you the truth.
  1. Think hard about a couple symbolic acts that let the community know who you are and what you’re about–fire someone who undermines shared values (you know that guy), fix a problem, build a bridge. This is your chance to begin building reliable hope.
  1. Remain open but signal a few priorities early. Don’t wait to harvest low hanging fruit.

Second 90 Days: Agenda Setting

  1. Adopt as much of the old stuff as possible. Continuity counts.
  1. Clarify roles and goals for staff members–particularly principals and support service departments. Make resources allocation and decision making crystal clear.
  1. Hold community conversations that yield temporary agreements that balance improvement and innovation.
  1. Communicate twice as much as you think you need to–and if you’re missing the empathy gene, find an internal partner that can preview your messaging.
  1. Find and leverage teacher leaders. Break your change strategy into projects. Use management of strategic projects to reward and test emerging leaders.
  1. Build a broad dashboard, measure what matters even if it’s hard. If you rely solely on test scores to measure progress, your community will too.
  1. During the inevitable barrage of criticism, remember it’s probably not about you, it’s about the job. Take care of your family, it’s harder on them than it is on you.
  1. On the hardest days, go visit a classroom. Be with kids. Remember they are why you are doing the work.

Managers execute where they are. Leaders transport groups to places they’ve never been. Good superintendents build teams that do both.

For more, see:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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