Get a G.R.I.P. on Central Office Dynamics



You Need Grit, Relationships, Interactions, and Presence
Dr. Mary Lynne Derrington, Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee

A savvy newsuperintendent will make teaming with schools a priority for the district office staff. When district administrators embrace a philosophy of partnering with the schools, the result is a more cohesive district-wide student learning outcome. Isn’t that why you were hired? However, this is not to imply that the work is easy. I know from experience that changing the traditional culture and entrenched practices of district office staff might take considerable time. Superintendents early in the first year often encounter indicators of the school staff distrust or disrespect. Unflattering terms I’ve heard like "Head shed," "downtown," and "the glass palace" are metaphors schools have adopted to describe a collegial distance or disconnect between central office administrators and themselves. Thus, a new superintendent will determine if a relationship makeover between district administrators and school leadership is needed so the central office becomes a partner in the work of improvement. But first, change begins within the district office team itself.

I interviewed and collected data from over fifty superintendents through my work in preparing future superintendents. I identified ways that a superintendent’s district administration positively impact teaching and learning. I reviewed hours of interview data, searching for useful advice from these experienced leaders. The first step, they agree, toward transforming the traditional office-bound staff into a school support learning team is to develop a highly functioning district office.

To improve those learning connections with the schools, get a G.R.I.P. on your district dynamics: affirm your resolve to focus on learning, develop relationships, promote positive interactions, and be a presence among the staff. In brief, create a district office that helps not hinders school improvement beginning with these small but significant steps.

When you become superintendent, you are the new kid on the block—new to the position or new to the district or perhaps both. Conventional wisdom and perhaps your preparation program taught you to observe, listen, and get to know the school and community during your first year. Certainly a new superintendent who embraces a savior or lone ranger philosophy is unlikely to succeed in a team environment where the expertise and thinking of every member of the administration is essential for school success. However, the first year is crucial, as everyone is closely watching the leader to see what changes you promote and whether your words match your actions. Use this time when opinions and practices are forming to clearly state your beliefs about working together to support and serve the schools.

Changing the fundamental beliefs and work orientation of an established district office staff is a journey down a bumpy road. A new superintendent will need courage, commitment, and resolve in the face of opposition or, in the vernacular "grit." Howell Wright, superintendent of the 1750-student Rockdale ISD in Texas puts it this way: "Your district team must know your non-negotiables for student learning. Put the needs of children above the wants of the adults."

This statement does not mean, however, that a superintendent should take the "my way or the highway approach" with the district office team. Karst Brandsma, former superintendent of the 18,323-student school district in Everett, Washington, shares his philosophy. "Regardless of the price or political consequence, you have to push forward. You can push or pull the string across a table. Both ways will get the string to the other side. Choose the one with the least political consequence or damage."

One way to make beliefs known and promote transparency is to widely communicate them. Tim Yeomans, superintendent of the 1913 students in the Meridian, Washington, school district, makes clear his beliefs in a list of commitments he published to staff (Figure 1).

  1. I will build and grow positive relationships with the staff and the community for the express purpose of improving instruction for each student in the school district.
  2. I will create systems within the organization that will serve the purpose of improving instruction for each student
  3. I will develop my ability and the ability of those within our system to be able to perform successfully when the pressure to perform ins the greatest for the purpose of servicing each student in the school district.
  4. I will proceed with courage and professional resolve when it’s time to make decisions that are in the best interest of each student.

Figure 1: Tim Yeomans, Superintendent, Commitments

Be aware however, that it won’t be sufficient to simply publish your beliefs; you have to reflect daily on whether or not you are consistently implementing those beliefs. Mary Alice Heuschel, Washington State Superintendent of the Year 2010 and leader of the 13,824-student Renton, Washington, school district, also developed, published, and articulated a set of core values that became a "North Star" to guide her daily work. She reveals that she begins her day at home reading her guiding beliefs from a card taped to her bathroom mirror that reminds her to focus on the district learning mission through every action. She developed belief statements from each letter of the word ACHIEVE (Figure 2).


Achievement Opportunities

Community Partnerships

High Expectations

Implement Best Practices

Engaged Students

Vision Shared and Lives

Effective Parent Partnerships

Figure 2: M. A. Heuschel, Superintendent of the Year, Washington, 2010, Beliefs

Mary Alice also developed a statement and specific goals for each. That additional information can be found at

Make sure goals are in line with the work that needs to be done, advises Shari Brown, former superintendent of the Bellingham, Washington, 10,265-student school district. When new goals require changing business as usual, central office specialists might have reasons—some valid—regarding why they won’t work. In this time of compliance and accountability, district administrators could stay in the office round the clock and still not get everything done. Thus when developing an ethic of service to the schools, you need to skillfully move thinking from "the way we do it now" to "the way we will achieve more together." Sometimes a visual or metaphor assists others to understand the meaning in your words. Shari uses the picture of a hanging kinetic art mobile. The image illustrates that the work of individual administrators must complement not overpower each other to develop a cohesive district.

Karst makes the point that people need to feel good about coming to work every day. If you take that away, relationships become a problem. Howell agrees. "Improving learning district-wide is all about how we work together. I encourage vigorous dialogue with cabinet members. Get everything on the table. It takes time but we come away with a clearer understanding."

Tom Cappa, former superintendent of the Syracuse, New York, school district, advises others to notice when cabinet members go the extra mile. Such recognition is motivating to the recipient and models desired behaviors to others. Believing in a related philosophy, Karst developed a recognition system similar to his son’s Military Police Army Change of Command Ceremony in which a general privately commended the young man and handed him a gold challenge coin. The custom minted coin is a military tradition used to recognize achievement, create incentive, or show appreciation for duty, dedication, or a job well done. Karst adapted this idea and purchased "coins" about the size of a silver dollar. The coins are stamped with the school district logo and motto: "Continuing to Do the World’s Most Important Work, Ensuring Each Student Learns to High Standards"  When he observes a cabinet member performing extraordinary work in student learning, Karst privately recognizes the individual and awards a coin. Recipients of the coin often become emotional because the recognition is genuine, powerful, and unique. "People work very hard improving student learning. Honor that work," Karst concludes.

Carl Bruner in the Mount Vernon, Washington, school district of 5618 students first developed trust among his district team so the best solutions for resolving persistent student learning problems are considered. He said the administrators feel comfortable throwing out ideas and challenging each other. They question one another and risk asking for help or admitting problems. "I modeled what I was looking for," Carl explains. "I’d say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking. What do you think?’" According to this successful leader, you get things done through relationships at the cabinet level.

A superintendent will hear many concerns as to why refocusing the district office interactions with schools won’t work. Superintendents stress that a reliable strategy for engaging others takes a great deal of personal communication with each district leader. "Keep the discussion going back and forth—and listen," Tom and Shari both emphasize. Shari adds, "Know each of them as a human being. Know their job. Pay attention." Tom gave an example of his noticing how attention to details produced results. He told of a district administrator who would "string change along" believing that the superintendent would give up the goal. "He’d just give lip service without follow-through. His answers were always right but it seemed the work never got done." While this inaction slid by for a while, Tom realized he had to monitor the results, or in this case, lack of results of the delegated work. He was able to take action early because of communication and attention to detail.

"Understand the people you surround yourself with; that will make you or break you," confides one seasoned superintendent. This one-on-one time with each district administrator is not merely superficial chit-chat but dialogue that results in taking steps toward your learning goals. Some superintendents use a set of questions thoughtfully developed in advance to guide the dialogue. Mary Alice asks as one of her questions, "If you had three wishes to make this a better learning organization, what would they be?"

Be ready for a myriad of meetings in order to work effectively with your cabinet. The superintendents I interviewed spend much of the week communicating through various layers of communication. In one large urban district, the schedule looks like this: Monday the deputy and assistants meet, Tuesday the deputy, assistants, chief academic officers and the executive directors meet. Then the schools meet with learning leaders one-on-one because the cabinet has considerable influence and impact on shaping events at the school. It is not uncommon, to have meetings that lasted two to four hours some administrators report. However, when planning your agenda for each meeting, make sure the focus is on student learning and on only those items that are best performed by the team.

Be prepared for kick-back from some district administrators when you shift the traditional agenda to a student learning focus. "I’m still challenged trying to support individual administrators when I disagree," one superintendent confides. "They can be so single-minded at times. You have to learn how to respect the district administrators’ perspective and at the same time support the principals."

There is also the issue of recognizing when team members disagree. They might "clam up" and interactions and personal relationships can become strained. Trust erodes. The superintendent has incredible power; use it cautiously to draw out reluctant cabinet members. Superintendents agree that the best thinking of all must be represented, especially when the group discusses important initiatives with long-term consequences. Consider, for example, the flawed decision that might be reached if an initiative was put forth without the financial analysis of your business manager.

Some district administrators steeped in the intricacies of a special area, such as finance, forget to focus on the bigger school district picture. This single-mindedness might result in one-way communication to schools and even an unintended authoritarian stance. "I tell the district administrators to serve schools, not inspect or direct schools," Carl Bruner emphasizes. "We talk about the importance of follow-through and getting back to principals quickly." The district administrators are advised to notice seemingly small things like the busy times at the schools. "Why does the district call at 9 a.m. with questions?" an elementary principal laments. "That’s right when we’re getting kids into classrooms and dealing with parents or bus problems. It shows a total lack of connection with the school."

Some superintendents ask that top level administrators go out to the schools and not always expect school staff to come to the district office. Mary Alice, for example, attends school professional development sessions on late-start days. Moreover, she requires all cabinet members to be part of one as well. This helps the cabinet understand the schools’ learning challenges.

"Include more stakeholders than you ever thought of so they can understand," Howell says. Mary Alice meets with every district person, including those in facilities, and talks about student achievement. She emphasizes the support role each administrator has for helping students learn. As an example, the grounds director came up with a new lawn mowing schedule when he got the testing schedule and understood the importance of high stakes assessments. There is a significant difference between a district office team charged with the task of administering and one charged with the purpose of educational leadership. These superintendents act on the belief that every cabinet and district office team member contributes to student learning.

"I was told by our leadership coach that it’s my job to go first," Tim reflects. While the concept seems simple, its impact on Tim’s learning was profound. The tendency to apply pressure on others, not oneself, is strong given the superintendent’s positional power as well as the decentralized nature of the schools. As Tim says, "I learned the change began with me."

A new superintendent will be challenged to do everything now, be everything to everyone, address problems, and move the learning agenda forward. Get a G.R.I.P. on this avalanche of expectations by sending the right message to the team closest to the work—your district office administrators. Don’t delay in making your vision of service and support both clear and unambiguous. Bolster your expectations and develop positive communications and interactions with cabinet members, both as a team and as individuals. Building relationships in a team environment is not merely a social event but an essential part of your learning current operations and beliefs before leading the district into a more desirable future. Getting a G.R.I.P. on your district office requires a superintendent to balance on a teeter-totter of values. On one end you honor team members’ experience and wisdom; on the other end, you re-create roles and relationships between the district office and the schools. There will be ups and downs but persistence prevails. Your initiative, new and unfamiliar now, will become the future tradition. Drawing from the hindsight of his experience, Karst succinctly captures the need for a new superintendent to balance the past with the future: "Nothing will erode your credibility faster than not honoring the past before you guide them to the future." Carl adds, "The only reason the district office exists is to support schools." Embrace this philosophy are you are well on your way to a district-wide focus on learning.