An Old Listening Skill That Serves Him Well

by Francesca Duffy

Rick Buresh was practically weaned from the cradle on a career track in education. Both parents and two of his grandparents spent their lives as teachers.

“I definitely remember my parents talking shop at the kitchen table, whether it was probing me about things that were happening in school, discussing the educational process or the challenges they were having with a certain kid,” says Buresh, who grew up in Mott, a tiny town in western North Dakota.

Rick BureshRick Buresh

Still, the notion of one day rising to the top ranks of a major organization wasn’t exactly his lifelong ambition.

“Being a superintendent in one of North Dakota’s largest school districts was not even a thing on his ‘to accomplish’ goals,” says Doug Johnson, who heads the state’s Council of Educational Leaders and has known Buresh since hiring him to teach high school math and computer science nearly 30 years ago.

Now in his third year as superintendent of the 10,350-student Fargo, N.D., schools, Buresh figures family history played a predestined role for him. “I have a multigenerational commitment, and it’s given me credibility with people I work with,” he says.

Buresh has taken advantage of the community’s confidence to pull off a few major feats, including the start-up of a new comprehensive high school, Fargo’s third, scheduled to open in September after the school board concluded that smaller high schools would offer more opportunity for student participation in extracurriculars. He’s also in discussion with two area institutions of higher learning to provide dual credit and early college experiences for students and is dealing with two area school districts on sharing business and student services.

He’s known as a collaborator and good listener, someone who has participated in the local teen suicide prevention group and attends varsity football games. “I’m a believer in the strong wisdom of crowds and that you get further when you engage people, not when you simply announce decisions from on high,” says Buresh.

In a school district with low staff turnover, the superintendent earns credit from some Fargo folks for maintaining the positive direction set by his predecessor, David Flowers.

“He pays attention to what everyone has to say, whether it’s a concern or a new idea,” says Nancy Jordheim, assistant superintendent for human resources in Fargo. “His first mode is to listen, and to listen thoroughly, and from that, we all come together and work collaboratively with one another because people feel valued.”

Buresh’s hand at building consensus also may stem from his formative years as a student in three divergent settings. As a 1st and 2nd grader, he attended a one-room schoolhouse, then spent the next half dozen years in a small town with 900 students before finishing in Bismarck, the largest district in North Dakota at the time, with about 5,000 students.

“That exposure to different school environments definitely added to my preparation as superintendent,” says Buresh, who spent the previous 31 years in Bismarck, the state capital, as assistant superintendent, principal and teacher.

He treasures the 11 years he worked as an elementary school principal and still counts as one of his career highlights the day he was invited back to Wibaux, Mont., in 1980 to be the commencement speaker for his first class of 6th graders who were graduating from high school.

Buresh says he finds students, teachers and principals at elementary schools to be naturally energetic and positive. “At that entry point in a child’s education, it’s easy to observe the incremental growth in the students we serve. It forms the positive feedback that energizes our work in the profession.”

Francesca Duffy is senior editorial assistant of The School Administrator. E-mail:


superintendent, Fargo Public Schools, Fargo, N.D.

Previously: assistant superintendent, Bismarck Public Schools, Bismarck, N.D.

Age: 61

Greatest Influence on Career: My parents and wife. I grew up in a household in which the practices, politics, challenges and rewards of being an educator were routine conversation. My parents were inspired and motivated by the students and families they served. My wife also was an educator, and spending time in her classroom as a volunteer when she was a student-teacher convinced me this was something I wanted to spend my life doing.

Best Professional Day: Early in my career as an educator, I aspired to be an elementary school principal. My 11 years as a principal included the best years of my career. I continue to believe no position is more rewarding and affirming than that of elementary school principal.

Books at Bedside: Brain Rules by John Medina and Lost at School by Ross W. Greene

Biggest Blooper: On the first cold day of the year, on my way out of the house, I reached into the closet of the still-dark interior of our home to grab what I thought was my new winter overcoat. Preoccupied, I proceeded to school. Upon arrival, my office mates got a good chuckle as I had worn my wife’s coat to school.

Why I’m an AASA Member: Networking with colleagues is critical to my work. I highly value these relationships as sources of information, advice and support. The professional development, publications and conferences provided through AASA are great sources of professional growth.