I try to practice mindful listening. I am genuinely curious about what people are thinking. Which is probably a good quality for a superintendent to have since it seems a lot of people want to tell me how to run the school district.
I wasn’t always an effective listener. I remember developing the skill of listening with an open mind and heart when, after serving a few years as rural superintendent, I took a one-year job with the state department of education. As in every state, there are citizens who get ticked-off at something that happened in their school or school district and they decide they are just going to go right to the top – they try to get the State Superintendent on the phone.
Often the state staff will have minimal or very old experience working in a school district. They hate to take those calls from citizens with complaints. Being a former superintendent, I had background in a variety of topics, so I ended up being the go-to guy for that individual who was calling the state superintendent to fix things back in his/her county.
Of course, it is easy to listen without bias when the problem really isn’t yours to solve. Almost all issues were not within the responsibility of the state to decide. They were a local issue, purely local control, so I would try to give them all the time they needed to run out of wind and words. Then I would ask a few clarifying questions. Then I would restate to them what it sounded to me was the big issue. I might tell them why the principal might take such action or why the school board made such a rule. Then I would coach them on who to call back in their local district and what questions they should ask.
I only had that job one year. I moved to another county to be school superintendent, but I continued to develop and value the use of listening in leadership.
Today, I learn so much about the pulse of the district and how our district efforts are having an impact in the classroom by keeping my ear to the ground. I have monthly advisory groups of staff and students and I’m in the schools a lot. Dropping into the staff room at lunch time can be very enlightening. Some folks don’t want to talk shop at the time, others grab me by lapels and tell me what’s on their mind.
I encourage our district leaders to do the same. When they go to a school, go with a question that would provide useful teacher or student feedback to your efforts. Ask it several times. Ask follow ups.
40 years ago it was called MBWA-Management By Wandering Around. It still works. Go down to the floor where the work is being done - where the children are taught to read, to prove their answer, to collaborate in solving problems, to create. That’s the only place you’ll know what really is going on and when you know that, then you can lead them to the next level of success.