Dr. Stephen Joel, superintendent of Lincoln (Nebraska) Public Schools since 2010, didn’t ascend to his position fresh out of graduate school. And he didn’t slide over from an associate superintendent’s role, either. Much to the contrary, he took the long way up, starting his career in education as a social studies teacher and a coach, then a high school principal, before being named superintendent at Chase Unified School District, in Kansas.
Lincoln Public Schools is, in fact, the fifth district he’s served as superintendent. In the course of his 40 years plus in education, he’s amassed a volume of experience that has earned him the distinction of being one of the most highly regarded superintendents in the country.
“But I’ll tell you,” he confesses, “when I first became a superintendent at the age of 28, I just sort of happened to be in the right place, right time and, like most first year superintendents, I didn’t know much about the job. So I learned very quickly, at a ripe young age, that networking and learning — being a continuous learner — was about the only way I was going to master the craft of this position, and that’s why I’ve always been somebody who has attended professional development meetings.”
Today, the shifting winds of public sentiment seem to be casting skepticism on public school officials who leave their districts to attend workshops, round tables and seminars throughout the country. But Dr. Joel and others serve as living proof of the intrinsic value of these opportunities to gather with colleagues from points all over America to compare notes and to benefit from their collective experiences leading their districts.
Dr. Stacey Gonzales, for example, director of curriculum and construction at Consolidated High School District 230 in Illinois, pioneered the eLo Online Consortium, a cooperative online learning program that brought together three school districts and introduced students to a new way of learning in the region. She says the experience gained while participating in multiple professional development programs was invaluable in empowering her to sustain what began as a modest idea to full fruition. While serving, at the time, in her former position as director of instructional technology of the Indian Prairie School District 204 in Illinois, Gonzales took 10 key staff members from her district to iNACOL, an annual four-day symposium, to share her vision.
She recalls a discernable murmur of dissent. “I could hear some people in the district questioning me, saying, ‘What is she doing? Why is she investing this kind of time, effort, energy, money, into this?’ Because people didn’t understand. And the only way they’re going to understand is to realize that this groundbreaking accomplishment is a direct result of our experience roundtabling with other people across the country who had done something similar and had some success with it. Our group got to see that and experience it. We also did actual site visits in Mentor, Ohio, as a part of a workshop at the event. The knowledge that we gleaned from colleagues there was just invaluable. The idea of hiring a director, finding ways — creative budgetary ways — to get a director to oversee the entire program, that came from our experience at iNACOL. Much of the reasoning we used to convince our board, that came from iNACOL…”
“You get to build collegial relationships at these events,” attests Dr. Chris Marczak, superintendent of Maury County Public Schools in Tennessee. “They create situations where I learn about you, and you learn about me. Let me share with you what I’ve been through, you share with me what you’ve been through, and maybe we can help each other avoid the land mines, because those land mines ultimately result in lost instructional time for kids.”
Marczak ticks off several anecdotal examples of the value he’s brought back to his district from several professional development programs he’s actually contractually encouraged to attend. He finds the issue a matter of common sense. “It’s all about learning what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. “Look, we’ve been kicking off our one-to-one program for about the last year now. Had I not learned from other superintendents — including Mark Edwards in Mooresville, North Carolina — about the right way and the wrong way to do this, I would have sacrificed precious instructional time for kids, like having to roll things back that didn’t work well. I was able to do that through professional development opportunities, by learning about what to do and what not to do, based on the experiences offered by someone who has already been in that position years before me. It’s invaluable.”
The actual results reaped by Marczak’s one-to-one program has him beaming. “We’ve chosen to implement a pull program instead of a push program with the technology integration matrix rubric developed by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology. In less than a year, we’ve deployed over 2,800 devices to teachers and students. And now we’re out of devices. We’ve got to go back to the well to get more money, because the demand has now outpaced the supply. Our teachers are going out of their way to gain proficiency with technology, knowing that, when they do, they and their students will be able to go one-to-one with technology with laptops. This success is due in large part to the way we elected to roll the program out. And I made that decision by learning from other superintendents about what works and what doesn’t work.”
Joel feels the issue of participation in professional development events boils down to the simple matter of the return that school districts receive on their investment. “We’re a $430 million enterprise, and we’re converting to digital resources,” he explains. “I believe that, through my national associations, I’ve saved our district a lot of time, and a lot of aggravation, and quite a bit of money, because I’ve had a chance to get around people who have worked out the bugs and (endorsed) some of the products that we ultimately ended up bringing in. Whether it’s a textbook series or the Chromebook versus iPad versus Lenovos, you just go down the list. We’ve learned from other people’s mistakes, and there’s a lot of value in that, in not repeating those mistakes.”
But does networking at this level necessarily require cross-country travel? Can’t a superintendent make informed decisions based on input from colleagues who are in closer geographical proximity?
“In order to grow your mindset,” replies Gonzales, “you have two options. You can either go see something in another part of the country, or you can go around locally. The local option is, obviously, the easier one, but when you cross this country in search of what’s happening in education, things look very different in other places. You have to go and see it. And then you have to establish those connections. Utilizing national connections is huge. Calling people, using LinkedIn, using those types of connections and getting involved in leadership groups through professional development programs is absolutely critical. I love the Center for Digital Education Chief Academic Officer Group I belong to, because when I leave them, I can usually say to myself, ‘OK I’m not crazy. I’m getting pushback on this, but all these other people are all getting the same pushback.’”
“I think it’s just the scalability of it,” remarks Joel. “I’m part of a more regional think tank group that I formed when I first became a small school superintendent here. And I love going there, not just because it’s good networking, but the truth of matter is, being from a larger urban district in a very rural state, I can bring a lot to them that I’ve experienced nationally that they don’t have. A lot of those participants haven’t had an opportunity to be as exposed to the national perspective as I’ve been able to, and there is so much happening on the national level that hasn’t hit a place like Nebraska. For example, we don’t have charters and vouchers quite yet. And it’s just now starting to pick up a little bit of steam. But I’ll tell you what, through my experiences across the country, I’m ready for it. I’m ready for that discussion and argument and whatever else it might lead to. I’ve seen and experienced these issues. I’ve sat on panels. We’ve discussed it. I feel that I have my own list of do’s and don’ts, and I think that puts us at a tremendous advantage. And a lot of the smaller school districts that don’t have that national exposure are going to be relying on me, along with other regional superintendents, who do, to be able to kind of lead the way.”
While these district leaders seem to endorse the concept of professional development and participation in prominent national events heartily, they also acknowledge that it is possible for district leaders to be traveling too much. They recommend a little common sense when planning a superintendent’s calendar. “I will say this,” Joel comments, measuring his words, “I think people who have suspicions or anger directed at public schools would be as upset with two days out of the office as they would with 25 days. That, to me, is fairly narrow minded. A superintendent who never leaves his office, he may not be as valuable to his district as he could possibly be. And you want your people to be out there networking, too. With that said, the furor, I think, is sometimes legitimate. It is possible to be gone too much. I think we’ve seen a couple of examples of that. You have to be able to justify why you’re out of the district. Our critics — and we have plenty of them — when they call the office, they expect us to be in. It’s a delicate balance, but you can’t be effective just staying in your district and sitting in your office.”
Joel can’t seem to overstate the value he attributes to the networking aspect of professional development. Due to the size and nature of his district, he is well justified in moving in national-level circles, as is his technology director. “That’s why we’re a good school district,” he says. “It’s why we’re able to sort of move the cheese and get the kind of results that the board of education and community want, because, again, we don’t limit ourselves only to Nebraska resources and to the Nebraska mindset, not that I’m in any way critical of that perspective.”
His observations are the unmistakable product of his considerable experience. He sums up his perspective on this issue, and it’s obvious that he’s spent more than a little time contemplating it. As he speaks, it’s easy to imagine him as that social studies teacher in Wilber, Neb., some 40 years ago. He makes his point thoughtfully, with impassioned confidence in the logic he’s sharing. “The superintendent’s job is a pretty lonely one. We’re looked upon for having all the answers in our home districts, and we do have most of them. But, you know, at the end of the day, we’ve got to get around people who are in similar situations and get our mojo back. And, even more importantly, we’ve got find out what’s working in some of these other districts where we’ve developed some relationships with colleagues. That’s not always going to sit well with everyone. But, you know, I think we have to stand tall and point out that none of us lives in a silo, and if we want to do the very best work we can for our kids, we have to get around the best thinking, and the networking that comes with that opportunity, is, in my opinion, invaluable.”
Gonzales seems to have forged a philosophy about leadership and character from her experiences, as well. “I just got an email from somebody who said, ‘Remember all that work you did and all the backlash you got? Everything we’re doing now and all we’ve done in the last two years is a direct result of that work.’ So, this is the interesting part to me: I think you have to be a person who’s willing to know that what you’re doing is right, and that many people are always going to question your efforts. Sometimes, the conflict will make you feel like you just wanna quit, like, ‘There’s too much backlash — I don’t want to do this.’ But that’s when you have to remember why you started and keep moving forward.”
As school districts continue to spend time and resources preparing their teachers and administrators to excel at their jobs, especially when major technology implementations are under way, it seems that it would be only logical that their highest-level executives would benefit from professional development opportunities of their own to help them achieve their mission.