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Quick Tips for Rookie Superintendents

Listen more and include the board.

“Spend time with the board,” advises Heath Morrison, superintendent of the Washoe County (Nev.) School District. “It’s important they get to know you and you get to know them. There is a shared governance of a school district. The board picks the superintendent, and they are your bosses. What are the high priorities for them? If they have been included and communicated with, you get the vote you want.”

Create a plan and show early wins.

“Start to give people hope,” Morrison says. When leaders state what they plan to accomplish and then deliver, it gives the community and staff a spurt of faith. In one year under Morrison’s tenure, the Washoe district’s graduation rate increased by 7 percent to 63 percent, all high schools showed gains on tests in 2010, and the district overall made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind act for the first time.

“The district strategic plan needs to be a living, breathing road map that is reviewed monthly to ensure implementation is occurring,” adds John Barry, superintendent of the Aurora (Colo.) Public Schools. “The toughest part of any transformation is the implementation! Be sure to measure accomplishments and provide accountability.”

When you do something that elicits criticism, don’t beat yourself up.

“There are plenty of people willing to do that for you,” says Jeff Smith, superintendent of the Balsz Elementary School District in Arizona. He suggests that superintendents “really digest” what happened and then ask, “What do I do about it now? How do I make it better in the future?”

Be yourself.

“Do you,” Morrison says, borrowing a term from Randy Jackson, a veteran music producer who is also a judge on the popular TV show American Idol. “Do you” is about ensuring everyone is true to themselves. “We all have people we have been inspired by and who have influenced us, and if you try to be someone else, you’ll be disappointed and others will be disappointed.”

If you want to operate in the best interest of children, expect that some people will be inconvenienced.

When Smith started his stint in Balsz in 2008, he succeeded in having a 200-day calendar adopted, making Balsz the first district in Arizona to do so. Reading scores rose, and all the schools are considered “performing” or higher, according to state standards.

The plan required a 9 percent pay hike for teachers, who have to work longer into the summer, and it needed a lot of work to bring accurate information to the community and staff. Smith says that he not only went out on a limb to make this happen, but that he had to face teachers, principals and even parents who were inconvenienced by the new calendar. “But change begins at the top,” he says. “I need to constantly look at ways that I can improve.”

Don’t work alone.

Barry stresses the importance of praise. “Recognize your staff with quarterly awards, and offer sincere thanks to at least five people a day,” Barry says. “This may not seem like a lot, but it makes a big difference.”

Remain thankful.

“As a new superintendent, remain humble and thankful,” says Eric Becoats, superintendent of the Durham (N.C.) Public Schools. He adds that the superintendent’s role “is to serve and support” the school board and district.