I am very sympathetic to parents who make claims that the school district in their community is tone-deaf, and will not listen. I have called and emailed school superintendents myself across the state and, on occasion, failed to receive a courtesy response.
I will often just pick up a phone and call them or their Board Chair when they failed to respond. I think persistence is key in some cases. However, some superintendents fail to understand their lack of response is harmful to the image of a district.
Parents are in a different position. Many are young parents, and do not know how government works, or is supposed to work. In many cases, this leads to a lack of parent engagement. In public education, we must solicit more, not less, community involvement.
We must all work to hold our superintendents accountable in regard to educational, financial, and administrative performance. There is a growing debate on whether districts should return to electing these school management leaders; we have generally opposed such legislation, believing school boards can make good choices and hold superintendents accountable. We acknowledge that many school districts do a better job of this than other school districts. Notably, urban districts have consistently had much turnover in their leadership versus rural districts across the state. Constant turnover also hurts the elected versus appointed superintendent debate. School boards must elect good candidates with community input.
School boards must embody the beliefs and values of their community. School board members should be as diverse as the citizens they serve. We should thank the men and women who are serving our communities as school board members more often. They are too often unappreciated, and it is often a thankless but needed job. We need more people with management and education backgrounds to consider running for the school board in their community. The pay isn’t great, but the rewards are immeasurable. The Tennessee School Boards Association has some great information on their website for those interested in this critical role.
School boards should provide superintendents latitude in regards to leadership, vision, and strategic thinking on how to address the performance in those areas. And we must expect them to communicate effectively to all stakeholders. There is no doubt we have some excellent leaders across our state. Superintendents like Melanie Miller, Jerry Boyd, Linda Cash, Johnny McDaniel, Bill Heath, Cathy Beck, Freddy Curtis, Richard Rawlings, and Mark Winningham just to name a few.
These exceptional leaders share many characteristics. Perhaps the most important duty of a superintendent is to make sure district students are learning and achieving at the highest level possible. A superintendent must understand effective academic practices and be supportive of the teachers and administrators in the district. Leadership, vision, and strategic thinking are critical skills for every superintendent. A successful superintendent will also be an effective and excellent communicator. The communication part starts with returning emails and phone calls.
I have been critical over the years of many things in public education. From lack of focus or poorly defined goals to disagreement with curriculum or self-serving unions. However, I have always tried to do what my mother advised, “If you are going to criticize, offer a solution.” Teddy Roosevelt blatantly made it clear, “It is not the critic who counts; but rather the man who is actually in the arena.”
For education leaders to be successful they must communicate effectively. As a practitioner of my craft, I love reading what is going on in other schools and districts across the state. Every Monday in my email inbox appears a weekly Marczak Monday Memo from Chris Marczak, the superintendent of Maury County Schools. It is a great example of effective communication and a model that some districts should adopt. However, school updates are not a substitute for responding to direct emails or telephone calls. Something I am sure Dr. Marczak would agree, as he also excels in returning calls and emails.
At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln stated that our government was “for the people.” Cynics take that a step further and tell us government is for those who make themselves effectively heard. That is why it is most critical for elected and appointed officials to communicate clearly, concisely, timely, and effectively. For school leaders, it is even more critical.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.