Superintendents: The lessons we learned in 2016

4 superintendents share their most valuable takeaways from the past year.

[Editor’s note: This story is Part 1 of our 3-part series on Lessons Learned in 2016. Check back tomorrow for Lessons Learned by Principals.]

As 2016 drew to a close, we asked educators in variety of positions to reflect on what they have learned this year. Here, a quartet of superintendents offer thoughts on leadership, PBL, and the challenges of turning around schools and districts.

race to the top

Turning Around a District is a Marathon, not a Sprint

Coming into the 2016 school year, a key element of our work has been to devise a “local innovation plan” involving education leaders and community stakeholders to achieve approval as a Texas Education Agency District of Innovation. Innovative curriculum and instructional methods along with parent engagement and community participation have been major priorities in the district’s plan we set forth. One of our biggest lessons learned, has been the process in which we bring about change – in small incremental steps. We found including our school leaders first has worked well so they can continue to build community involvement on their campuses.

In partnership with myON, a personalized literacy environment providing thousands of on-demand digital books, we set out to promote innovation through literacy bringing together our students, educators, families, and community to share in closing the literacy gap. To this end, bringing about a community of readers has been a gradual and developmental approach along with conveying a message of working together.

With the strong literacy push, our students and teachers have started tracking literacy engagement by measuring time spent reading and analyzing data weekly to ensure improvement is happening in every classroom and on every level. This initial commitment has been a major step in the next phase of bringing aboard family involvement and community outreach. In 2017, we look forward to continued “Growth Through Innovation” in Manor ISD. —Dr. Royce Avery, Superintendent of Manor Independent School (TX)


PBL Teaches Educators Flexibility in Lesson Planning

Student engagement is critical in learning. Through student engagement, deeper learning takes place and students take ownership of their efforts while becoming empowered as critical thinkers. 2016 has been a year where educators at Congress Elementary School have continued to hone their skills in adopting project-based learning (PBL) while incorporating a cross-curricular STEAM focus. So far we’ve seen a dramatic increase in student participation, quality learning, and real-world application. Using pre-built curriculum resources, such as Defined STEM, helps support teachers in creating cross-curricular, project-based lessons, saves hours of time spent building lessons, and allows for students individual creativity to shine. As a school, we’ve learned that allowing for flexibility in what happens versus what was originally planned is another important aspect of PBL. Flexibility allows for the unforeseen to become a tremendous learning opportunity with great benefits. As 2016 comes to a close, we will continue to learn the benefits of PBL and real-world authentic problem solving to better engage our students while preparing them for careers of tomorrow. —Dr. Stephanie Miller, Superintendent and Principal of Congress Elementary School District (AZ)

(Next page: Superintendents’ lessons learned 3-4)


School Improvement Models Should Be Shared Across the Globe

I’ve spent my career encouraging students and teachers to “get outside their comfort zones” and to take risks in their learning. This past year I accepted an opportunity to follow my own advice when Diane Ullman, program advisor of the UCONN Administrator Preparation Program, invited me to become the fourth member of a team of superintendents, each teaching one week-long module to approximately 50 Jordanian principals in Amman, Jordan. With assistance and collaboration from Jason Culbertson of Insight Education Group, I spent the week sharing my knowledge and experiences about school improvement, while learning from the wisdom and experiences of the participants. It was especially moving to meet and learn alongside the Queen Rania Teacher Academy staff, who coordinated our visit. As we shared stories and learned from one another, it quickly became apparent that, despite differing contexts, our shared passion for and commitment to education brought us together as colleagues and friends. My experiences in Jordan reinforced my belief that we need to regularly push ourselves into zones of “optimal learning,” where we are challenged in purposeful and consequential ways. Through such experiences, we learn powerful and lasting lessons about our students, our staff, our profession, and ultimately ourselves. —Dr. Bryan D. Luizzi, Superintendent, New Canaan Public Schools (CT)


Becoming a Great Leader Is Not One Thing

The biggest lessons I learned in 2016 are the aspects of being a great leader.

  • Great leaders set BOLD goals for their team.
  • Great leaders are honest with themselves and their players about where they currently stand but are extremely flexible on how their players get the win.
  • Great leaders never give up on their team. They spend their time ripping down walls and breaking down barriers to success for all players.
  • Great leaders are passionate about what they do, but know that it is really the players that count when it comes to winning big.
  • For every new project, a great leader must set the vision of what is intended to be accomplished, collaboratively deciding with the players what must be done to reach the goal every step of the way.
  • Great leaders recognize that each player must own their learning, but have opportunities to hone their skills.

—Tammy Mangus, Superintendent of the Monticello Community School District (NY) and a supporter of Reading Horizons digital reading curriculum

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