Leading a school district requires making changes—from innovative new approaches to the way educators design and share lesson plans to necessary administrative updates that adhere to new government legislation.
We sat down and spoke to four successful school district leaders to find out what they wish they had known about change management early on in their careers. Read on to avoid the same pitfalls.
1. Stakeholders Are More Likely To Accept Decisions if They Feel They Have Input
“The first year I was in office, we changed school times (our school buses use the same route and so we staggered the timings of each age group so that all children had the option of getting the bus). That was not a popular decision. Looking back on it, I think we didn’t do a very good job of communicating or seeking feedback from staff and families. We kind of just made the decision and then told people we were doing it. I learned a lot from that, and I think we did a much better job when we had to close schools, because we involved our stakeholders early in the process.”
— Rick Surrency, superintendent of Putnam County Schools, Putnam County, FL
2. People React Positively to a Thoughtful Strategy
“Early on in my career, I noticed we had a system where how you taught phonics depended on who you studied under. So, if students got one professor, they became trained in one method, but if they got the other professor, they would get trained in another. I brought everyone together and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. Why don’t we collaborate?’ And they all said, ‘No way.’ I clearly upset people by being so direct, and I should perhaps have built up to the issue instead. I’ve since learned to devise a more thoughtful strategy before bringing my ideas to a group of staff.”
— Dr. Susan Tave Zelman, author of The Buying and Selling of American Education, previously superintendent of public instruction, Ohio Department of Education, OH
3. Loud Does Not Equal Large
“If you’re in charge of technology implementation, you will hear from the laggards most. And they can be very impactful because we tend to listen more to the people who don’t want to do something. I’ve come to the decision over the years that people who complain the loudest use it as a technique to not do. In reality, there are many people who adopt technology and do great things in their classroom early on in the process, and you have to keep remembering that.”
— Stephanie Kelly, senior manager of instructional technology at Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Ontario, Canada
Appreciate your skeptics: There are laggards in every group, and while they may be reluctant to adapt to change, you can win them over. You just need to make sure you have the right mind-set and view heel dragging as a sign you haven’t met their concerns. Stephanie Kelly and her team found success by gathering feedback and addressing everyone’s questions during the technology adoption process, including launching a pilot program where teachers could demonstrate the advantages of the new technology for their colleagues.
4. You Can Leverage the Power of the Media
“When I started working as a superintendent, I was apprehensive about communication because of the crisis we went through [an attempted school shooting]. There was a lot of press coverage, and it felt intense at times. But something I have definitely learned in this role is that you can use the media to communicate changes to a larger audience, which is a positive thing. When we made changes to our safety procedures, I was able to broadcast that message to our community through newspaper interviews, which meant that people who would not usually attend school board meetings would still hear the news. The media is a powerful communication tool, and while standing in front of the camera can feel intimidating, you’ll be fine if you’re honest and authentic.”
— Brooke Olsen-Farrell, district school superintendent at Slate Valley Unified School District, Fair Haven, VT