Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, who has been superintendent of Diamond Lake School District 76 since 2015, hosts a workshop called “What Happens When the School Board Falls Out of Love With You.” It’s based on her experience of clashing with the school board president during a previous stint as a district leader. In an unusual circumstance, board members changed in an election that occurred after she was hired and before her first day on the job.
This meant she went to work for a board that hadn’t hired her–and, she says, the animosity was apparent immediately. For one thing, the board often deferred to her male assistant superintendent. She left that position after two years, realizing “whatever I said or did was not going to be good enough.” Still, Sharma-Lewis says she stuck to her mission of creating positive climates for staff and students. “You have to be aligned with your board, otherwise you’re never going to be successful,” she says.
Sharma-Lewis’ belief in herself is an example of how she and two of her fellow District Administration “Superintendents to Watch” are focused on climate and collaboration to re-envision education’s potential to lift up students, staff and other leaders.
‘This is who I am; this is what I believe’
She also says superintendents need to lead by example with positivity to create a strong culture and climate. Surveys have shown that an overwhelming majority of Diamond Lake staff agree the environment is trusting, respectful and collaborative, she says The district’s teacher retention rate is over 90%. “I also say be unapologetically yourself,” she says. “When I was struggling, I was apologizing for what I was wearing or saying or doing. But I decided I’m not going to apologize–this is who I am, this is what I believe, this is what I look like, this is what I want to wear.”
She has made a priority of “celebrating and elevating” her staff. That means giving them public recognition for their successes, whether those occur in the classroom or in the community connecting with families. “People enjoy coming to work when they feel safe and they feel that they are heard,” she says. “This is their home away from home and we have to make it comfortable, responsive and loving.”
She tells other female educators who aspire to the top spot to be persistent and build relationships with other leaders through networking and professional organizations. But one roadblock is that some boards are reluctant to hire a first-time candidate. There are also some biases that stand in the way of female administrators. “I was a superintendent for curriculum and instruction and boards were concerned. ‘Can she do budgets? Can she do finance?'” she says. “They had me pigeonholed me as being a certain way.”
‘Reframing the idea of success’
The mission of the Maine Township High School District, which curls around the north side of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, is for educators, students and parents to reimagine the purpose of education. That’s because the K-12 system has been overly focused on students getting the right answer and then penalizing them for failure–which is not the way to create lifelong learners, Superintendent Ken Wallace says.
“We are reframing the idea of success–it’s not about how students did in high school, it’s about how they’re doing five years after high school,” Wallace says. “We design schools to punish those who don’t succeed and who don’t succeed right off the bat. If we taught kids to ride bikes that way almost nobody would ride a bike.”
Students are more engaged when the learning process is more like the way people approach video games, Wallace says. They will play for hours on end because the cost of failure is low and they get multiple chances to succeed. “They learn something on level 17 and they can’t wait to get back and apply it on level 18,” Wallace says. “We need to create learning conditions that allow trial and error and embrace being less than perfect.”
That philosophy also applies to the district’s efforts to expand coaching in professional development. An individual coaching plan is developed for each teacher. “We don’t think twice about professional athletes having coaches, and what teachers do is way more complex,” Wallace says. “Coaching has really helped us get a lot better at creating learning conditions for our adults that drive the creation of good learning conditions for students.”
Those learning conditions include allowing students to follow their own passions as they craft courses of study that include a heavy dose of career exploration. The district’s many business partners provide students with internships, job shadowing and other “deep dives” into the workplace. Students are therefore less likely to enroll in college and head down a career path in which they later lose interest, Wallace says.
Students also participate in ROI counseling where they can project their future income and potential for growth. “The old model was, ‘My uncle is an accountant, he does well and he has a nice car, so I’m going to school to be an accountant,’” Wallace says. “Then they go out and get a job in accounting and realize they hate it. We want students to figure that out in high school before committing to go to college.”
Serving as a role model
The fact that more female superintendents have been hired in recent years does not tell the whole story about the gender gap in K-12 leadership, says Terri Bresnahan, who in 2021 became the first female superintendent at Community Consolidated School District 59 after leading another Chicago-area district for six years.
“Nationally, we are seeing an increase in the number of female superintendents,” says Bresnahan, who is also president of the Suburban Superintendents Association. “However, we are still grossly underrepresented in this role.”
What progress has been made is a result, in part, of leadership organizations creating programs and events specifically for female educators holding or aspiring to the role. The Illinois Association of School Administrators, for example, hosts professional learning series and networking events specifically to support females in seeking the superintendency. Executive search firms have also been providing school boards with more diverse candidates.
Bresnahan encourages female educators to build a diverse support network of superintendents and leaders who can provide mentoring and guidance and share opportunities for growth. Female educators should also not let a failed first attempt at earning a superintendency discourage them from reaching their goals. “Most importantly, I believe it is females supporting other females to pursue these positions and to break glass ceilings where they currently exist,” Bresnahan says. “It is important for me to serve as a role model for other districts who have yet to break the cycle of only males in this role.”
Operating transparently, particularly by sharing a district’s data and its needs, “helps foster partnerships that can lead to advocacy and action,” she adds. It’s essential to develop relationships with local officials and political leaders across the state. “School districts are heavily impacted by policy changes and community opinion,” Bresnahan says. “Building those relationships by being present and vocal builds awareness and support for our schools.”