Being a superintendent is challenging: restricted budgets, politicized decisions, emotionally-charged interactions with school stakeholders, and highly publicized mistakes.
Understandably, for new superintendents, the role can be downright terrifying. But the potential rewards are priceless. Few people have more influence in shaping the future of a community than a superintendent.
According to a 2022 study by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), almost half—46 percent—of respondents have five years or less experience as a superintendent. If you’re one of these new superintendents or know someone who is, this quick-start guide will help you navigate the challenges and avoid some of the common pitfalls of new superintendents.
The first months as a new superintendent
You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and there is a very short ramp-up period for a new superintendent.
From your first day on the job, people have expectations of you. Some people will want you to operate the same way your predecessor did; others will want you to shake up the status quo and make some changes. Everybody wants you to succeed, but their expectations are high even though you can’t know everything about the district right away.
The first few months of being a new superintendent are incredibly busy ones. There is so much to learn, communicate, plan, and do. Here is a rough guide of where to begin:
Days 1-90: Listen, learn, connect
For a new superintendent, the first 90 days are critical. You must work to strike a balance between not making changes too quickly and demonstrating visible progress.
Before you get started, prepare your personal narrative. You’ll be reciting it hundreds of times during your first 90 days as a new superintendent, so you should be able to explain your background, motivations, and values. Prepare some personal anecdotes and experiences that illustrate what has shaped you as a leader.
Focus on making as many good first impressions as possible:
- Visit every school and classroom
- Spend time with your leadership team
- Join the board meetings
- Find and meet with parent groups
- Talk to secretaries, bus drivers, janitors, etc.
Each of these interactions will tell you a little bit more about the culture, values, successes, and challenges of the schools and districts you are responsible for. They will also help you plant the early seeds of trust and create an expectation of open and honest communication that you can carry with you throughout your time at the district.
Address low-hanging fruit early by making obvious changes, but don’t feel the need to communicate your priorities or strategic direction too early. And don’t make any promises you may not be able to keep. You need time to assess the entire district before committing to any transformational change.
Above all, listen to your stakeholders. We live in a time when public trust in government, media, and education is at an all-time low. Discussion management solutions like ThoughtExchange can help new superintendents build trust through an introductory Exchange. This involves using ThoughtExchange to ask your community a single, open-ended question like: “What are some things you think our schools are doing well, and some things we can focus on to improve?”
You will build trust and confidence by asking a question, letting people respond safely in their own words, and then demonstrating that you heard them by acknowledging or acting on their input.
Days 90-180: Planning
Once you have gathered as much data and opinions as possible, synthesize the patterns and themes and analyze trends based on what you see within the district and your experiences in other districts. Then use those insights to start building your plan.
People want to know what you will do about what they have told you—but don’t rush your plan. Break down your strategic plan into three-month segments and detail what you’ll accomplish and how you’ll do it in each segment.
Once your plan is ready, your community will want to hear from you. Use an Exchange to share your plan and ask for feedback. By discussing your plan with your community and incorporating their feedback, you’ll earn a lot of goodwill and support—and far less dissent.
Days 180+: Executing your plan
Build a dashboard to measure progress toward the goals established in your plan and share regular updates with the community.
Try not to get caught up in the bureaucracy that comes with the job. When things get tough, spend time with the students—they’re a wonderful reminder of why your job is so important.
8 ways new superintendents are evaluated
1. Leadership and district culture
Districts expect new superintendents to provide leadership in all matters relating to education and establish a learning environment that supports the general well-being of students.
They also expect superintendents to create and execute a strategic plan, report annually on the results achieved, and predict future issues and challenges that can be addressed proactively or reactively, depending on the situation.
2. Policy and governance
A new superintendent should proactively facilitate planning, development, implementation, and review of the school board’s policies and inform the board of any changes to administrative procedures.
As appropriate, superintendents must also involve relevant stakeholders (teachers, parents, etc.) in developing and reviewing administrative procedures.
3. Communication and community relations
Another evaluation point is how well new superintendents take appropriate actions to develop and maintain positive internal and external communications.
This includes ensuring effective relations with government administrators, responding in a skilled way to media, and demonstrating consensus building, collaboration, and conflict mediation among their many stakeholders.
4. Organizational management
Effective organizational skills are a key part of any new superintendent’s role, especially regarding compliance with all legal and board mandates and timelines. Superintendents are responsible for defining the processes for gathering, analyzing, and using data for decision-making, setting and managing the annual operating budget, and ensuring the district operates in a fiscally responsible manner.
5. Curriculum planning and development
Another critical skill is the new superintendent’s ability to ensure that the school curriculum design, delivery, and integration align with the overall education plan and meet prescribed learning outcomes.
6. Instructional management
Superintendents must demonstrate proficiency in supporting instructional strategies, assessments, and resources that improve diversity and incorporate themes such as inclusion, respect, and acceptance into management culture.
7. Human resources management
Superintendents have overall authority and responsibility for all personnel-related matters. As such, they must demonstrate the ability to promote a high standard of collaborative professional leadership, effective human relationships, and a spirit of educational innovation and advancement throughout their district
8. Values and ethics
New superintendents must model appropriate value systems, ethics, and moral leadership. They coordinate social agencies and human services to help each student grow and develop as a caring, informed citizen. They also make provisions for a safe and healthy environment for students in schools and on district property and transportation.
5 tips for new superintendents
1. Create the strategic district plan
Strategic planning in education is the process of setting goals, outlining actions to achieve those goals, and deploying the resources needed to take those actions. A strategic plan describes how to achieve goals using available resources.
There are several ways new superintendents can approach strategic planning in education, depending on the priorities of the schools and the needs of the community it serves. Defined models provide a good springboard, but we recommend adopting an iterative process to find what works best for your school. Here are three examples of planning that can be applied, depending on your leadership style:
- The Plan on a Page works by identifying four areas of strategic planning with goals, measures, and an action plan. The four areas universally apply to all schools: student performance, human resources, partnerships, and equity.
- The VMOSA (Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategies, and Action Plans) Model helps education leaders define a vision and develop practical ways to bring about the necessary change.
- The Five-Step Model is a straightforward approach that begins by asking, “How well are we doing?” before defining improvements and a path to achieve them.
2. Build leadership skills
As a new superintendent, you’ll need a solid team behind you. Build and hone your team's leadership skills so you can rely on an excellent crew of empowered, competent leaders.
Make sure there is alignment at all levels of leadership to help with buy-in for your strategic plan. Numerous studies have found that successful alignment at the top improves cross-organizational outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly revealed that when employees perceive leaders at all levels of an organization to support a new strategy, it is more likely to be implemented successfully.
3. Encourage community involvement and engagement
Successful new superintendents understand the importance of establishing harmonious relationships with their surrounding community. Community involvement in schools can help increase access to learning opportunities, boost student retention, promote optimism among teachers, and improve attendance rates of children at school, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Building and sustaining community involvement in schools is challenging. Disagreements with board members and parents are inevitable. But there are plenty of ways to instill confidence in your decision-making.
To enhance the community’s participation in education, new superintendents should try to promote a school environment where community members feel welcomed, respected, trusted, heard, and needed. Giving communities a neutral platform to share their ideas and opinions is an excellent place to start. However, it can be difficult for schools to connect with the diversity of their community using traditional methods like town hall meetings, surveys, and focus groups.
Fortunately, new online engagement platforms like ThoughtExchange have made it much more manageable. These unbiased discussion management platforms provide community members with a safe and convenient way to share and learn from the diverse thoughts and ideas of others.
4. Listen to students
The students are a new superintendent’s reason d'être. However, amid all the planning and community engagement a new superintendent is responsible for, they often overlook student voice.
There are countless ways student voice can be captured and implemented to make a positive and meaningful change for all involved. Here are some successful cases where leaders prioritized student voice.
While decision-making frameworks often neglect to include students, there are numerous ways to center student voice in education initiatives using dedicated technology, tools, and initiatives, including:
- Granting student governments real authority
- Enabling anonymous insights using technology
- Supporting student journalism
- Hosting student-led conferences and debates
- Creating applied learning activities
As a new superintendent, try including your students in an Exchange to get powerful perspectives on what’s working in your district and what isn't.
5. Create more inclusive environments
As a new superintendent, you’ll hear from those parents and community members who are naturally vocal. However, to gain a more inclusive perspective, find a way to connect with the quieter community members and listen carefully to what they have to say.
To create an inclusive environment in your district, it’s also important to constantly challenge the unconscious biases that lead us to categorize, compare, and make assumptions that reinforce our own—often unintentional—favoritisms, preconceptions, and prejudices, as well as common stereotypes.
According to the latest study by the AASA, most school superintendents are white (87.11 percent) and/or male (74.55 percent). As such, these leaders must make a deliberate effort to understand and support the many other demographics that make up their schools and communities.
During our years in the education space, we’ve helped thousands of school districts connect with their staff, students, and communities to build solid foundations of trust. We’ve got experts to help new superintendents craft the best Exchange strategy and a library of tried and tested questions to draw on.