4 Mantras Superintendents Use to Give Themselves Permission to be Pioneers in Education

The duties of a superintendent can easily overwhelm a person. Most superintendents start as teachers working with students every day in their classroom. The progression from the classroom to the boardroom includes many stops along the way. In my case, I became a high school guidance counselor then a high school principal before I accepted my first superintendency. I know a lot of people who were assistant principals, curriculum directors, technology directors, business managers and assistant superintendents before they took the mantle of a superintendent. All of these positions are fraught with their own difficulties and require distinct skill sets to assure success. No matter which path a leader takes on their journey to a superintendency, from the first day you are in the seat you understand that the buck stops with you. If one is not careful, you find yourself becoming the best fireman in the world, putting out fires throughout the district and forgetting the magic you felt when you were in the classroom. Oftentimes superintendents do not give themselves permission to think beyond the immediate fires they have to put out. After all, if they do not hose down the fires, who will? There are four ways a superintendent can give themselves permission to be pioneers in education and not just a fireman.

  1. “Think small, get big”
    “Think small, get big” was a saying that Herb Kelleher the founder of Southwest Airlines would preach to his company. He believed if you bit off more than you can chew, then you would not give yourself the opportunity to grow. The opposite of “think small, get big” is “think big, get small”. If that is your mantra, then Herb felt that you will lose sight of what is important for your business or organization and you could forget to do the little things that make organizations successful. So, go out in your school district and concentrate on the small things that will lead to your schools becoming successful. Empower the teacher that wants to do something a little different. Invest in an administrator who wants to do something different with a master schedule. No matter how small the change looks at first blush, encourage it and allow it to flourish. Remember, think small and you will get big!
  2. “Chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom”
    Johnny Cash is in the rock and roll hall of fame, the country music hall of fame, the gospel music hall of fame, and the Nashville songwriters hall of fame. He obviously was a musical genius. Johnny built his early career and success around a significant constraint…his band was not that good at the time and were very limited in what they could do musically. The distinctive “chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom” sound that is associated with Johnny Cash is there because that was what the band could perform. Johnny had to create his masterpieces within the constraints of that sound. Superintendents also have constraints within their jobs. Financial and personnel resources may be limited. The culture of the schools or the community may be a hindrance. I could go on and on about the barriers a superintendent may face, but we must remember barriers are there so you can work around them. Be a pioneer and creative within the space you are given. Limitations are often necessary for true creativity to occur. Embrace the constraints, be creative within those constraints and feed your soul and those around you!
  3. “There is no blame”
    Blame is an emotion that will paralyze a leader and an organization. When something goes wrong, or something does not happen the way we think it should, it is easy to look around and lay blame on yourself or other people. A corollary to blame is shame. When we blame ourselves or others a sense of shame occurs. The two work together to prevent a person from doing what shame researcher Brene Brown says is essential…reach out to those around you and talk about what just happened. So, when things happen in your organization that are unexpected and unpleasant, don’t blame yourself or others…gather your team, conduct an after-action meeting and learn from what happened. Actually, take it to the next level and make changes in your organization based on what you have learned. By taking action, you have created a sense of empowerment for you and your team which is the foundation of creative innovation.
  4. “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting”
    Jerry Sternin worked for Save the Children and developed a theory of action called positive deviance (Look for Thursday’s blog for a deeper dive into positive deviance). Jerry and his wife were studying why programs meant to help third world villagers from not becoming malnourished were not working. In essence, his breakthrough was that he studied the outliers in the villages, he asked the families of the children who were not in danger of starving what they were doing to prevent malnutrition. In other words, he studied the positive deviance within the villages. You can do the same thing in your organization. Instead of talking about what innovation or changes you want to make, go out in your schools and find what innovations are already occurring. When you combine this action with the mindset from suggestion #1 above, action occurs. You can build programs and changes from actions that are already occurring within your schools. The best part about this way of thinking is that you do not have all of the pressure to come up with something “brilliant”. Your job is simply to give yourself permission to go out and discover what already exists in your school. Be an anthropologist of your school system!

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About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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