Leadership through simplicity and focus

Key learnings

  • Make decisions that focus on improving student wellbeing and raising academic achievement.
  • Understand that each board member brings a unique perspective and something valuable to the conversation.
  • Build relationships with key stakeholders and spend quality time with them to gain their trust and help achieve district goals.
  • Meet with your staff regularly to understand each others’ needs and, in some cases, finish each other’s sentences.

We’re back with the second installment of our blog series focusing on leadership and decision-making in schools. We invited Dr. Michael Hinojosa to share some learnings from his career in leadership and explain his “Triangle of Success” model.

Dr. Michael Hinojosa | Having served as the superintendent of six public education systems for over 27 years, he retired from Dallas ISD in June 2022. Since then, he founded the Together Network for Transformation (TNT) and the Michael Casterly Institute for Aspiring Superintendents. He is also the superintendent in residence for the Council of Great City Schools.

Education understatement of the year: Managing and leading a school district is tough. One would be hard-pressed to find a current or former school superintendent to argue against this statement. Sometimes, it seems as though managing and leading school systems is designed to be challenging with local, state, and federal funding streams; students with myriad learning needs; endless and sometimes high-stakes rules and policies; hundreds, if not thousands, of employees (many who are part of collective bargaining groups or unions); several, sometimes dozens, of buildings; deep-seated community traditions and expectations; and the list goes on. Leading and managing a school district is simply too overwhelming. Who would want such a job?

During our discussion with Michael Hinojosa, the axiom, “Work smarter, not harder,” comes to mind as the focus on why schools exist — student learning and growth. Throughout Dr Hinojosa’s successful career, he honed his leadership and management craft not by dedicating more of his time and energy to the work but by developing and communicating a simple yet powerful focus described here as the “Triangle of Success.”. This leadership framework clarified Dr Hinojosa’s day-to-day efforts and did the same for the many stakeholders within the greater school community.

The core of the triangle: the students

Students are central to Dr. Hinojosa’s leadership model and, therefore, at the core of the triangle. Superintendent’s decisions should focus on improving student wellbeing and raising academic achievement, as these are ultimately the areas on which the community and the school board will judge them.

Most superintendents “started as teachers… to help kids.” They care about their advancement and know what they need to thrive. Beyond their classroom experience, leaders understand the importance of pedagogical research and statistical data to find the most effective methods for helping students and supporting the allocation of fiscal funds toward those methods.

In recent years, there has been a general embracement of the concept of personalized learning to enhance equity, engagement, and attainment. Making decisions that create opportunities for personalized learning and classroom equity is vital to getting every student across the line and easing the opportunity gap.

Dr. Hinojosa emphasizes educators’ significant duty: “In public education, we are responsible for people’s two most prized possessions: their money and their kids.” Therefore, decisions about children’s education must be justifiable to parents and the wider community.

Section summary
  • Students are central to Dr. Hinojosa’s leadership model. Decisions informed by classroom experience and data should prioritize their wellbeing and academic achievement.
  • There’s a growing emphasis on personalized learning for equity and attainment.
  • Leaders have a duty to make transparent decisions justifiable to parents and the community.

The apex of governance: the school board

Board members “are your bosses, and they are all different,” which superintendents can find positive and frustrating in equal measure. A diverse school board brings a wide range of perspectives, expertise, and ideas to the table, leading to well-rounded policies and improved student outcomes. Critically, it also ensures that decision-makers adequately address the needs of a diverse student body.

However, managing a diverse board can be challenging, as differing viewpoints may lead to disagreements and potentially slow down decision-making. Nevertheless, open communication and collaboration between the superintendent and the board are essential to navigate these challenges and ensure that the school board prioritizes the best interests of the students and the community.

In Dr. Hinojosa’s experience, “a lot of great educators don’t last, especially now times have gotten pretty tough with politics and the vitriol from the community.” He points out the irony that, although board members are elected officials, “their elections have the lowest voter turnout.” A school board, therefore, does not necessarily represent “the true will of the community, but rather those who voted.”

Creating personal relationships with board members beyond meetings is essential for forming positive working relationships. Dr. Hinojosa suggests “having lunch with the board members… at least every other month,” giving them a platform to voice opinions and share concerns while showing you’re available and reliable.

Section summary
  • A diverse school board offers a variety of perspectives, ensuring well-rounded policies that address the needs of a diverse student body. However, managing differing viewpoints can be challenging.
  • Superintendents face challenges in modern times due to political pressures and community criticism.
  • Building personal relationships with board members is crucial for effective communication and fostering positive working dynamics.

The external support network: the community

Superintendents play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between school systems and the communities they serve. Given the intertwined relationship between educational institutions and the broader community, active engagement by superintendents with various stakeholders becomes paramount.

Engaging with the community provides insights into what areas require the most attention or investment. Dr. Hinojosa stresses the need for the community to have the opportunity to give feedback on school initiatives, programs, and policies to ensure everyone is on board with your strategy.

Regular interactions, open dialogues, and transparency in decision-making are crucial for fostering trust. A superintendent who is visible, accessible, and communicative helps to create a collaborative environment where the community feels its voice is valued and heard. Dr. Hinojosa makes it a point to understand the community, stating that he “listened to 100 people in 100 days” whenever he started a superintendent position. His actions meant he established himself as a visible and approachable leader who cared about the community’s voice.

In his quest to know the community better, one of Dr. Hinojosa’s key questions is about recognizing the respected figures within the district, aiming to identify those with influence.

Section summary
  • Superintendents are crucial in connecting schools with their communities and should actively engage with various stakeholders.
  • Regular communication, transparency, and being approachable foster trust, making the community feel valued and heard.
  • Dr. Hinojosa prioritizes understanding and integrating community feedback, highlighting the importance of recognizing influential figures within the district.

The backbone of educational leadership: school staff

Staff are the frontline executors of any educational strategy or policy. Their daily interactions with students give them a direct influence on educational outcomes. Without their buy-in, even the most well-intentioned policies can fall flat.

Dr. Hinojosa points out that “20% of the [superintendent’s] job is ensuring staff members can accomplish their tasks competently.” He suggests that you cannot be a leader without a little management; however, the goal should be building a capable team you can trust to work productively and effectively without management.

Understanding staff diversity is crucial. Hinojosa says, “You have your direct reports… but you also have people in the field. You have teachers who are your most important commodity.” They possess a wealth of experience and knowledge about their particular school environment’s unique needs, challenges, and dynamics. Their insights can give you a grounded perspective, enabling more informed and effective decision-making. He suggests you meet with your staff regularly enough to understand each others’ needs and “finish each other’s sentences.”

Section summary
  • Staff play a crucial role in implementing educational strategies, and their buy-in is essential for the success of any policy.
  • Recognizing and understanding staff’s diverse experiences and insights is vital to informed decision-making, emphasizing regular engagement and communication.
  • Every member of the school’s hierarchy is vital, and hands-on leadership that acknowledges and appreciates all contributions fosters a positive school environment.

Dr. Hinojosa’s “Triangle of Success” model for superintendency underscores the essence of successful education leadership. It elucidates the interconnectedness of students, governance, community, and staff in shaping a thriving school environment. By consistently putting students at the core, understanding the complexities of governance, valuing community feedback, and acknowledging the irreplaceable role of staff, leaders can drive positive change, foster trust, and build lasting legacies.