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How Positive Communication Helped Turn Around a “Dysfunctional” Education Department

When Dr. Susan Tave Zelman was appointed superintendent of public instruction in Ohio, her aim was to change the culture of the organization. So she did it one step at a time.

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Melissa McElhill Content Marketing Specialist
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Dr. Susan Tave Zelman has experience in education policy and children’s programming and worked as superintendent of public instruction for the Ohio Department of Education for 10 years before becoming their executive director for six years. Zelman’s latest achievement in the field of education came in the shape of coauthoring the book titled The Buying and Selling of American Education: Reimagining a System of Schools for All Children (published November 2022). Zelman interviewed over 140 superintendents for the book, in which she and her coauthor, Dr. Margaret Sorensen, consider the challenges facing K-12 education today. 

When Zelman first joined the Ohio Department of Education, she had strong ideas about the goals she wanted her team to achieve. Receiving a somewhat frosty reception when she arrived, Zelman’s first experience of change management was getting her staff accustomed to having her in charge. A self-described “change agent,” Zelman ascribes her open-mindedness to her belief in social justice, embracing that we should consider all options in order to make education more equitable. She tells us in her own words about some of the initiatives she led in Ohio and her ideas about how changing the systems in education could mean a brighter future. 

I’d Describe Myself As Naturally Open To Change

I was appointed superintendent of public instruction in Ohio in 1998, and to be candid, I believe I inherited a dysfunctional education department that needed wholesale change. I’m outgoing and confident, and a lot of people seemed very uncomfortable with me being in charge. Looking back on it, I was probably perceived as an outsider: I am female, a New Yorker and Jewish. I hadn’t walked in any of my predecessors’ shoes, so to speak. 

I entered the role with three major goals: Raise expectations, build the capacity of our system to meet those expectations (both internally and externally) and hold ourselves accountable for results. What I didn’t see coming was that I might have to shift our work culture into a more positive one. I needed a culture where people would feel open to exchanging ideas and constructive criticism; I needed a caring community where everyone had high expectations of one another but also got to know one another and supported each other. 

I believe you can never overcommunicate. It’s better to put as much information out there as possible—and my staff seemed to respond to that. But at the same time, it’s important to listen and make modifications based on what you hear from staff.  

– Susan Tave Zelman, former superintendent, Ohio Department of Education

So, the first thing I did was restructure our onboarding process. I would talk to the new people in the department about why I loved the job and why I cared about the Department of Education, and how this was going to be a caring community and so forth. I went over my one-page strategic plan with them, and I would welcome feedback and discussion about our goals. We’d all then meet twice a year to discuss strategy. I wanted everybody, including the people in the mailroom, to understand what our organization was about. 

Thinking Strategically 

I hired a communications firm to help me plan and broadcast my plans to staff and families in a way that would inspire their support. I met with the firm to discuss my plans for the district over the course of about six months, and we put together various meetings and mailings for my “customers.” (Customers being my school districts—that’s how I’d view my staff across different districts, which helped me focus on delivering results and keeping them happy.)  

I believe you can never overcommunicate. It’s better to put as much information out there as possible—and my staff seemed to respond to that. But at the same time, it’s important to listen and make modifications based on what you hear from staff. The interactions I had with staff early on, and changing plans based on their feedback, really helped build trust. 

The Superintendent’s Guide to Change Management

There are two constants in life: change and resistance to change. In this free guide, you’ll learn how to help your district adapt, stay relevant and better serve its community with advice and practical tips from superintendents who have led districtwide innovation.

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Accepting the Necessity of Innovation

In my book “The Buying and Selling of American Education,” I argue that our nation’s education system is ailing and that we need to reimagine what schools can look like. You can attempt to beautify a house that has a bad structure by painting it, but wouldn’t it be wiser to address the structure of the building? We sometimes fall prey to doing the same with education—we improve cosmetic aspects while cracks in the system continue to deepen. 

There is room for growth in many areas of K–12 public schools, such as making funding more equitable and improving the way we communicate with parents. School can be all things to all people, and we need to teach superintendents how to adapt to various constituencies so that they can lead with a strategic plan and still be able to inspire a room full of staff who all have different interests and perspectives. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

How Susan Tave Zelman applied the principles of effective change management: 
Sharing an inspiring vision: Zelman had strong ideas about the kind of organization she wanted to lead and communicated her goals to staff, giving them something to rally behind. 
Communication: To share and publicize her mission, Zelman hired a communications firm to help shape her messaging in order to energize her staff and local families. Zelman believes there’s no such thing as too much communication—it’s better to share information whenever possible to manage people’s expectations. 
Focused change: Zelman’s aim was to change the culture of the organization, so she addressed one aspect at a time, such as changing the staff onboarding process rather than taking on every aspect of the organization’s culture at once and spreading herself too thin. 
Perspective: Zelman views change as essential rather than inevitable because change has the power to improve K-12 education. This made change management more vocational and fulfilling for Zelman as a district leader.