3 superintendents to watch: Charting a new normal for education
Regularly filling in as a substitute has given Terrell ISD Superintendent Georgeanne Warnock some critical perspectives on the big picture and the small details. The experience has made her think more deeply about the content that’s being taught, how it’s being taught and what matters most to students in her suburban Dallas district. It has also shown her how to better meet day-to-day needs such as how substitutes are brought on board and, she says, “where we need a new ice maker.”
“Leaders can no longer rely on their former experience of being in the classroom,” Warnock, says. “Times have changed drastically over the last couple of years. The value of stepping back into the trenches with our educators, even just for a day, is immeasurable.”
Warnock’s work as a substitute reflects wider efforts by superintendents to map out education’s new normal after more than two years of COVID. Here’s how Warnock and two other “superintendents to watch” are shaping the road ahead.
‘No other initiatives matter’
Another top priority for Warnock is making the exchange of information as smooth and engaging as possible for staff, students, parents and other stakeholders. “Considering the busyness of everyone’s lives, we wanted to make communicating with our stakeholders as convenient and engaging as possible,” Warnock says. “This means communicating with them where they are. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok are where our stakeholders are—maybe not all of them, but most of them.”
Not so long ago, Warnock, like many administrators, would have shared a student or staff success story by submitting a 500-word press release to the local newspaper and hoping it would be included in an upcoming edition. “But now a few sentences and a great photo or video posted to social media channels has a much larger impact,” she says. “Our stakeholders receive district news and celebrations instantly and have the ability to engage with and share what we are doing from their phones.”
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She also remains optimistic about the future despite the turbulence of the last two years. That’s because educators are innovative and resilient, and undeterred in their mission to serve children, she says. The pandemic has also spurred the development of new strategies to engage students. “The pressure education has been under is revealing now more than ever how vital our educators and education system is to the success of our local communities and nation,” she says. “It is my hope that this renewed appreciation for educators will translate into policies and practices that support our districts and schools.”
Still, major challenges remain. Educators are leaving the profession at “alarming rates,” Warnock says. She and her team are launching new recruiting and benefits strategies and also working to elevate teacher voice “to right what is wrong in the system,” she says. “Our top priority in Terrell ISD is simple and twofold: An effective educator in every classroom every day, and students present and engaged in learning,” she says. “Without those two things happening regularly in our district, no other initiatives matter.”
Micro-interested, not micromanaging
Leaders need to become heavily invested in the mental health of their teachers, principals and other staff without taking away their independence or autonomy, says Trevor Greene, superintendent of the Yakima School District in Washington. This will require that leaders continue to receive professional development and coaching in supporting the mental health needs of all employees. “We have to be micro-interested in what’s happening with them but not micromanaging what they do,” Greene says.
Establishing equity for students is another ongoing priority in Yakima schools. The district began work on an equity plan in February 2020 and did not let the COVID outbreak knock the work off course. Administrators and educators collaborated with students, hundreds of community members, business partners and faith leaders to develop the plan, which rests on four pillars: climate and culture, partnerships and leadership, talent recruitment and retention, and teaching and learning. “When we are unable to predict outcomes based on ethnicity or race, then we know we have achieved equity,” says Greene, who believes he is the first graduate of the district to also serve as its superintendent.
Another goal will be to ensure that most students entering the district meet kindergarten readiness. Currently, less than a quarter of students meet that standard. “We are asking way too much of teachers when we have students coming to us unprepared,” he says. Greene and his team are sharing curriculum and content with early education and day-care providers to provide the scaffolding in instruction that will better prepare pre-school students. “It will take the entire community,” he says. “It’s not something we can do in isolation.”
In the higher grades, the district has teamed up with Arizona State University on a program that allows Yakima students to earn their associate’s degrees without leaving their high school campuses. This will provide invaluable access to students who are experiencing poverty as the district expands the free program in the coming years. This initiative is one way the district is establishing a new normal for students, he says.
Greene and his educators learned a lot more about students and their families during the shift to remote and hybrid instruction. “Learning about what their home lives were like created a level of empathy, along with expectations, that did not exist at the level it does now,” he says. “The crisis also taught us we can shift quickly, and we can provide multiple ways for students to learn.”
Everything we’ve learned over the past two years
Scott Rocco has been on Twitter for at least 10 years. During the pandemic, the superintendent of Hamilton Township School District in New Jersey has leaned even further into the digital tools. Rocco, New Jersey’s 2022 superintendent of the year, uses the social media platform to stay connected with both his local school community and his K-12 colleagues around the world.
Very few educators learned marketing in their preparation programs but providing clear and concise information to students, families, and other community members is now a must, he says. “Twitter is a great way to talk to your community about things that are going well in your district,” Rocco says. “It gives them a window into what’s happening.”
A presence on Twitter, Instagram or another social media platform can help educators and their districts grow their audience and spread their messages further and with more impact. Those messages can cut across generation gaps, as just about everyone looks for information on their smartphones nowadays, he says. “We’ve shown the community that our content has value,” Rocco says. “But it’s not just a tweet; it needs to be a tweet with information and pictures or visuals and videos.”
Rocco is a creator of #satchat, which, since 2012, has given educators from around the world a place to discuss pressing K-12 topics on Twitter every Saturday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern time. Recent discussions have covered community engagement, creating lifelong readers, classroom engagement and building student organizations. Within his district, Hamilton Township is launching a social media elective where students can learn about ethical communication and what’s appropriate for individuals and institutions to post.
And for administrators who want to begin using social media, he recommends first taking a look at what other educators are posting and then following like-minded school leaders. “It’s worth connecting with other educators, collaborating and learning from them,” Rocco says. “You can find value in this professionally.”
These types of conversations will help leaders continue to define education’s new normal. To chart the path forward, superintendents and their teams will have to collaborate internally and externally, including with college education departments and elected officials. “If we’re going to go back and do what we did prior to the pandemic, everything we’ve learned over the past two years, good and bad, is for naught,” Rocco says. “We’ve got to figure out how to handle learning loss, how to empower students with technology, and how to help with the social-emotional areas and mental health.”
Rocco says he and his team are now building their budget around those priorities. While most educators acknowledge in-person learning is more effective for most students, he also wants to explore opportunities to provide hybrid and online instruction for students who thrived on those platforms. He also says districts should look into working together to address staffing shortages by potentially sharing teachers. “As a superintendent, I need to work with colleagues and professional associations and be an advocate for students, teachers, administrators, and our school community by presenting at conferences, writing op-eds, and writing elected officials,” he says. “When you talk about the new normal, it’s meeting the needs of students and figuring out how to modernize education.”
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