My top three priorities in becoming a new superintendent: Listen, listen, listen

I had an inkling the question would come up during the interview process, but I wasn’t sure how my response would be taken. During the interview process for the Superintendent position for Oakwood Schools in Ohio, I was asked the following question by a room full of educators: “What will be your top three priorities if selected as the next Superintendent”?

With a steady tone and direct eye contact, I provided the following response: “First, I will listen.” I paused to allow time for the interviewees to write down the response. Then, I stated the next priority, “Second, I will listen.” Waiting for a slight laugh or pause, I observed the room of educators carefully as they wrote down the response. Then, I shared my third priority, “Finally, I will listen.”

While I am humbly still processing the honor to serve as the next Superintendent for Oakwood Schools, I believe a lot of being selected is being in a place of listening to learn from others in the district. Too often, new Superintendents believe they must show their prowess as a leader by bringing in new ideas right out of the gate. Because it’s important to the students, staff, and community to provide the best education opportunities for students, leaders must first gain a deep understanding of the history, experiences, strengths, celebrations, feedback, and insights from the school community to formulate a true plan for sustained change.

Similar to many contracts for new Superintendents, I was provided with contracted days for transition. Those days are invaluable opportunities to invest in developing relationships and gathering insight. As part of the on-boarding process, I committed to spending some of this time in conducting “Listening and Learning Sessions”. While each district may have a different level with a sense of urgency for change and needs, establishing protocols to just listen is vital.

A foundational goal for any new leader is building positive relationships. While there may be an inner struggle to fight the urge at times to roll up your sleeves and dig into the work, the true success of the leader and district needs to be built on a mutual level of trust and relationship. It will take time and multiple conversations, but it can be the best investment in connecting with people individually from the beginning.

Therefore, I set up time to meet with each board member, district administrator, and building principal separately for an hour. My hope was to keep the “agenda” loose in getting to know them and their background, family, interests, and what you love about their district. I provided the following questions to them in advance to engage in some dialogue on any of the questions, or anything they’d like to share:

● What are your hopes, fears, and dreams as I lead in the school district and work with you?

● What do you love about being a Board Member/District Administrator/Principal?

● What is going well this year?

● What has worked well with your relationship with the previous Superintendent?

● What are three things I should be aware of specifically from your lens?

● What do you hope I accomplish in the first six months? In the first year?

● What are the best ways you like to be communicated with?

More from DALI: From ‘me’ to ‘we’: The importance of solid board-superintendent relationships

The goal wasn’t to get through all of the questions in one hour – and, that’s okay! Remember that you will have other times to connect. The hope is that this is the beginning of a lasting relationship which will springboard more open and honest lines of communication into the future through the transition and beyond.

In addition to meeting with the Principals, I also added time for them to show me around their school. I chose to conduct the tours during the school day and build time to also eat in the cafeteria with the students. A highlight was eating lunch with the preschool students!

In addition to the groups listed above, I did meet with the association president, as I realized the importance of positive relationships with that person also. It may be something to consider in organizing a staff meeting after school to talk with them also. I heard from one incoming Superintendent who actually met with each staff member before the school year began!

During the meetings and the tour, I let the other person lead the conversation and direction. The goal as the incoming Superintendent is to just listen and learn. I was not only gathering information on the person but also looking for themes across individuals. If you notice the questions above, I kept them positive and future focused with some actionable outcomes to consider. This helped me to draft key priorities that I could share with the Board of Education and District Leadership Team for feedback in the future.

After conducting the “Listening and Learning Sessions”, I felt that I accomplished the intended goals of deepening relationships, learning more about each person at a more personal and professional level, and identifying priorities to consider. Remember that although you may not feel any difference as a person from your current role, you are the new leader in that school. So, be aware of your facial expressions, questions, and demeanor when you may hear something different than what you may have experienced in the past; others may perceive your responses as something they have been doing wrong or something you believe should change. Therefore, I made sure to begin and end each meeting by reminding them that it is a “Listening and Learning Session”.

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Neil Gupta
Neil Gupta
Dr. Neil Gupta has been selected to serve as the Superintendent for Oakwood Schools beginning in August 2023. Currently, Dr. Gupta serves as the Director of Secondary Education for Worthington Schools. He is fortunate to serve in a district with a vision and focus “to empower a community of learners who change the world”.