LIVE @ ISTE 2024: Exclusive Coverage

Look Who’s Talking: Superintendent Susan Enfield on the Changing Role of Leadership in Schools

Title: Leading in Service to Schools: Every Leader Matters

School districts are in a precarious state. Post-pandemic, institutions are still grappling with learning recovery, teacher shortages, and other societal struggles. Never have those in positions of management been so vital. Susan Enfield has been there. And in her opening keynote, she intends to help. She indulged eSchool News with some starting points. Susan delves into lessons learned with the rapid deployment of technology during COVID, the necessity of equitable access to devices and digital resources for students, and the importance of embracing discomfort to foster innovation. Have a listen:

Dr. Susan Enfield is the former superintendent for the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada. Prior to this, Dr. Enfield spent a decade serving as superintendent for Highline Public Schools outside Seattle, Washington. Under her leadership, Highline worked to deliver on its promise to know every student by name, strength and need so they graduate prepared for the future they choose.

Dr. Enfield began her career in education as a high school English, ELL and journalism teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. She later served as chief academic officer and interim superintendent for Seattle Public Schools. Her experience also includes leadership roles in Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, Washington, Portland Public Schools in Oregon and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. She was named the 2022 Washington State Superintendent of the Year by the Washington Association of School Administrators, and the 2018 Superintendent of the Year by the National School Foundation Association.

A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Enfield has earned masters degrees from Stanford and Harvard University. She also holds a doctoral degree in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program.

Below is a machine-generated transcript of the interview.


00:00:04 Speaker 2 

OK, Susan. Thanks so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it. 

00:00:08 Speaker 1 

Thanks for having me, Kevin. Happy to be here. 

00:00:10 Speaker 2 

And I know the last time we saw each other was at AASA, I guess last year, the next time I’m looking forward to seeing you in person again next week at at at Cos in 2024, maybe we’ll just jump right in. I know you were kind of kicking off the festivities really on the on the Monday afternoon, which is really. 

00:00:22 Speaker 1 


00:00:30 Speaker 2 

Kind of a always a highlight, you know of of the event. So you know you’re you’re going to be in high cotton. 

00:00:36 Speaker 2 

There maybe we could just start. 

00:00:38 Speaker 2 

Talk a little bit about what you want to impress upon the attendees, and by extension, our readers and listeners for your talk. 

00:00:48 Speaker 1 

Yikes. Kevin, no pressure now really feeling it. Yeah. So I am very honored and excited to be the opening keynote on Monday and the the theme of sort of the the information I’ll be sharing and the conversation that I’ll be having is leading in service to schools. 

00:00:50 Speaker 2 

Yeah, right. 

00:01:08 Speaker 1 

Every leader matters, and so, you know. 

00:01:12 Speaker 1 

We’ve we’ve learned so much, I think over the past few years around the impact that leaders have on their school communities and their community, even outside of the school system and you know, I think sometimes we tend to think that. 

00:01:32 Speaker 1 

Leadership is about a title or a certain position or a. 

00:01:36 Speaker 1 

Role. And really it’s about a mindset and it’s about do you see yourself in service to whatever organization that you are a part of and leading and you know I would argue that our, you know our chief, you know innovation officers, our chief information officers, our. 

00:01:58 Speaker 1 

Chief technology officers, whatever you want to, you know, whatever title they have during the pandemic. 

00:02:07 Speaker 1 

They stepped up in ways that, you know, we couldn’t have done what we did for our kids and families without them. And I just think there’s a lesson there for all of us in leadership writ large around you really see who people are when they step up, regardless of where they sit in the organization and show. 

00:02:28 Speaker 1 

What they’re truly made of, and I think we saw that in some pretty remarkable ways in recent years. 

00:02:35 Speaker 2 

100% and we actually at East School started a Hero awards in in 2020 as a result of some of you know I I get chills thinking about it. I mean it was just it was this month and last month where I’m having conversations with the directors of technology who were getting into their cars. 

00:02:55 Speaker 2 

Driving into neighborhoods with Wi-Fi hotspots when? Yeah, I guess here we are. We’re we’re almost about 3 weeks right cause. 

00:03:02 Speaker 2 

I I think about like March 17th was the take your laptops home for two weeks and then we’ll come back in two weeks and then. 

00:03:10 Speaker 2 

It was obvious that we were dealing with something that was much, much larger and much more to sinister, and that’s when tech directors sprung into action. I mean, you know, all over the country where the idea like this is not my job description. And for superintendents as well, like it, it’s just it it completely changed the way in which. 





00:03:30 Speaker 2 

You guys were. 

00:03:31 Speaker 1 

Right. Well, and and and bus drivers, you know, we had bus drivers delivering meals because they weren’t transporting kids, and we wanted to keep them employed and we knew we needed them. So they were delivering, you know, whether they were delivering hotspots or serving as a hub for hot spots in a community or delivering meals. Everybody, I think, stepped up in some truly. 

00:03:51 Speaker 1 

Remarkable ways and I don’t want this to be solely focused on the pandemic. We want to be forward thinking, especially since the theme for cosine is, you know, warp speed change at warp speed. But you know, when I look back, I I I think this is right. I want to say that I was serving in as the Superintendent. 

00:03:55 Speaker 2 

Yes. Yeah. 

00:04:10 Speaker 1 

My line I want to say that within the first you know two to three weeks of sending our students home. We deployed 13,000 devices, which is just nothing short of remarkable. Yeah. And and and that was to say that was a team effort is an understatement. And so I really think that one of the other lessons that we’ve learned that we want to be talking about. 

00:04:30 Speaker 1 


00:04:31 Speaker 1 

That, you know, leadership is a team sport and so how are we tapping into the strengths of people, you know, throughout our organizations to step up and lead and see themselves as leaders and as part of the team. And I think that’s incumbent upon those of us leading organizations to create those opportunities. 

00:04:53 Speaker 2 

Yeah. You you mentioned deploying 13,000 devices and you know how many years have I’ve written about Ed Tech, where we talked about possibly initiating A1 to 1 strategy in your school district and we would go to code and we would talk about kind of the kind of the esoteric or the theoretical ways in which you could do that. 

00:05:13 Speaker 2 

Pandemic hits and then all of a sudden boom. You’re doing it right. The ideas of personalized learning and remote learning. Boom. We’re we’re in it in this great beta test that came out of it. And you’re right. When you look at the warp speed, I mean, I think there are a lot of. 



00:05:29 Speaker 2 

Innovations that sprung from that, from that time of of desperation, not only. 

00:05:36 Speaker 2 

For the classroom as much, but maybe on the on the back end. I mean, as we sit here talking on zoom I. 

00:05:41 Speaker 2 


00:05:41 Speaker 2 

As a parent, I’ve spoken more to my kids teachers in the past three years in this way that I had in 13 years before. Can you talk about some of those things that as a? 

00:05:42 Speaker 1 




00:05:49 Speaker 1 


00:05:53 Speaker 2 

Bigger you think that attendees will be talking about and what our readers and listeners can can think about in terms of taking those lessons learned and and and putting them going forward. I mean, not everything should go back to normal, right? 

00:06:08 Speaker 1 

No, but you know I’ve said this since the onset of the pandemic. The muscle memory of the bureaucracy is strong as the public education system in the United States is strong. Yeah. And as I predicted, once we got back into, I don’t use the term normal, but once we got back into a place that felt more familiar. 



00:06:28 Speaker 1 

Right. In terms of patterns and and you know day-to-day routines and. 

00:06:32 Speaker 1 

Melodies. You know, we started seeing the rubber band start snapping back and you know, so I know that there were districts that decided last year, well, we’re not going to send devices home with kids anymore, you know, which makes my head explode. Because. Wait, what? So, I mean, the reality is that, you know. 

00:06:48 Speaker 2 


00:06:53 Speaker 1 

We now know that we have an obligation as educators and as leaders to ensure that our students have access to learning outside the walls of their classroom or the confines of their district. 

00:07:04 Speaker 1 

And you know, I think that we have a moral and professional responsibility to equip them with those tools if they don’t have them now. I’m not talking about just that we should just be, you know, handing out devices to every kid. Not every kid needs a device, right. But we sure as heck should be ensuring that every child who needs a device gets one. And so I think that, you know, and and how can we create this blend? 

00:07:27 Speaker 1 

Of you know. 

00:07:30 Speaker 1 

You know, face to face, you know, interpersonal conversation, because let’s face it, I think we all know there nothing takes the place of being in person and and being with someone especially that that relationship between students and teachers, but also staff and and one another, but blend it with the, you know, sort of the gifts that. 

00:07:50 Speaker 1 

Technology gives us, you know, I I think about as you know, I think about a a parent who you know doesn’t have the luxury to take time off work to attend their child’s i.e. P meeting. Well, they can. 

00:08:05 Speaker 1 

Do what we’re doing, right? 

00:08:06 Speaker 1 

There. And so you know, you mentioned that you know you’ve seen, you’ve interacted with your kids teacher a lot more since then and and that we wanna continue. So how do we how do we continue to apply our lessons learned but get smarter and resist the urge to go back to that which is familiar. 

00:08:27 Speaker 1 

And easy because and I actually just posted this recently on social media. You know, the way the education equation works is we as the adults in school systems, need to make our lives harder in order to do right by our students. And what I mean by that. 

00:08:45 Speaker 1 

That is, you know, if we are putting adult comfort above student success and well-being, we’re not doing our jobs as educators and and if we are continuing and it gets back to this notion of innovation and change, if we are staying in our comfort zone. 

00:09:03 Speaker 1 

As educators, then, we’re not pushing ourselves to try new things to take those smart. 

00:09:11 Speaker 1 

Strategic risks in the name of, you know, being innovative and and making sure that we’re finding the best solutions and systems to ensure that every child who walks into our schools is known by name, strength and need and graduates prepared for the future they choose that needs to be our shared promise. 

00:09:30 Speaker 1 

Across this country, and I believe that, you know, we have the benefits now of some powerful lessons to to apply to make it so. 



00:09:40 Speaker 2 

So you you kind of mentioned the the structures of of public education and the and the models of the school districts and then you look at again what the theme of the show is about change at warp speed. How do you satisfy both of those things and and other things that? 

00:09:57 Speaker 2 

You could prioritize when you look over the next couple of years in terms of opportunities, of being able to apply some of those innovations. 

00:10:06 Speaker 2 

With the understanding that there are. 

00:10:09 Speaker 2 

The constructions. 

00:10:11 Speaker 1 

Yeah, you know, again, I’ll go back to the fact that you know, we’re dealing with bureaucracies when we’re talking about large, you know, large systems. 

00:10:20 Speaker 1 

And you know, I think that bureaucracies are not known for moving at work speed. And, you know, I think that first of all, we have to get and you hear this all the time, right? You know, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, you know, making disc, making sort of the experience of discomfort. 

00:10:41 Speaker 1 

A norm in in your day-to-day route. 

00:10:44 Speaker 1 

Teen and you know, I think I think AI is pushing us all into a massive state of discomfort. But in in a very in a very productive way. You know, there’s so many implications that we’re all still figuring out for what AI is going to do for our staff and students in schools. And of course, for all of us, we’re at large. 

00:11:05 Speaker 1 

But I think that’s a great example of. 

00:11:09 Speaker 1 

Of having to grapple with things that are really new, things that are unknown, things that that are true today, that will be vastly different six months to a year from now. And I think we can all predict that that will be the case here. So my hope is that since we are entering this new sort of age of of AI. 

00:11:29 Speaker 1 

And grappling with what it means that it will force. 

00:11:33 Speaker 1 

You know, sort of our our our systems and structures that are really sort of rooted in. 

00:11:40 Speaker 1 

The past, for lack of a better term, right and or at least rooted in past practice or rooted in what we thought was the best we could do in our school systems and really force us out of that and force us to do things differently and better and smarter. And frankly, I think that our kids are counting on us to do that and then they deserve it. 

00:12:01 Speaker 2 

And I think they have an expectation now that they they themselves went through this experience just like we did. They saw the transformations. They were as flexible as anybody else when it came to learning and understanding of that. And that when you look at it, it the, the technologies. 

00:12:05 Speaker 1 

Yeah, maybe. Sure. 

00:12:14 Speaker 1 


00:12:16 Speaker 1 

OK. Yep. 

00:12:22 Speaker 2 

That encompass AI, which? 

00:12:24 Speaker 2 

I was impressed. We got about 8 minutes without saying AI, which was pretty good. 

00:12:29 Speaker 1 

And I’m usually the one that that, like, talks about everything but I. But but I think that when we’re talking about disruption and when we’re talking about as the adults in school systems, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, that’s I mean you don’t have a choice at this point, right? You don’t. I don’t think anybody has the option of. 

00:12:48 Speaker 1 

Opting out or or or not or not figuring out what it means or what the implications are so you know, sorry I I maybe I maybe the goal should have been not to bring it up at all in the whole time we’re talking Kevin, but it just. 

00:12:50 Speaker 2 


00:13:01 Speaker 1 

Had to say. 

00:13:01 Speaker 2 

It I think it will be, you know, on everyone’s lips next week. Thankfully it won’t be COVID anymore. I always. I was like what could overcome the acronym COVID in this decade and AI has. 



00:13:13 Speaker 1 

Letters AI. 

00:13:14 Speaker 2 

Has done that. 

00:13:16 Speaker 2 

Yeah, but hopefully though much more positive connotation. I know I’m certainly looking forward to hearing you speak on Monday. I know it will be a great way to kick off what will be a just a really inspiring number of days and and positive. So thanks again for your time and for your insights here and look forward to. 

00:13:35 Speaker 2 

You in Miami? 

00:13:36 Speaker 1 

Thank you, Kevin. I’m looking forward to seeing you and all of my costs and. 

00:13:38 Speaker 1 

Friends as well safe travels. 

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