Embracing tech and navigating change with people-centered leadership

Key points:

  • Technology can help schools overcome challenges
  • How a district’s focus on data is advancing student growth
  • 3 key strategies for district leaders to build a resilient educator workforce
  • For more news on district management, visit eSN’s Educational Leadership hub

From new policies to shifting budgets to technology, school decision makers are no strangers to change. How can leaders navigate evolving opportunities and challenges and drive positive impact, while keeping the interests of students and educators at the forefront?

Ask Dr. Susan Enfield, who has more than 20 years of school district leadership. She is a former superintendent of Highline Public Schools and Washoe County School District, and she was named Superintendent of the Year by the National School Foundation Association in 2018 and again in 2022 by Washington State.

In this Q&A, Enfield shares insights on how technology can help schools overcome challenges, and the value of honest, empathetic communication during times of transition. The interview was conducted as part of the Visionary Voices video series. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How do you think technology can play a role in many of the challenges that are facing school districts today?

The challenges we face continue to grow–not just in magnitude but in complexity. Seeking out partners who can help us provide solutions to the challenges that we face is incredibly important. As a superintendent, I am always looking for new and better ways that we can serve students by supporting our staff in giving them the tools and the resources to make their jobs a little bit easier and more manageable.

Whether that’s through bus routing software, whether it’s through teletherapy to augment the really extraordinary work that our special education folks do in person, those things matter. They make us not just a more efficient organization but a better organization where people feel that the organization itself is investing in them to do the really great work that we need them to do for our kids each and every day.

Why should more schools embrace technology-based solutions?

Our children can’t afford for us not to seek out every possible solution to provide them with the resources and supports they need and deserve so they graduate prepared for whatever future they choose for themselves.

How can leaders encourage their teams and communities to embrace technology and new and innovative approaches?

Establish the need, use data if you have it and can, and then make sure that you’re including others in the process so there’s shared ownership.

What advice would you give leaders looking to implement big changes–related to technology or not–in their districts? Difficult changes?

Be clear on the why behind the change. As leaders, we sometimes downplay the why behind what we’re asking. When you are implementing any change, be sure the rationale is clear and that it also aligns with your system.

Remember the impact on your people. Taking care of your people through the change process is important. And that can be acknowledging the pain, acknowledging the hardship. It’s really important to celebrate progress and celebrate success. It’s also really important to say, “What do you need? Do you have the tools, the resources, the supports that you need? Or is there more that you need from me for you to get this done?”

What should leaders be thinking about as they wrap this year and look ahead to the next school year?

Celebrate. Celebrate what you and your team accomplished this year. Take a moment to acknowledge the good work you’ve done over the course of the year as a team. Celebrating progress is incredibly important. This work is hard. They need to know they are seen and their work is appreciated.

Reflect. Reflect on what you would like to see different moving forward and really think through what it’s going take to move on that change.

Rest. Not only do you need to do it for yourself; you need to do it for your partner and your family. You need to do it for the staff you work with and the children that you serve. And so after you’ve done all that work of celebration and reflection and planning for the following year, just hit the pause button.

Dr. Susan Enfield is the former Superintendent for the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada. Prior to this, she served as Superintendent for Highline Public Schools in Burien, WA for ten years. During that time the district developed its Highline Promise to know every student by name, strength and need so they graduate prepared for the future they choose.

A former high school English, journalism and ELL teacher, Susan served as Chief Academic Officer and then as Interim Superintendent for Seattle Public Schools before joining Highline in 2012. She previously held leadership positions in Evergreen Public Schools (Vancouver, WA), Portland Public Schools and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Susan is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and earned master’s degrees from Stanford University and Harvard University. She also holds a doctoral degree in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program. She was named the Superintendent of the Year by the National School Foundation Association in 2018 and was the 2022 Washington State Superintendent of the Year.

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