What I Learned in My First Year as Superintendent

While you may have heard of Amarillo, Texas because of Cadillac Ranch or the Big Texan's 72 oz. steak dinner legend, I know it as my Home Sweet Home. I've just completed my first year as superintendent of Amarillo Independent School District, comprising 33,600 students in fifty-five schools. (I’m the first woman superintendent in 126 years!)

Amarillo ISD celebrates a diverse student population. Over 450 refugees are resettled in Amarillo every year from various countries, including Somalia, DR Congo, Iran, Iraq, and Myanmar. Despite what some might see as challenges (sixty-seven percent of our students live in poverty), our district is rated by the Texas Education Agency as Met Standard, and Amarillo has strong business and employment opportunities. Yes, Amarillo is my Home Sweet Home.

I’m the first to admit I didn’t know what to expect from my first year as superintendent, but I have put together some reflections and lessons-learned from the last year. Much of my thinking relates to collaboration: when, how, and to what extent—and when do I set out on my own? (And though I'll try to explain it all with colloquialisms, my year was anything but trite!)

The Road Not Taken

Analysis paralysis is super easy to develop on this job, because a superintendent works for his/her community, and everything is public: open meetings, open records. Transparency is a good thing, but I never want to let anyone down, and so a good part of my year was spent trying to find my balance. I quickly discovered that as soon as I found myself standing where roads diverge, suddenly everyone had an opinion about which path I should take. I realized I needed to learn to choose the right road, even if I was being navigated by differing viewpoints. 

Sometimes I take the road less-traveled. Though the job of superintendent can be political, and is most definitely high-profile, I decided to solidify my goals and priorities for Amarillo schools, and stopped worrying about the "what if" stories in my head. While I'll always listen to community voices, a superintendent's leadership must include articulating a vision so others will join her on that road, not endlessly wavering where roads diverge. I reminded myself that I am here because I care about our scholars, educators and our community. I just needed to continue stepping forward (in great shoes, of course!) and give myself the same grace and mercy I know we are all worthy of having. 

The Buck Stops Here (or not!)

While "the buck stops here" sounds appealingly decisive, I found out that the buck doesn't always stop in my office—and that’s a good thing. I do make decisions for which I take ultimate responsibility, but most decisions happen collaboratively with our leadership teams, community groups and/or our Team of Eight (School Board). I think Harry S. Truman would be proud to know that in our community we do our best to not pass the buck. 

For example, this year a team of community leaders worked together to define Amarillo’s “profile of a graduate.” We decided we want our scholars to graduate as thinkers, communicators, collaborators and contributors. When we are talking about the success of our schools, the buck stops with the adults in our community who believe in our mission to graduate every student prepared for success beyond high school.

Together, Everyone Achieves More

Okay, this cliché is true. Every week I make it a point to visit several schools. I've met teachers, students, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, and many other wonderful folks who are important to our AISD team and who live and breathe our core values of student performance, customer service, cost effectiveness, and quality staff. My spirit is renewed each time I get to chat with the folks who are on the frontline, serving our scholars.

While I wrote above that everyone has advice and opinions on what I should or should not do, I also understand that the superintendent's job is not simply about running one of the largest businesses in town. This "business" is a well-respected organization, and it is responsible for the city's most precious resource: our children. 

As someone who has spent twenty-five years on six different campuses, I was worried that my new role would make me miss interacting with students. And so at the end of my first semester, I started a "Superintendent Ambassador" program, mostly for my selfish reasons. I did indeed miss knowing and talking with the kids who inspired me to get into education in the first place! I also thought about the fact that "together everyone achieves more," and that while adults are experts on our core values, we can all learn more about performance, service, effectiveness and quality by listening to our students. Our Ambassadors showcase our best in our community, while allowing me the opportunity to learn more about their experiences through their eyes.

This year I've also learned that laughter really is the best medicine, actions do speak louder than words, and a woman's work is never done. And, of course, home is where the heart is, and I'm honored to call Amarillo my home.

Photo courtesy of Amarillo Independent School District