Guest Column

Listening to Young Voices in the Leadership Quest

by By Rene Townsend and Walt Buster, partners, Leadership for Education, Encinitas, Calif.

Advertisements for superintendent openings describe some leadership qualities and attributes that are universally desired. Others reference unique needs.

As search consultants to boards of education, we listen to everyone who wants to share their ideas about what the district needs in the next superintendent. Their thoughts enlighten us. As Margaret Wheatley, author of Turning to One Another, says: “[H]uman conversation is the most ancient and easiest way to cultivate the conditions for change.” Conversation begins with listening. And what is good listening? Wheatley says: “Simply listening. Not advising or coaching, but silently and fully listening.”

For someone aspiring to the superintendency or someone on the sidelines wondering what people look for in their next leader, we thought it might be useful to share a sampling of what we are hearing today when we listen to district constituents. Our summaries fall in four categories: personal qualities; general professional behavior; specific professional behavior; and personal background, education and training.

Fun and Charismatic
On personal qualities, we asked: “What kind of a person do we want?” In summary, we heard this: “We want someone who is fun, easy to talk with and understands kindergarteners and 8th graders. We want a person with charisma and honesty. Most importantly, we want a person who respects students and doesn’t embarrass them or use sarcasm.”

On general professional qualities, we asked: “How do we want our superintendent to behave?” Respondents said: “We want someone who has a vision for the whole district and is interested in everything, not just academics. We need someone who prevents problems, doesn’t wait for them to happen, who faces problems and doesn’t ignore them; who isn’t afraid to change things for the better and tries something new even if it doesn’t fit with his original plan.

“We want a superintendent who is thrifty, cares about others, builds team spirit, knows peoples’ names, and helps with diversity to ease the tension between people. The superintendent should have patience, trust the principals and tell people all the information he can. And the superintendent should do what he says when he says he’s going to, and admit when he screws up and then repair his faults.”

In soliciting insights on specific professional qualities, we asked: “What do we want our superintendent to do?” Respondents: “We want a superintendent to come to the classrooms and congratulate students on good work. We want a responsive superintendent who is quick to respond to events and crises (like 9/11/01) because that’s reassuring. We want someone who hires a very good secretary, finds money to get the things we need, and who hires teachers who speak English fluently, are strict and make learning fun.

“The superintendent should see firsthand what the schools need, and should support the individuality of each school while connecting them all together. We want the new superintendent to come to the schools, introduce herself and tell us what the superintendent does. She should share her plans; it’s good for teachers and principals to share, but if it’s her plan, she should share it.”

To get at background, education and experience, we asked: “What do you want the superintendent to bring us?” Respondents: “We want someone who has teaching experience, can talk to people of all backgrounds, and knows that all children are smart. We want our superintendent to be organized and know what to do at work.”

Youthful Wisdom
Because we listen to a wide array of voices within a school district, these comments could have come from board members, parents, school staff or community members. They didn’t. These were the views strictly of middle school students. The 6th, 7th and 8th graders represented all aspects of diversity—ethnicity, socioeconomics, background and outlook. Of course, being middle schoolers, they also represented every height, weight and body shape.

Wisdom comes in many forms. We think this list of desired characteristics proves the wisdom of children. Lois Brown Easton, in an essay for Education Week, had it right when she wrote, “Student voices can be powerful forces for school reform, but we seldom ask for or listen to them. Adults usually make the decisions about what will happen to students in schools without involving them in the conversations … trying to make schools better for students without involving those who have the most at stake. We could learn much if we just listened to students.”

We agree. The students also offered this caveat: “Be sure to balance the opinions of students and adults, because sometimes students don’t really know what they need.”

Our favorite response came from a tiny 6th-grade girl, who responded to our question about whether the board should hire someone from outside of education to be the superintendent. She replied: “Oh no, I don’t think you should hire someone from business, because they’d come in, be shocked and wonder where all the kids came from.”

Students may not know everything, but they sure are smart.

Rene Townsend, a former superintendent, is a partner in Leadership Associates, 1217 San Dieguito Drive, Encinitas, CA 92024. E-mail: Walt Buster, a former superintendent, also is a partner in the superintendent search firm.