5 leadership lessons learned by an interim superintendent during tough times

Communication, district goals, making tough decisions, knowing your values, and focusing on students helped our district successfully complete one of the very toughest school years.
Garth J. McKinney
Garth J. McKinney
Garth J. McKinney is the assistant superintendent for curriculum and human resources at Milton Public Schools in Massachusetts. He has worked at many levels in education, from classroom teacher, to school administrator, all the way to district superintendent. He was named New Hampshire Teacher of the Year in 2013 and his written work has been featured by Learning Forward, and he has been a presenter at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention.

In February 2021, I was appointed interim superintendent of the second-largest district in the state. The district had been in remote learning for over a year, the district leadership team was not cohesive, and numerous collective bargaining agreements were entering negotiations. All of this was with a board of education that was dysfunctional and disillusioned.

Despite these challenges, the district needed steady leadership during a challenging period. Becoming the interim superintendent after the start of the school is like being a middle reliever or relief pitcher in baseball. Both have the goal of finishing the year—or game—without giving up more runs.

I was fortunate to be able to come out of the bullpen after watching the first several innings. I had worked in the district for five years at the school and district levels so I had the benefit of understanding the climate, culture, history of the district plus had established trusting relationships with key leaders across the city.

Then as the 2020-2021 school year was ending, I was not selected as a finalist for the permanent superintendent position. I was hurt, angry, and disappointed. As the process fell apart and there was only one finalist remaining with no central office experience, I was approached by the board president and again asked to serve as interim superintendent for the 2021-2022 school year. Although the process was flawed and I believed I was not adequately recognized for my work, I accepted the position to again help the district rebound from a few years of inadequate stewardship.

Going into a complete school year allowed me to be the starting pitcher, complete with a designed game plan and advanced scouting on the possible challenges. But even with the best laid plans, the school year was like no other. The possible “return to normal” was abnormal at best with challenges never seen before in public education.

Adventures of an interim superintendent

The following are lessons learned from leading during difficult times that include an emphasis on communication, district goals, making tough decisions, knowing your values, and focusing on students:

1. Communication is key

First, communicate often and in multiple ways. From February until August 2021, the district moved through various transitions not just with instructional models but also fluctuating public health guidelines. So weekly and monthly communications became critical to inform district employees, parents and guardians, and students on key changes in remote, hybrid, and in-person learning, public health guidelines and COVID-19 numbers as well as testing.

We refined weekly COVID notifications that informed the district community of the number of cases and changes in district protocols. I began a district update after each and every board meeting to quickly share key motions and decisions in a timely manner. I also held focused and efficient meetings with over 50 principals and directors so they were all informed, could ask questions, and received information first before sharing with the district and community.

During the 2021-2022 school year, we built upon this work by adding monthly family engagement events, visits to school faculty meetings, monthly articles in the local newspaper, and school presentations at board meetings. In the end, an end-of-communication survey showed parents felt they were receiving timely information about the school district.

2. Align work to impact the classroom

For the first time in four years, together with the district leadership team, we developed four district goals to provide clarity and alignment. The four goals focused on student achievement, social-emotional learning, family engagement, and health and safety. These goals aligned to our strategic plan as well as our reopening plan along with numerous requests for ESSER funding.

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These goals were presented and approved by the board of education. Then throughout the year, I presented information on these goals to school faculties, parents, and constituents, and asked for feedback during the year from our school principals and district directors. While we certainly had to adapt to unknown circumstances and challenges, these goals provided a focus for the year and a means for evaluating curriculum, instruction, teaching and learning, funding, and professional development.

3. Be ready to make tough decisions

Be prepared to make tough decisions due to unexpected challenges. After the holiday recess and surge in COVID-19 cases, our ability to staff buildings and provide adequate student supervision was collapsing. After hearing concerns from building principals on student safety and potential liability, the district needed to respond.

Working with the district leadership team, we began working towards a hybrid option but needed to quickly develop new policies, acquire funding, and consult with union leadership. Even after completing these steps, the team advised to close schools for three days to allow time for staffing to recover. These days would be made up at the end of year as snow days so no instructional time would be lost.

With no other options to choose from, I decided to close school for three days. I shared this information with the board president, communicated to the district and community, and then responded to several media and press inquiries. Given that we were also in the middle of negotiations with the teachers’ contract, some believed it was an organized walk-out by teachers.

I ended up drafting a statement and releasing information that it was due to the COVID holiday surge and not a result of collective bargaining. Over the next few weeks, our staffing recovered and we were able to not cancel any further school days due to lack of personnel.

4. Remember your core values and principles

During the past year and a half, there were numerous situations and decisions that tested my values, principles and resolve. From public health guidelines and masking to negotiations and personnel situations, standing by my own personal convictions were important.

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One example is being firm and fair. From resolving grievances to applying progressive discipline, I worked to be fair but firm in reinforcing district policies and expectations. Over the year and a half, I disciplined and terminated employees, ensured compliance with a USDOJ agreement, and coordinated a district response to a USOCR claim.

I also ensured that observation and evaluations were complete for employees. By June 2022, I completed evaluations for my direct reports which had not been done for the past seven years. Another example would be remaining calm under pressure during contentious board meetings with vocal public comments along with rogue board members who were performing for the video cameras.

A more functional and professional board of education would support the superintendent, but this was not the case. I was left out there on my own but held steady to the work, my convictions, and the long-term needs of the district.

Finally, one mentor taught me to shield and protect the people I lead so I was subject to numerous unfair and vocal attacks, but this allowed the district leadership team and school leaders to continue the important work. Again with a stronger governance team and a more functional board of education, this probably would not have happened but our district and school teams understood, shared their disappointment, and admired the resilience displayed throughout this time.

5. It’s all about the students

Lastly, focus on the students. While dealing with all the problems and challenges above, I worked to support student growth. One example was the rapid development of a program to support at-risk students. Together with community partners, we developed a program for at-risk students that included academic support, transportation, and mental health support along with breakfast and lunch to support them out of school as well as transition them back to school.

Over the course of the year, I had monthly lunches with students at the schools and dropped in the lunchrooms to speak to teachers as well. I also attended PTO meetings, school faculty meetings, and community/Rotary events. Then in January when staffing was challenging, I spent a week at a middle school supporting the faculty and students.

These examples demonstrated a visible and committed presence which many teachers and staff appreciated. Furthermore, making myself available, students and staff would share experiences, anecdotes, and insights about the school year that otherwise would have gone unheard.

Learning about myself and leadership

Throughout the 2021-2022 school year, the board of education was once again going through a search process for a new permanent superintendent. By January 2022, I decided not to apply and move on from the district for a variety of reasons. As the search process narrowed
down to three candidates who came and visited the district, one candidate was selected and an announcement was made. Unfortunately, this candidate was later unable to obtain state certification so once again the district was without a leader.

I again was approached to serve as the superintendent, even after accepting another position, and I respectfully declined and stuck with my plan of exiting the district. Then in mid-May 2022, the board of education named a new superintendent. All in all, the collective experience of serving as the interim superintendent for a year and a half allowed me to learn about myself, my leadership, and the challenges of serving as the key leader of a school district.

In conclusion, being an interim superintendent during a pandemic was quite challenging but these five lessons can serve as a solid foundation for those leading during these interesting times. Communication, district goals, making tough decisions, knowing your values, and focusing on students along with teamwork, collaboration, a sense of humor, and consistent self-care helped our district successfully complete one of the very toughest school years.

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