January 6, 2019

Do you sometimes wonder what the “pulse” of your school district is? Have you ever been blindsided by a problem and asked yourself, “How did I miss that?”. Everyone who has been a superintendent in a rural school has asked themselves that question at some point. Incorporate the following leadership hacks into your routine and you will not have to ask yourself that question as often.

Visit an elementary, middle school and high school classroom. The simple act of soaking in the classroom with the learners is soul enriching. Observing a teacher who is a master at their craft will humble you and motivate you at the same time. Humble you to because you will think “how’d they do that” and motivate you to support the teacher even more. Participating in the instruction in the classroom is the ultimate experience. When I was a superintendent, I had a “safe place” in one elementary school. It was a first-grade classroom and every time I went in there I walked out a better person and superintendent.

Write something. Write anything! The most powerful public relations tool for a rural superintendent is….wait for it…YOU! You know the heartbeat of the district and everything that is going on. Write a community update about what you learned in the classrooms on Monday. Start a blog and share with the community what is happening in the district and what you think about the current state of education. Start a monthly newsletter that key community members will receive. Let them know how the school district is positioned to help the learners and the community. How about writing an article on an important issue the school district is grappling with and calling your local newspaper and ask them to publish it. That would be awesome!

Go down to the local eatery (you know, the one where all of the elders in the community go to have coffee in the morning) and sit down and learn. My experience is that the town elders will have no problem sharing their opinions about the school and your performance. You also have a chance to influence the “story arc” on particular issues they are sharing with you. Facts still count for something and this is your opportunity to insert facts into the community conversation.

Go visit the leaders in your school (principals, supervisors, teachers) and ask them one question, “What can I do in the next 30 days to make your job easier?”. By doing this, you are showing your leaders that you care about them and want to help them grow. A great ancillary benefit for you is how much you will learn about what they believe are important aspects of their jobs. If they are honest with you, they will ask you to help them in areas where inefficiencies of their job prevent them from becoming their best self. As you have these conversations, keep track of the responses. If you hear similar requests from all of the leaders you interacted with then you know you have a systemic issue that you must address.

Arrive at a school 30 minutes before the teachers and students and walk around. You will find custodians and kitchen staff preparing for the day…talk to them, ask them how they are preparing for the morning rush of kids. You can also talk with the “early bird” teachers who come in early to prepare for the day. A few minutes before the first bus arrives, park yourself at the front door and greet the kids as they come in the school. I look back at those times when I greeted students as they came into the school as some of the most rewarding of my career. In one instance, shortly after we lifted the “no cell phone” rule across the district, students walked by me on their phones smiling and shaking their head at me as if they were saying, “You can’t do anything!”. I just laughed…it was great.

There you go, rural superintendent. One action a day that will help you stay connected with the people in your school district. Please leave questions or comments in the comment box below.

About the author 

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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