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Finding Your Voice Matters: The Importance of School Leaders

The public voice of school superintendents and school leaders has been muted for too long, largely due to school improvement mandates that have them on the defensive.

Often, their voices are interpreted as support for the status quo–or, worse–as an impediment to positive change. It’s time for all that to change.

Engaging in conversations about success for ALL students is not a choice. Educational leaders must be present in these conversations, and help find solutions.

A school superintendent cannot focus on only what happens within the boundaries of the school district. Nor can they let the narrative for school improvement be dominated by outside interests. Change that matters is led by leaders who see opportunities in their educational system, and who understand their role in navigating the influences, political and otherwise, that shape educational policy.

Complex legislative conversations at the local, state, and federal levels necessitate that superintendents and other school leaders develop a strong voice on these issues. For many leaders, this means playing a new role. Researcher Todd Hurst at the University of Kentucky explains:

The modern superintendent does not have the luxury of ignoring the politics inherent in the position. Shifting cultural norms and an increasing politicization of the educational system have forced superintendents to become active political players. Everything from the content standards to public school financing is fodder for political dialogue playing out at the local, state, and even national level. In response, superintendents must develop coalitions among broad stakeholders within their communities regarding policies and political topics inside and outside of the schoolhouse.  

In our own research, Dr. Sally Zepeda and I found that a superintendent voice is critical to school success. But a strong voice first requires credibility:

Superintendents, your voice must be the loudest and strongest if we expect to educate all children in this country. The challenge in creating your voice remains with the level of credibility garnered in the everyday conversations and the trust established at the local level and beyond.

Stepping out with a strong voice introduces certain risks. These risks mean that superintendents have to be both purposeful and tactful when they speak out on critical issues. The ability to voice ideas without wading into personal attacks is key in establishing credibility and integrity.

So, what steps can superintendents and school leaders take to establish a strong, credible voice when speaking out on critical school issues?

  1. Superintendents should be transparent with every member of their school system. Create opportunities for school boards to express themselves and stay informed about the positions they take on local, state, or federal policies. Make sure staff and teachers are informed of action or works that might impact their professional work.
  2. Establish working relationships with local government agencies and use joint strategic planning to move forward together, with the support of other local agencies.
  3. Get to know local and state legislators by reaching out when they are not in legislative session. Have conversations before legislative actions and before they become contentious debates to build trust and credibility.
  4. Engage community agencies and faith-based organizations in conversations on shared work, and by serving as advisors for each other’s organizations.
  5. Actively engage in federal and state professional organizations through committee work at all levels to influence policy and regulations. Every involved educational leader contributes to developing effective solutions.
  6. Work closely with local Colleges of Education to bring new insight into educational policy and establish a strong unified coalition from Kindergarten through postsecondary. Colleges and universities are significant contributors to these conversations.
  7. Ensure community stakeholders–including students and parents–have a voice in important policy debates by actively asking them for their feedback and providing easy ways for them to make their opinions heard.

The voice of the school superintendent matters! How have you used your vision and experience to influence policy? Does the narrative to improve come from the experts or outside interest groups in your community? How do you lead with your voice? Tell us in the comments.

For more insight into the emerging role of leaders, read The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate All Children. Dr. Philip D. Lanoue and Dr. Sally J. Zepeda’s goal in writing this book published by Rowman & Littlefield, and as a joint publication with AASA, is to engage superintendents and leaders by asking different questions about their roles in leading schools and communities.