Dr. Heath Morrison | Superintendent, Montgomery ISD
Every leader has a story to tell, not about our resume but about the events in our pathways that shaped us. I was first in my family to graduate from college and had never really considered the thought of education as a career.
My plan was to become a lawyer, where I wanted to change the world through law. Before enrolling, I took a year off (and lived with my parents) to work, so I could earn enough money to pay for law school.
During my undergraduate coursework, I had taken a few education classes I really enjoyed, so the thought of teaching for a year appealed to me. I ended up falling in love with teaching and found my passion. During that first year, I knew I never wanted to do anything else. I loved teaching and felt my time in the classroom was the greatest thing in the world.
Over several years, one of my principals kept encouraging me to become an administrator, and I kept saying “no,” as I did not want to leave the classroom. Finally, the principal said two words that changed my life: “required opportunity.” He no longer gave me a choice to stay in the classroom. He had an opportunity for me to move into administration, and I was required to accept the position.
I started as an assistant principal and was fortunate to move up the levels of administration, eventually becoming the superintendent in Reno, Nevada, a large school district of approximately 65,000 students. Soon after, I became the superintendent of Charlotte Mecklenburg, another large school district of about 150,000 students in North Carolina.
Now, when people ask me what I do for the district, I sometimes will say that I am a teacher on special assignment as superintendent. In this role, we must be good teachers, and we must be life-long learners.
Here are a few lessons learned during my leadership journey.
Think for a moment about a bullseye target. It is made up of a series of circles. The center-most ring is the heart of the target and is where the most value lies. We aim for the center of the target because we get the highest reward if we successfully hit the bullseye. As the rings of the target get further away from the center, the smaller the reward.
I submit the notion that school business is like a bullseye target. The center of the target is the students. They are the highest value and are why we are here; everything we do must be targeted to improve their lives and set them on a trajectory of future success.
Our charge as superintendents is to create the best outcomes possible for every student.
Superintendents cannot teach every student in our school district individually, so we must support those who work most closely with the students: our teachers. They interact with the students every day and have the most dramatic and immediate impact on their success.
Our support staff, cafeteria workers, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, principals and superintendents are here to support our teachers. We should avoid getting so caught up in our own duties that we miss opportunities to provide help, support and guidance — to add value — when we can. If we are asked for help, we should provide it.
Servant leadership is an important core value for superintendents and simply means our mindset begins with always asking how can we help, how can we provide support and how can we serve others. Those values we hold dear guide the decisions we make. If we lead with our core values, people may disagree with some of our decisions, yet they will never doubt our motivations.
In his important book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey’s concept of first seeking to understand then to be understood resonated with me in a profound way. Applying that concept in the education world simply means effective leaders must understand their districts and communities before they ask their districts and communities to follow them as leaders.
Entering a new district with the assumption that what worked in our previous district is going to transfer to our new position can be a fatal strategy.
I have witnessed many leaders go into their new districts and immediately start changing things. They wind up moving too fast or emphasizing the wrong things, which alienates a lot of people. Often, leaders do not recover from mistakes made in their first few days in the new district. There is a better way.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to think thoughtfully and strategically about how to enter a new district as superintendent. The best entry plan begins with the homework you have done preparing for the interview and hiring process, which allows us to learn a lot about our new school district.
We have interviewed with the Board and learned their concerns and expectations, which provides a solid foundation for us to be ready to do a good job on day one.
In Texas, school Boards must wait a minimum of 21 days after naming the lone finalist before they can hire that person officially. That period provides a perfect opportunity to begin a well-executed entry plan and facilitate the right first impression.
Internal candidates moving into their first superintendency will benefit from an entry plan as well. To be successful as a new superintendent, first-time superintendents must recalibrate their role and perspectives. The community, faculty, staff and Board know you from your current position. They do not know you as a superintendent, and successfully executed entry plans can help you change their perspective as you make that transition.
I support the notion that a good entry plan should cover at least the first 30 days and up to the first 90 days on the job. This is an opportunity to be visible, listen deeply and learn. Talk to as many people as you can.
A great place to start is by reaching out to individuals and/or groups the school Board recommends. The former superintendent and staff members at all levels of the organization can also be excellent resources.
It is important to ask everyone the same set of questions. For example: What is great about the district? What in their opinion could be better? Where are our opportunities to become extraordinary? And, what threats do you see? During these conversations, ensure you heard their answers correctly by verbally repeating their answers to them and giving them an opportunity to correct or affirm that you internalized their answers.
As people share their thoughts, the most important data points are mentioned more frequently. You will be able to triangulate the data and get some idea of where the priorities lie, and the results of your entry plan will begin to come together.
Finally, you must share those findings publicly and often. It is important to present the findings to the Board and the community in public ways, either through a Board meeting presentation, community meetings or Facebook live — or a combination of all of these methods.
Then build your next steps and plan of action based on what you learned during execution of your entry plan. The community will respect and support your efforts to meet them and learn their thoughts, and actions aligned with those findings will be very well received by your new community.
Many public sector leaders, including superintendents, feel guilty about investing in their own professional development, but it is so important to grow professionally. To be effective, we must always do what we can to grow our skills and stay current. Building our professional network and being life-long learners allow us to better serve our communities.
Oftentimes, superintendents may feel they have unique challenges, and sometimes they do. However, often we are dealing with situations or challenges that our friends and colleagues in other districts or other states have already faced.
The superintendent world is a giving community. There are approximately 15,000 school districts in the United States, and the amount of experience and wisdom in those leaders is a valuable resource we can lean on and ask for help and support. The network of superintendents supports each other. No matter where we serve, we can pick up the phone and call a fellow superintendent, and they will take our call, share their advice and connect us with others.
Every superintendent who has the honor of serving children should reflect on his/her leadership journey. My journey has taken me from being the first person in my family to graduate from college to being in a position to ensure that every child in the district I serve has that opportunity or is ready for a meaningful career or the military. I have been fortunate to serve K-12 education in both the public and private sector. The goal is to set an ambitious agenda of excellence and to make sure every student walks across a stage at graduation with a diploma that truly speaks to their readiness for a better tomorrow.
Serving others, networking, seeking to understand! That is our superpower!
Dr. Heath Morrison serves the Montgomery ISD community as its superintendent of schools. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Planning and a Masters in Educational Administration from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s degree in government from the College of William and Mary. He may be reached at Heath.Morrison@misd.org.