How to Lead a Superintendent Book Study

Today’s post is the first installment in an intermittent series entitled “The Visionary Superintendent”. The goal of the series is to highlight practices that any superintendent can undertake to build capacity within their instructional staff and leadership team. The foundational principle is that educators must take control of the narrative of their profession and design local solutions to local problems.

The first practice to unpack is a book study. A book study is a simple way to broadcast your beliefs about education and the direction you are leading the school district. Book studies are an economical way to build capacity within your staff while at the same time forming a relationship with important members of your staff. I am sharing tips based on my experience as a superintendent and the strategies that were effective for me. More specifically, these book studies were done as part of an entry plan into the school district.

STEP #1 What book (or books) can start a conversation within your district that will help you lead the district?
I suggest books that are meaningful to you and get to the heart of the type of educator and leader you are. In my last stop as a superintendent, I chose two books: The Moral Imperative of School Leadership by Michael Fullan and Inevitable, mass customized learning: learning in the age of empowerment by Chuck Schwahn and Bea McGarvey. The first book allowed me to have conversation around the “higher calling” of public education. I believe deeply that our field is a calling and not a “job” and I always want people that are working for me to understand that about me. The Moral imperative helps frame that conversation. I used the second book to “blow the minds” of the people in the school district. After reading Inevitable, educators will not only think outside the box, they will blow the old box up and ask how to create a new one. I felt this reaction was important for the district I was in at the time and the book helped me lead conversations about the future of learning.

STEP #2 Who will be your audience for a book study?
Do you want to concentrate on the school board, your leadership team, the instructional staff or the community at large? I chose to concentrate on my leadership team with one book just for them (The Moral Imperative of School Leadership) while Inevitable was given to the entire teaching staff and smaller groups of teachers met with me over time to discuss “Reinventing school” based on the book. The best part of having a book study is the books help you start conversations. They set the context for what you want to accomplish.

STEP #3 Plan the book study as if the group is your classroom.
I suggest three hour get-togethers. Most of us have spent time in the classroom. Just think of the book study as your class. As such, plan as if you are teaching a unit of instruction. I used a simple planning strategy where I answered three questions.

  1. What do I want the group to “get” from the book and my time with them? I will write more on this topic in later blogs. However, the point here is that one must be very cognizant of the “walk away” message your staff receives from the book study. I suggest formal (tickets out the door) or informal (conversations) feedback loops to assure your message is clear and understood the way you want it to be.
  2. How will I create a mental “box” in the participant’s brain that the information and content of the book study will be placed? Activating the mental schemata is essential. For example, when discussing Inevitable I always show the Sir Ken Robinson video “Changing the Education Paradigm” followed by a discussion. This created a “box’ or schemata for the rest of the learning to take place. Without this activation, a discussion about “reinventing schools” takes place within everyone’s individual context…not yours. By doing this you are helping them be better participants while also helping you lead quality discussions. I included at least one video (followed by a discussion) EVERYTIME I met with a group. Because they are visual, videos are a great way to shift the thinking in the group in the direction you need it to go. The participants are coming to you worried about their schools, their kids and their personal lives. A quick 12-minute video puts your topic on their “top of mind” and leads to thinking on your discussion topic.
  3. How will I put people at ease when meeting with the superintendent? FEED THEM!!! Breaking bread with people is a simple way to show your appreciation for them while also putting them at ease. Depending on the time of day you meet, purchase good food or snacks. Please do not get a stale box of donuts from the local convenience store…be thoughtful! If you are meeting over lunch, have lunch brought in. (I really liked our cafeteria vendor so I used them a lot, but I did mix it up with outside vendors as well). You will only spend $100 or so per meeting, but the gesture sends a message to the participants that they are important. I have done book studies off site and onsite. I have done most of them onsite because of the convenience and cost factor.

STEP #4 Follow up.
A book study is not an end in and of itself. It is a way to start a conversation that will evolve in your district overtime. At the end of one book study, I asked the participants to invite one of their colleagues to participate in the next round with the same theme of “reinventing school” centered on Inevitable. By doing this I doubled the number of teachers on the staff who interacted with me over multiple meetings so I could understand them and they could understand me.

STEP #5 Have fun!!
I absolutely enjoyed book studies and was reinvigorated every time I organized one. You should have the same experience if you plan your book study thoughtfully. Working with your staff is a privilege…enjoy it! Good Luck!

Please leave your comments about this blog and experiences with book studies in the comment section.

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.
View all posts by Tom Butler, Ph.D. →

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