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My View                                           Page 15

 

Walking in Others' Shoes

BY WILLIAM A. CLARK

As part of the transition process into a new superintendent position, I planned to complete an entry plan, which encompassed activities that would help me understand the people, programs and priorities of the Warren County School District in northwestern Pennsylvania. With 12 schools and 650 staff members, I wanted to use my entry as the new superintendent to ensure everyone employed in the school district had an opportunity to be heard.

In my two previous superintendencies, a recurrent concern was that of low staff morale. The reasons I heard varied, but in each district the employees felt unappreciated. When I asked for examples, they ranged from pay freezes among teachers during a fiscal crisis to a lack of visibility of the central administration.

As the new superintendent in Warren County, I considered setting up a process that I would call “Walking in Your Shoes.” The idea came from a network TV show called “Undercover Boss,” during which the leader of a major company would leave behind the corner office to work shoulder to shoulder with employees without them recognizing his or her true identity. Over time, the boss would fill various positions within the company to gain a broader perspective of employees’ roles and concerns.

The boss on the TV series would learn professionally and personally about the employee being shadowed. At show’s end, the boss would call each employee individually into the chief executive’s office, reveal his or her true identity, thank the employee for working hard, and usually offer a reward for outstanding performance. The reward might be a pay raise or financial assistance to pay for classes needed by the employee to move ahead in management.

Transparent Selections

I did wonder whether a Walking in Your Shoes program might be a silly idea with little likely impact on the school system. But when I mentioned the idea to teachers and aides in the auditorium at the professional learning day at the start of the school year, they responded with boisterous applause, which assured me this was a step in the right direction.

The logistics of employee selection needed to be transparent and fair. To randomly select school district employees, a random number generator app was downloaded, with each employee assigned a number. The selection of the first employee took place at that opening professional development day.

The first staff member selected was a cafeteria worker, Rose, at Youngsville High School. When I arrived on the designated day, Rose had an apron for me. She provided a quick orientation as we moved from station to station during the lunch period. With Rose’s help, I gained a renewed appreciation for cafeteria workers and the skilled duties they perform to serve the students a quality meal.

On another occasion, I covered for a physical education teacher, who had used an outside grant to purchase compound bows for archery instruction, a new activity. The students were taught the proper shooting techniques. During my time in the classroom, I not only learned a new hunting skill but also discovered how physical education instruction benefited students. I watched as students who had never handled a bow gained confidence in their abilities in ways that probably never would have happened without this class.

Renewed Appreciation

Later in the school year, I walked in the shoes of an administrative intern, a middle school social studies teacher, a nurse assistant and a building aide.

I thought the entry plan I devised would be seen as a new opportunity for staff members to talk to the district’s new superintendent, but the Walking in Your Shoes program became more than the entry plan. It provided me a renewed appreciation of the critical role played by individuals in various aspects that make school operations a success.

William Clark is superintendent of the Warren County School District in Warren, Pa. E-mail: clarkw@wcsdpa.org


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