“Dr. Hannigan’s Shenanigans,” Superintendent Peter Hannigan’s series of video interviews with students and other activities, is a hit at Hawthorn School District 73 outside Chicago. It’s so popular that it was “renewed” for a second season after a five-episode run last school year.
“Me being visible as a superintendent is one of my top priorities, and proactively telling our story,” says Hannigan, who joined Hawthorn in 2019 and, earlier this year, was named a Superintendent to Watch by the National School Public Relations Association. “Coming out of COVID, we really wanted to highlight and share all the great things happening in Hawthorn.”
“Dr. Hannigan’s Shenanigans” appears on Facebook, Instagram and X (formerly known as Twitter) but is not highly scripted. Hannigan and Samantha Cook, the district’s communications specialist, brainstormed the ideas for the five episodes recorded last school year and the two they’ve done two so far this fall.
In the year’s first episode, he did “Carpool Karaoke” to start off the school year. He drove around district neighborhoods singing with his assistant superintendents. Last Halloween, he dressed up as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters and goofed around with elementary school students during their celebrations.
At the end of last school year, he interviewed eighth-graders as they prepared to leave Hawthorn, a K8 district. His next episode will feature his youngest students, and is called “A Day in the Life of a Preschooler.”
“It’s humility—you have to be able to laugh at yourself; you can’t take yourself too seriously,” he explains. “From time to time it is uncomfortable when you’re putting yourself out there—you don’t know how it’s going to be received. We’re in season two now, and my community loves it.”
Beyond “Dr. Hannigan’s Shenanigans”
Other ways Hannigan stays visible include his regularly scheduled “formal” building visits during which he meets with principals and assistant principals to discuss an area of focus each month. But he’s also in his schools three or four other days a week, and that’s when he spends time with kids wherever they are—in the cafeteria, at recess or in the classrooms.
Meanwhile, the district is in the fifth and final phase of renovating all of its buildings using funds from a bond measure passed in 2018. This year, the district increased its instructional day from about six and a half to seven hours in elementary and middle school. The longer schedule, which has been in the works since prior to COVID, provides more time for instruction in core subjects and also accommodates five days of PE and twice-weekly music and art in the elementary grades.
A big goal for this year is connecting with community members who don’t have students in the system. Hannigan and the district’s parent liaison are launching “Hawthorn Helpers” to recruit these residents to volunteer in our schools. Hannigan plans to visit senior living facilities, rotary clubs, the chamber of commerce and various local events to promote the district’s good work, he points out.
The urgency around storytelling and communication—and social media, in particular—is one of the main ways the superintendency has changed in recent years. “I’m constantly preaching to our administrative team and our staff that we need to tell our story, we don’t want somebody else to tell our story,” he notes. “Getting that timely, proactive communication out is critical.”
But those communications can’t all be digital. “A lot of time, people want to shoot an email out and things get lost in translation depending on how people read the message,” he adds. “If you have a communication that is more than 5 sentences, you need to pick up the phone still and call people.”
It starts with our staff
His biggest concern is the worsening educator shortage that many districts continue to confront. A former HR director, Hannigan says labor pressures had largely spared his region until about two years ago. “We’re able to staff our buildings but there are fewer and fewer candidates and I’m anticipating it’s only going to get worse, especially in the core content areas,” he explains.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hannigan believes communication is a solution to the problem. The district’s communications specialist and its assistant superintendent for human resources have been working hard to spread the district’s message and branding, locally, regionally and nationally. That effort includes using social media to promote both Hawothorn and public education and to showcase the achievements of teachers and other staff members.
The district also operates its own leadership academy, to grow its own administrator pipeline from within. “It starts with our staff—the way they talk about the profession to bring back the pride in public education,” he concludes.