Is She Your Next District Leader?
How to identify and nurture talent.
Dawn Ludovici had no aspirations to become an administrator until she was "subtly guided" toward the career.
"I'm not sure anyone said, ‘Dawn, you should think about going into administration,'" she says. "Instead, my principal asked me to lead more and more school initiatives and to supervise various programs. Then he suggested a couple of administrative courses at the local college. The district would pay for them. As I got into administration, I really enjoyed it. Each year I was offered a new opportunity, and eventually I ended up here."
"Here" is a job as assistant superintendent for instruction in a large cooperative education facility in upstate New York.
Ludovici's experience of being groomed for administration resulted in a slow but steady growth of confidence that she could do the job. That confidence, plus mentoring, resulted in a series of administrative positions, each one carrying greater responsibilities than the last.
Like Ludovici's district, other districts have found ways to "grow their own" leadership for the future. Current administrators "tap" teachers they think may have potential—encouraging them and offering small opportunities to take on additional responsibilities to "test the waters" of administration. It's a way for school districts to develop and nurture future principals, department chairs, curriculum specialists, and even superintendents.
Nationwide, there are 15,000 superintendencies, many of which have been and continue to be difficult to fill. The diminishing pool of candidates for the position is well documented by search consultants. Since most candidates for the superintendency come from the administrative ranks, some administrators recognize that their efforts to tap teachers with potential could have long-lasting positive effects for their districts and profession as these individuals move into leadership positions.
Patricia Portwood, associate superintendent for Academic Learning Community A in the Modesto, California, schools, takes an active role in encouraging and developing teachers to join the administrative ranks. Concerned about what she sees as an impending lack of leadership, Portwood seeks out teachers who are respected by their peers, have the capacity for self-reflection, and demonstrate strong interpersonal skills.
"I'm firmly convinced that you have to be a great teacher yourself," she says. "You have to understand the art and science of teaching before you can be an instructional leader. That's why I believe experience matters."
Portwood herself says she was tapped by her principal when she was a teacher and now tries to offer leadership opportunities to teachers in her district. One of those teachers was Mary Borba, who eventually became a principal in the Modesto school district and is currently an associate professor in the Multiple Subject Credential Program at California State University, Stanislaus.
"Pat's confidence in me gave me confidence to pursue the administrative path," says Borba. "She became my supervisor and continued to support, coach, and encourage me during my time as an elementary school principal. She really walked the talk and that made a difference for me."
What to Look For
Lisa A. Parsons, a former superintendent in Florida's Putnam County who now works with young people in residential placement, says that the teachers she encourages to become administrators are strong leaders well respected by their peers. Parsons says that strengths like commitment, intelligence, and a strong work ethic are essential for prospective administrators. Equally important, she says, is self-reflection and the capacity for growth.
"Individuals should have a good sense of what they know and can do, but they also need to look to others to develop their strengths," she says. "In other words, a prospective principal has to recognize the areas he or she needs to develop in order to become a strong leader."
In his 41 years in education, Charles H. Bohlen has tapped numerous teachers and administrators. Bohlen recently retired as an administrator in the Charlotte–Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. "I look for people who have a passion for providing the very best for all students," he says. "I also look for a ‘can do' attitude and the ability to learn new aspects of the profession at a rapid rate. And I look for ethical behavior," he adds.
Bohlen sees tapping future administrators as part of a working administrator's professional responsibilities. "It's important that we have the right people to do the critical work of enhancing educational opportunities for children of all abilities," he says.
Administrators who have a history of tapping teachers share an obvious respect for their profession. They tend to be experienced and confident leaders themselves and feel comfortable encouraging a teacher to leave the classroom. They believe that they personally have made a difference in their school districts; and despite the daily challenges, they enjoy their positions of responsibility. In addition, administrators who encourage teachers with leadership potential to consider administration have an eye to the future. Their vision extends beyond their own particular place and time; they may even have thoughts about their own legacy.
Having spent many years as a school leader, Patricia Portwood says she thinks a lot about "passing the baton." Because of her belief in what she calls the "stewardship" of her learning community, Portwood wants the next generation of administrators to have "passion and voice" to advocate for children.
It isn't about whether the next generation of administrators will keep in place the programs that she instituted, Portwood insists. "Those programs change and maybe new and better ones will take their place," she says. "It's about continuing the quality of education for children."
Still, some administrators feel it's not their job to encourage teachers to change their career paths. Parsons remembers suggesting to an administrative colleague that a particular teacher leader might make a good principal. "Why ruin her?" was his response. "She's a great teacher and she's respected by her peers." His view was that the teacher was already making a solid contribution to the school by staying in the classroom and acting as a teacher leader.
Principals may also fear they will be accused of favoritism if they offer leadership opportunities to a few teachers and not to others. And administrators may be too caught up in their own daily operations and decision-making to even think about encouraging others to join the administrative ranks. Finally, some administrators simply believe that it's better to recruit from outside the district in order to bring in new ideas, different philosophies, and a broader range of expertise.
"It's not about ‘recruiting' administrators," says Parsons. "It's about providing opportunities and encouragement to a person with potential to raise the level of the profession. In the end, if it feels right, the individual may decide to pursue administration. If not, he or she can choose to stay in the classroom and continue to be an excellent teacher."
Portwood says that sometimes teachers look at experienced administrators and think about their schedules, their problems, and their challenges and say, "I could never do that."
"And I say, ‘Yes, you can!'" Portwood says. "It takes practice and commitment, but you can do this job."