What Does Resilient District Leadership Look Like In Action?
Wondering what a former Olympic track and field athlete and the “Best Public Official” as named by D Magazine have in common? They are both school superintendents. Dr. Ian Roberts is the superintendent of Millcreek Township School District in Pennsylvania. Dr. Michael Hinojosa is the former superintendent of two of the largest school systems in the nation: Dallas Independent School District (ISD) and Cobb County School District in suburban Atlanta, Georgia.
Dr. Roberts, a New Leaders alum, and Dr. Hinojosa are resilient leaders—so resilient that both of their districts thrived during the pandemic, including demonstrated gains in student learning. In a recent webinar hosted by New Leaders, both leaders shared how they turned challenges into opportunities—and supported their teams, staff, and communities to do the same. By developing and implementing systems and structures, their leadership fueled the resilience of adults and students alike.
The past two years have presented a number of unprecedented challenges that had no singular or easy answers. Yet, Dr. Roberts and Hinojosa bounced back. Some would argue: they bounced forward. Here’s how they did it and their advice for school leaders right now.
Insights from Dr. Hinojosa, former superintendent of Dallas ISD
You have to be an empathic leader and listener as you are problem-solving. A lot of times when we’re leading, we’ve already been through anger, denial, grief. We’re already at acceptance. But other people are just entering those stages of change. You need to take that into consideration.
I believe in strategic abandonment. What do I mean by that? As education leaders, we want to do everything for everybody. But we need to give up the stuff that’s not working. If our work is not adding value, then we need to stop doing it. That’s how you get focused. Once a quarter, I ask my team: What have you abandoned?
I also believe in strategic thinking, not five-year planning, but looking ahead 18 months. Every quarter, my team pierces the next quarter, and things become much more clear: why you’re doing something and what needs to be abandoned at the system level. Once I internalized that concept, Dallas became one of the most innovative districts in the country.
We believe incrementalism is innovation's worst enemy. Our kids don’t need continuous improvement. They need quantum improvement, and we have to provide that.
Insights from Dr. Roberts, Superintendent of Millcreek Township School District
During the pandemic, we decided to have a ferocious focus on targeted and differentiated coaching for all our school and district leaders. We wanted to recognize their gaps and meet their needs.
We also kept our focus on a few things and how we could do them very, very well. Our magic number was three. The first was the instructional core. Second, empathy. And third, truly engaging community. We’ve always been student-focused, but we realized that if we’re not taking care of our adults, we’re not going to get through these times.
We prioritized coaching because we want to build the capacity of every single adult who serves children in our district. As an example, our school leaders worked with their teams to create common problems of practice. Based on regular classroom observations, we saw two themes that permeated throughout our schools: equity of voice and cognitive lift. That became the focus of our coaching.
The question that I always ask my team and every school leader is: What is most important right now? Resilient leaders are signal-senders. Every time we made a decision, we were sending a signal that it was going to be okay. We did this not by adding, adding, and adding on, but by only thinking about what is most important right now.
Resilient leadership is the fuel that motivates and sustains resiliency in teachers and students. This new school year provides another opportunity for district leaders to build the systems and structures that cultivate resilience and enable school leaders to feel connected and supported.