Reflecting with candor on her own tenure in district leadership, the author details the challenge of making the process ‘protective, transparent and relational’
This article was originally published in School Administrator Magazine by Jennifer P. Cheatham — June, 2023
Jennifer P. Cheatham
Jennifer Cheatham, a former superintendent, is a senior lecturer on education and co-chair of the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. She is the author of Entry Planning for Equity-Focused Leaders: Empowering Schools
Superintendent evaluation is more precarious than ever. High performance is harder to define, given the considerable divisions in our nation’s political arena and among boards of education. In the past, the school board’s lowering of a single rating on the superintendent’s evaluation could signal waning confidence and serve as a death knell for the top leader’s tenure. Nowadays, mysterious, unscheduled closed-session meetings are catching our colleagues entirely off guard.
You’re in one day, and you’re out the next. Protective actions in superintendent evaluation are more important than ever. But so are learning and growth.
A Few Lessons
In my role as a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I work with superintendents from across the country and study equity-focused leadership, I find myself wondering how can leaders use the performance evaluation process to protect themselves while also fueling their professional development and supporting a healthy relationship with the school board. The best evaluation process ought to adhere to some basic tenets defined by state school board and superintendent associations that diminish the usual challenges. The process is
more effective when aligned to a set of agreed upon competencies. It is more meaningful if multiple forms of agreed-upon data on both inputs and outputs fuel it. And the process is more impactful if it is both formative and summative so there are no surprises. However, superintendent evaluation that is protective, developmental and relational may require more than what is outlined in guidance documents from professional organizations for superintendent evaluation. I’ve developed a few lessons, drawing on my own experiences in school system leadership and my work with superintendents across the country, that may be most instructive today.
Defining superintendent excellence as ongoing.
When I was starting my job as the superintendent in Madison Wis., I sought the counsel of several trusted colleagues to learn from them about the design of their evaluation processes. Chris Johns, who was the superintendent of Utica Community
Schools in Michigan at the time, offered this sage advice: “Never take your hands off the steering wheel.” Given her successful 14-year tenure in the second-largest school district in the state, this was wisdom I took to heart. As a superintendent, I came to believe that
keeping my hands on the steering wheel started with ensuring the board’s shared understanding of my job, as their feedback would be meaningless otherwise. As we know, school board members run on various platforms but rarely, if ever, express their interest in or ability to manage, support and evaluate their sole employee, the superintendent. While comprehensive sets of superintendent competencies are available today, I had to work with my then-board president to cobble a framework together. And I’m so glad I did. The process of working with the board in those first few months as we fine-tuned the competencies and related indicators was powerful as it helped us calibrate the most critical functions of my work.
The competency categories we came up with
weren’t anything unusual:
– Organizational climate and culture
– Board relations
– Instructional leadership
– Budget/operations management
– Talent/performance management
– School-community relations
Designing and agreeing on the competencies helped my board members understand that the superintendent job is broad and deep. Every aspect was required for organizational performance as defined by board goals. I wanted to be held accountable for results, but I also needed them to create the conditions for me to do my job well, as we had defined it.
Simply defining the competencies, however, would not be enough to keep the board calibrated on our shared understanding. Many superintendents compile reams of evidence each year to demonstrate their capability as a leader, a time-consuming, albeit protective, task. Yet the practice of collecting demonstrative evidence can help to bring the competencies to life. From school visits and professional development schedules to departmental implementation plans to speeches and fundraising efforts, it is essential to illuminate what our job looks like for our boards. I remember one board member suggesting I share my work schedule with them each week, and I did so gladly. I wanted them to gain insight into the job.
Many superintendents also conduct, by contract, an annual self-evaluation. Like everything else, writing it can be protective in many ways, especially given that our self-evaluations often serve as the basis for the summative evaluation provided by the board. But I savored the opportunity to use the process to give my board members more insight into my work, its challenges and its possibilities. I meticulously reviewed the evidence I had compiled each spring, sharing with them my best thinking on strengths, areas of growth and next steps. It was never a show and tell but a thorough examination of my work.
The lesson here is to use every step of the evaluation process to engage one’s board in an ongoing dialogue about what the job entails. With so much turnover in the superintendency and on our school boards today, this practice seems more crucial than ever.
Engaging in authentic reflection requires processing with others.
I remember a couple of years ago talking with two Massachusetts superintendents I was coaching, one male and one female, about the annual leadership survey results they received during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the personal trauma they had experienced during the crisis, both recognized their impulse to set the feedback aside. Even a simple glance at it was emotionally triggering. While understandable, we eventually took the time to look at the feedback together, to take stock of the affirming data, to explore multiple interpretations of the critique and to provide space for their teams to consider them as well. I say this because many superintendents engage in a 360-degree process where they collect feedback from constituents on their leadership competencies as part of their evaluation. This is some of the most important feedback we receive as superintendents, but it can be worrisome to hand it over to our boards. Finding space to make meaning of the results, on our own terms, is as important as the results themselves.
For me, it went something like this. I’d start by reviewing the report alone, usually on a quiet Sunday morning. I needed to pull off the Band-Aid in private, knowing that, like most human beings, I would zero in on the harshest criticism and then experience some combination of self-loathing, hurt and indignation. Once I let out some steam, I reread the results, eventually including my senior team and members of my principal advisory team, to help me see what I couldn’t see.
What needed the most unpacking always were concerns that conflicted with my perceived strengths and, again, it wasn’t my board that could help me do the unpacking. I absolutely wanted to share with them what I learned, but first I needed to make sense with the people behind the numbers.
For example, one area consistently rated lower than others, much to my chagrin, was my ability to provide my direct reports and principals with the authority, support and coaching they needed to do their best work. Granted, most people rated this highly, but some experienced my leadership differently. What my direct reports made clear to me was something I knew but was reluctant to admit, which was that early on in my tenure, my default leadership style was to set the pace and then criticize those who didn’t meet my standard, especially those on the instructional team given my work history as an instructional leader.
Despite my training as both an instructional coach and a change coach, in some instances, I wasn’t using a coaching leadership style, even when I knew it was more effective. As hard as it was, I was grateful for actionable feedback and insights I could share with my board.
The lesson here is that it can be tough to digest criticism, much less share it with your board members, when a superintendent is low on fuel. Finding space and partnership for processing the results is essential, as is communicating that need with your board. Intentional meaning-making can increase clarity about crucial leadership moves you then can share confidently with your board as part of the formal evaluation process.
Communicating your learning edges requires vulnerability.
No superintendent loves having their summative evaluation shared in a public document, even when positive. That’s because its publication is often, if not always, performative to some degree. Given the performative nature of the summative evaluation, it is crucial for superintendents to regularly communicate with staff, community leaders and the public so that the summative assessment is only one piece of information in a larger communications plan about district progress. When superintendents communicate about progress, positive and negative, the specter of the public summative evaluation becomes less intimidating.
But what about communicating your own learning as a leader? I know that, like every capable superintendent, I was doing everything I had learned as an education leader. I wasn’t holding anything back. The annual evaluation process and the associated reflection helped me solidify where I felt confident in our current strategy and where changes were needed. But the reflective process also surfaced authentic learning edges — areas where I had ideas about what we should do but could see I was exploring new territory.
Recently, I was engaged in a feedback protocol with the leaders of some of our nation’s largest school districts. When I suggested to a superintendent that she might share what she was learning with her community in the aftermath of recent struggles, she was unequivocal in her belief
she could not do so. As a female superintendent of color, she believed the scrutiny was too intense.
This is our reality, but I’m convinced that by expressing our selective vulnerability, we can build more trust and better relationships with our boards and our communities. Many superintendents I know regularly meet with community leaders, including prominent institutional leaders, for off-the-record advice. They share their progress, but also their worries and fears. By putting themselves out there as both leaders and learners, they not only benefit from the unique viewpoints of their colleagues but build trust with a group that holds a vested interest in their success.
Others have started using social media and other communications mechanisms in new ways. I started to write a monthly column in a local online newspaper to share deeper insights that couldn’t be captured in a tweet. In my columns, I shared my thoughts on some of our most challenging and sometimes controversial work, not to sell it but to communicate what we were trying to do, what we were learning as a result and what that meant for our next steps.
Similarly, I see more and more districts using their annual reports to do more than communicate measurable outcomes. They tell stories of progress, share thoughts on what they are learning and identify our next steps.
The lesson is that the feedback we receive in closed session during our formative and summative evaluation conversations is for us alone, but our learning can be shared widely in a variety of forms. This kind of selective vulnerability builds trust and credibility with your board and the
community that elects them.
Protect and Grow
Given what is happening with school boards today, these suggested moves have the potential to both protect us and help us grow. By using the evaluation process to develop a shared understanding of the superintendent’s job, by giving ourselves the gift of intentional space to process
our leadership and by having a robust communication strategy that brings everyone into the process of learning through doing, we may be better equipped to make the transformational change our communities deserve and get to stay in the job to do it.