How one superintendent balances being an introvert and a great communicator

"Be open, be honest, be respectful—those are words I hear from students, especially our older students who are trying to find out who they are and what they'd like to be in this world," Superintendent Shaun Carey says.

Shaun Carey insists that he’s an introvert by nature. Still, the superintendent of the Enumclaw School District outside Seattle, Washington, notes that striving to be a great communicator is an essential part of the job.

Shaun Carey
Shaun Carey

“My communication style mirrors my leadership style from the standpoint that I’m really all about shared leadership,” says Carey, who was recently named a Superintendent to Watch by the National School Public Relations Association. “I’m all about making sure everyone has a voice, listening to every voice and considering everything I hear, and that provides context and enables me to make the best possible decisions.”

A key aspect of shared leadership is ensuring his colleagues have a clear understanding of his own leadership values and what he considers his “non-negotiables.” That should create a climate in which people become comfortable communicating in a similar style. Still, digital is not Carey’s favorite way to connect with his staff, students or community.

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He does not use TikTok, for instance. “A lot of messages, verbal and non-verbal, get lost when you’re using just digital communications,” he explains. “There’s not a lot that’s lost when I’m having conversations with students face-to-face. They can see in the way that I interact with them the joy that it brings me to listen to them and learn from them.”

And what are students telling him these days? They want assurance that he and his team are good and responsive listeners who respect the wide range of ideas and beliefs students have to share.

“Don’t ignore messages simply because they may not align with your beliefs or your notions of how we should communicate with one other or how we should do certain things in our schools,” Carey continues. “Be open, be honest, be respectful—those are words I hear from students, especially our older students who are trying to find out who they are and what they’d like to be in this world.”

‘There are human beings doing this work’

One of Carey’s biggest hopes for the Enumclaw School District this school year is re-establishing a routine as students and staff get farther past the COVID pandemic. “I’m most excited about making sure we get back to a place where there’s a level of predictability in what students can expect when they walk into a school,” he says.”Predictability provides stability, comfort and safety, and it ultimately provides an atmosphere where students can excel.”

As the school year hits its stride, Enumclaw’s educators are prioritizing predictability by making sure students know how they will be treated each day and that they will have the resources they need to succeed. That also means the district is continuing to expand career and technical education programs that offer students alternative pathways (beyond a four-year university) for their lives after high school graduation.

Enumclaw’s CTE programs are built around the idea of entrepreneurship and show students how to take an idea and turn it into something that benefits their community and helps them build a stable life. “I think we’re doing a nice job of trying to provide our students with multiple opportunities to experience things in school in a safe environment that ultimately leads them on a track where they can make choices about how they’re going to live and how they’re going to enjoy their life.”

But the job is changing, says Carey, who’s been Enumclaw’s superintendent for three years and an educator for as many decades. The margin for error for schools and district leaders is much smaller than it was a few years ago and people are much more easily disappointed when things don’t go exactly how they expect them to, Carey asserts.

“Offering grace and understanding when mistakes are made is something we have moved a little further away from,” he concludes. “I’m hoping we can get a little closer to a place where we understand that there are human beings doing this work.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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