Jul 12, 2019 2019-07-12
By Jill Siler, Ed.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part blog series.
Every district is on a journey. The incredible part of serving as a superintendent is having the privilege to help guide that journey based on what students need to be successful. When I came to Gunter ISD seven years ago, our students and staff were highly successful (test scores, extracurricular success, college-entry, etc.) yet our students, staff, and school community yearned for something more. At the same time, districts across the nation were launching technology initiatives, from BYOD to 1:1 with a multitude of devices. We were largely unable to journey down that path at the time due to a number of challenges. This shaped our journey immensely.
The most significant challenge we faced was financial. From significant declines in enrollment to decreases in property values and a reduction in state funding, we found ourselves in financial crisis. Not only were there no funds for devices, but there was also little money for Wi-Fi and the staff to truly implement such an initiative. However, it wasn’t just financial challenges we faced in this journey; it was also academic, but not in the way you would think. We were very “successful” in our accountability system. Our teachers understood the test and our kids were prepared, but that was accomplished through very traditional instruction with little room for innovation or inquiry. To move further in a journey towards innovative learning was risky as there was so much emphasis locally on the state test and state accountability system. Finally, there were challenges related to capacity, from a lack of infrastructure to minimal staff and insufficient personnel development.
What perhaps was a perfect storm that could halt our journey became a gift in successfully launching our journey. We were given the gift of time to watch and learn how other districts moved forward, see the challenges they faced and let their learning inform our journey. It gave us the time necessary to envision where we wanted to go, to elevate our expectations and foster a culture necessary to accomplish the work, to equip our people to be successful in this innovative practice, and to start thinking about how we would extend our learning in the future.
ENVISION: Our goal was to be thoughtful and strategic in our visioning process and we did so by involving hundreds in our Strategic Planning Process. We focused on five areas that we felt could move our district forward: innovative learning, preparing future-ready students, building capacity in our students and staff, ensuring social and emotional wellness, and preparing for the growth as we are located in a high-growth corridor. The magic isn’t in the outcome or the actual paper plan; the magic is in the conversations that occur while developing the plan. We talked with our teachers, students, graduates, and community about the kinds of things they wanted our learners to be able to know and do, and their voices impacted our work immensely.
We also wanted our vision to be grounded in theory and practice. We read books like The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros and Learner-Centered Innovation by Katie Martin, which had a profound impact on our school community. We also took multiple site visits around the state to schools and districts that were immersed in this future-ready work – places like SunnyVale ISD to see how they were empowering students in their digital integration process and incorporating flexible seating in their classrooms; Alamo Heights ISD to see how they scaled their Engaged Learning Model across the district; Lubbock-Cooper ISD to see how they focused on social-emotional learning on various campuses; and Georgetown ISD to see how they utilized a school with moving walls and shared spaces to build stronger collaboration and multidisciplinary learning into their campus. These visits made a huge impact on our staff. One of our veteran third grade teachers noted the following:
Going with a group of other teachers to Royse City and Sunnyvale for a site visit was one of the most impactful experiences in my teaching career. I’ve read Teach Like a Pirate and Learner-Centered Innovation and visiting those two school districts tied it all together. Classroom environments have changed and so did mine after these experiences. Once you make a change like this, it makes you rethink all of your lesson plans, wanting them to be even more fun and engaging. That is in the back of my mind each time I create a lesson plan for my students.
As leaders, our job is to paint a picture of where we are and where we want to go and help forge a path to get there. Spending time deeply discussing our hopes and dreams for students and showing what “could be” through a visioning process helped accomplish that.
Jill Siler, Ed.D., is the Superintendent of the Gunter Independent School District in TX and now serves as the Chair of the Future-Ready Superintendent Leadership Network through TASA where innovative leaders from across the state gather to learn, share and grow together. Jill has a passion for helping raise up other leaders and is a frequent speaker at TASA’s Aspiring Superintendent Academy, First-Time Superintendent Academy and other leadership conferences. You can follow Jill on Twitter @jillmsiler or at jillmsiler.com