May 19

Perspective | Exploring North Carolina’s Aspiring Superintendent Program

In our last installment, we met three representatives from the North Carolina School Superintendent Association (NCSSA). Jack Hoke is the Executive Director who drives the mission to support the state’s educational leaders through professional development, legislative advocacy, legal consulting, and a wealth of networking opportunities. Dr. Rob Jackson has seven years of experience as a superintendent and serves as a mentor in the NCSSA Aspiring Superintendents Program. Dr. Eisa Cox is a new superintendent and a recent graduate of the program.

As our conversation continues, we discuss the features and the benefits of the Aspiring Superintendent Program as well as what participants are learning and bringing back to their districts. This unique program is a partnership between the NC SMT Center and the NC Alliance for School Leadership Development and annually provides 30 central office staff members the chance to learn the skills to become a superintendent. Though some of the mechanics of the program have been updated or augmented to manage the challenges of COVID, training typically includes 12 hours of leadership development, 12 hours of technical skills, and 6 hours with a Thought Partner (a sitting superintendent) over 6 full days.

According to Dr. Cox, “you can easily get caught up in the day-to-day, but these Leadership sessions bring you back to the real priorities of the role: creating a vision for your district, talking through best practices, managing board/superintendent relationships, creatively using all of our human resources in the right way, and of course critical teaching and learning.”

The program has several driving features:

Focus on best practices: These sessions always include speakers not only from North Carolina (who can speak to local legislation or nuances specific to the region) but professionals from across the country who can share a totally different perspective. These forums are interactive, engaging, and critical to uncovering and embracing the very best practices from the most innovative and experienced leaders.

Develop sought after skills that apply to all fields: While this program is crafted to support aspiring superintendents, the lessons learned will drive success in any discipline. Attendees are prepared to be better leaders, which can mean “being a superintendent,” but also someone who could support a superintendent or simply be a better employee, spouse, parent, or person. 360 feedback and instruments help participants pinpoint their leadership styles, strengths, and areas for growth; that feedback is invaluable to participants, whether they move forward as a superintendent or not.

Ongoing mentorship: While the six-day program is intensive and groundbreaking, the growth and development doesn’t stop on the final day. Rather, each attendee receives weekly check-ins with a Thought Partner (a current superintendent), bi-weekly meetings with their Executive Coach (a retired superintendent), an invitation to continuing leadership conferences twice yearly, as well as the ability to call or text one of these mentors when a challenge arises. “Having both a thought partner and an executive coach who have lived the position and can provide an unbiased opinion isn’t something that’s always available—and it’s absolutely critical,” says Dr. Cox. And a final bonus: Mr. Hoke makes clear to all aspiring superintendents that he is available to support them 24×7.

Thoughtful relationship-building: One drumbeat that persisted throughout this interview, was that relationships matter and that often, even the best mentor may not provide the best possible guidance if there is no rapport or common ground from which to build. For this reason, while Mr. Hoke seeks to provide a “bigger world” and new experiences to participants, he also excels (according to his graduates!) at making perfect matches between participant and mentor. He intentionally matches a minority leader with a minority participant, or a rural participant with a thought leader from a similar region. He notes that it’s easier for mentors to empathize with those they are guiding if they come from similar experiences. They can offer lessons and direction based on shared values and experiences, and that provides a lifeline that can’t be replicated without such thoughtful pairing.

Unparalleled networking: One strategy highlighted by all three is taking full advantage of networking opportunities. “During COVID, Jack pivoted to a digital platform, allowing the group to stay connected. Those connections have allowed me as a novice superintendent to reach out to others across the state who may have the same challenges as I have,” says Dr. Cox, “I might never have known them without the bridge Jack created. I may think my challenge is unique, but, doubtless, someone has experienced it before and can offer guidance.”

Both Dr. Cox and Dr. Jackson say that through all of this hard work, the one critical truth that drives them is that, as the instructional leader of their district, they must keep their focus on instruction. Their goal is to be the leader who can find those resources, expand their toolkit, and share what they learn so that teachers can focus on teaching.

So, what does a teaching moment at the Aspiring Superintendent week actually look like? “I have gotten my hands dirty—literally—in my Association training,” says Dr. Cox. She describes how Dr. Sam Houston and the NC STEM Center help ensure that STEM Education is front and center in every program. “What I most appreciate is that they always put us into the role of student and we actually do a STEM lesson, taught to small groups by a current teacher. When we regrouped to discuss, we learned we were responding to questions asked through a different lens: some through the lens of language arts, others through the lens of math, others through science and so on. The powerful ‘aha!’ moment was that STEM activities aren’t just about science. They truly are what Sam Houston preaches as ‘strategies that engage minds.’”

As we edge toward the end of another school year, a year in which every school and student had to adapt to the restrictions of COVID, everyone agreed that challenges abound. However, the pandemic forced leaders to be agile and creative problem solvers, and many of their innovations will persist, long after COVID clears.

Dr. Cox described this past year as learning to teach “different and together” and notes a few of the COVID-inspired approaches she brought back to her district:

A focus on continuing education. Professional development actually experienced an uptick during the pandemic because teachers didn’t have to travel to learn. And, coursework became more customized giving teachers everything they needed, custom cut for their specific challenges and circumstances.

Zooming to bring teachers together. Zoom meetings may have their pitfalls, but they can bring large groups from across the state together to plan, learn, and share best practices in ways that a teachers’ lounge can’t.

Re-engaging students. Hybrid learning—where a student can just hide behind her camera—presents lots of challenges but it also provided teachers ways to engage students. Sending home hands-on activities to be done with parents so “learning can take place wherever students are,” spinning off into small discussion groups, all non-traditional ways we survived hybrid learning can be applied and honed when kids are back in the classroom.

The message from recent graduates of the Aspiring Superintendent Program as well as seasoned veterans now serving as mentors is clear: Whether or not you become a superintendent, this program provides both the technical skills sessions and shared space for peers and mentors to help you get to know your own leadership style and grow as a leader. Says Dr. Cox, “This is the best learning and professional development any district leaders can participate in. The supports are unique, the networking is continuous, and Jack has a way of keeping us engaged and thinking together—even when we aren’t in the same physical space.

In our final installment, we will speak more with Dr. Jackson about his experiences with the Next Generation Superintendent Development program.

Overheard …

“Dr. Cox is a shining example of one of the best superintendents in the state, and what we’re trying to do with the Aspiring Superintendent Program.” – Jack Hoke, Executive Director of NCSSA

“To see graduates of the program not only become superintendents but to sustain their involvement in leadership is truly a blessing.” – Jack Hoke

“Those superintendents who take good advantage of the Association’s programs, networking, and coaching have persisted in leadership. They truly defy national statistics!” – Dr. Rob Jackson

Did you know?

42% of people who complete this program are promoted.

23 new superintendents have emerged from this program.

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