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Mentoring the Next Generation of Superintendents

A conversation with Dr. Steve Joel

By Mind Rocket Media Group
At The AASA’s National Conference on Education, I had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Steve Joel – Superintendent of Lincoln Nebraska Public Schools. The Superintendents Association’s conference provided the perfect backdrop to discuss the latest developments in school leadership. Joel realizes it’s the responsibility of the established superintendents to mentor and pave the way for future administrative leaders.
AASA has made mentoring a priority in their creation of the Urban Superintendent Academy, a training school bringing career opportunities to minority candidates. The Urban Superintendents Academy trains the next generation of important school leaders in urban areas that contain a high concentration of minority students.
Success has a way of carrying over as students witness the career ascension of local candidates and in-turn create their own aspirations. Joel sees the ongoing efforts of programs like Urban Superintendents Academy as an integral component of personal mentorship and connection. Joel emphasizes that superintendents should be gracious and inviting to new minority candidates and support them on the road to success.
Learning the business and political aspects of superintendency is of tantamount importance to Joel. Far too often, superintendents rise through the ranks, learning instruction and curriculum, yet miss some of the important aspects of business acumen. Joel points to a revealing, and almost ironic fact – rarely does a superintendent lose his or her job over poor student performance. Instead, it’s poor business decisions or lack of community presence that usually spells their fate.
It seems only logical that any young superintendent looking for career success and longevity could benefit from the vast knowledge and sage advice of Dr. Steve Joel.


Dr. Berger: It’s nice to see you, Steven. I want to talk about talent in the position of superintendency. When you are looking around at your colleagues and those who are potential up-and-coming superintendents, what gives you optimism and what also says to you that there is still work to be done so that we can help to cultivate the next generation of talent?

Steven Joel: I think, generationally, we always think that when a certain generation leaves, it’s “game over” and it’s never going to be the same.

I think some of us hold on a little bit longer, sometimes, because we’re just not quite sure what that legacy is going to be.

When I engage AASA and some of the other organizations I’m a part of, one of the things that really encourages me is I see talent. But I see talent that we have to help cultivate, we have to guide, and we have to mentor.

Our speaker this morning, Robbie was talking about generational differences. And I’ve had in my mind the millennials; they can drive me crazy.

But I’m not going to let that bother me anymore because what I heard today is that that generation ─ while they’re approaching work differently ─ share the same values that we share.

They want all kids to be successful. They want to do good work. They want collegiality.

And that’s what we wanted back when we started.

And I always remember that there were an awful lot of old veterans who tapped me on the shoulder, helped me, and guided me.I know I speak for virtually every superintendent who’s in the twilight of his or her career, and that’s what we’re doing. I mean, that’s what we have to continue to do.

And so, I’m involved with the AASA as a mentor for the Urban Superintendents Academy. I know others who are doing the same thing, too.

We just want to help people to be successful.
I’m really encouraged because as I’ve interacted socially and even in meetings with this new group ─ they’re talented people. They’re smart people, and they’re passionate about what we’re passionate about.
DB: Steve, change is never easy for people. What areas of superintendency ─ when you’re talking about those in their twilight ─ do we need to concentrate on. Do we need to put out a call or a challenge to say “Yes, there’s been a legacy built, and success has been achieved, but we still have the opportunity to grow ourselves?”
If you were putting the challenge out to your colleagues within that twilight era, what would you say? What would you say that you could still continue to improve on in bridging the gap with the millennials and those who might be in transition to the superintendency?
SJ: I think we learn from everybody we interact with. I think we have to be good listeners and it goes back to Stephen Covey years ago: “Seek first to understand.
I can do a better job at that, and I think every superintendent can do a better job at that.
I wish the job weren’t so intense because, I think, that scares a lot of people away, and a lot of boomers are going to be retiring. But I think some of these young people with families and a social life see the 50-, 60-hour workweeks; they see the headlines in the paper; they see the negative reaction to salaries.
DB: And they say, “Not for me,” right?
SJ: And they say, “Not for me.” I think we have to model that this is a great profession to be in because we’re in a profession that makes all professions possible.
It’s going to be rocky, and there are going to be some political and financial challenges and probably some personal challenges, at the end of the day, we’re going to make a difference in a lot of lives.
And that’s the legacy that we all leave the profession knowing that we gave back. And that’s what we have to continue to convince these younger people.
There are teachers today who are going to be future superintendents. They don’t have any idea that they’re going to be a superintendent someday. Somebody has got to tap them on the shoulder, and they have to say, “You’ve got some talent. Let me help you get that developed.”
That was how I got into it; that was how everybody I know got into it. So that’s what we have to do.
DB: May I ask you about something that seems to be percolating at the surface in the conversations I’m having.
Let’s put superintendents, let’s just say, loosely in two different classes. You’ve got the class of superintendents that talks about ─ the first thing they say is that it’s about teaching and learning.
There’s a growing trend of the first thing that says, “We have to understand the business and the politics of education if we can achieve the teaching and learning that we’re after.”
But I have to tell you, Steve, I get this feeling from people that it feels like it has to be a political conversation. They’re afraid to be able to communicate that business is a part of education. And we have to be okay with that riding right alongside teaching and learning.
Given your perspective and your leadership, where are we with that? Is it okay to be able to talk about education as a business in that regard?
SJ: I think so. I think we have to. I had a conversation this morning with a colleague, and we were just talking about what our job has morphed into today. And if we do our jobs well with regard to the political piece and the legislative piece and the financial piece and the community-engagement piece and we hire well ─ we hire good people ─ then, what happens in the classroom is going to be reflected directly by the environment that we’re able to create.
You can be the best teacher ever and work your way up to being principal and know everything you need to know about curriculum and instruction and be a master and model teacher, but if you can’t handle the business part of education, you’re probably not going to be successful.
This person I was talking to said, “I don’t know that I’ve ever read about superintendents getting fired and losing their job over poor student achievement.
But close the wrong building, fire the wrong person, make a personal mistake and not be visible and connected with the community ─ those are the kinds of things that lead to change.”
I really feel bad for the districts that are even represented here that have had a number of superintendents in a short period of time because, for whatever reason – maybe they didn’t choose well by becoming a superintendent in that particular situation.
But every time a superintendent gets changed out in a short period of time before a vision has a chance to be implemented and acted upon, then, kids are the ones who get caught up in all of that.
So stability starts at the top, which means that when I work with my team, one of the things I say to my folks all the time is “We’re going to take the heat. We’re going to deal with the headlines. If it’s social media, bloggers, whatever the issue is, because, at the end of the day, I want our teachers and our principals to know that we’ve got their backs because what’s happening in the classroom defines the work that we do.”
DB: Steve, let’s close with this. How do we reconcile that equity is being used as a term and as an objective right now for leadership around the country from superintendents, yet there’s a real lack of diversity in superintendents around the US? How can we build up so that we’re more representative of the communities around America without disparaging those who are currently in seats?
It’s a more progressive look at how to inspire and provide a window of opportunity for those minorities who may previously have never thought about going into education leadership.
SJ: We have to bring them in. Rod, what you’re describing is a microcosm of society as a whole.
In Lincoln, Nebraska with 30% of students of color and 5% percent staff with color, how do we go from 5 to 10?
We’ve got to identify those people. We’ve got to get them in a training program. We’re going to have to find financial resources to help them.
We have to do the same thing at the superintendent level. And I’m very encouraged by what I heard Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, mention this on stage yesterday.
I’m part of the Urban Superintendents Urban Academy, and I can tell you that more than 50% ─ probably 70% ─ represent diversity.
That’s great! Let’s get them prepared. Let’s get them out there, and they’re going to find jobs.
But, again, I don’t know if we’ve done a very good job of inviting people into the profession. It’s one of those things where we have to change that aspect.
DB: We have to ask them and invite them.
SJ: We have to ask them. And then, when they come, we have to be gracious in inviting in terms of them doing the things that we’re doing as opposed to being a mutually exclusive all-white group of superintendents who have been friends for thirty years and we don’t have any time for new relationships
DB: I have the perception that it’s the “Old Boy’s Network” in that regard. You’re fighting that narrative.
I’ve had conversations as well with minority superintendents who felt they were brought in to very challenging district opportunities almost setting them up for failure in that regard.
And so, it’s having those real conversations to say, “Okay, if we’re really going to grow and progress and invite in new talent, we be aware of the environments we’re putting them in.
Isn’t that part of the step as well ─ inviting them into the discussion and then finding environments of success or potential success?
SJ: I do some recruiting for some urban searches, and one of the things I always say to a candidate and to my friends and colleagues who are established is “Know when to come, know when to go.”
The truth of the matter is if politics is represented by boards of education, you have to know that the people you’re working with are supporting the work that you’re doing. And when you lose that support, then, change is in the offing.
So, I think, a lot of times, superintendents say, “Well, I grew up in an urban area [I’m talking about diversity now], and I really think I understand urban education.”
But when they get in there, what they don’t know is the business and ─ as we said before ─ the politics of education.
So we have to train them for that.
With this academy, in entering, we do some simulations that I think are very powerful.
Now, nothing replaces the real thing, but we try to get these young talented individuals to understand that “your best day is the day they hire you, and then it can go downhill from there.”
DB: And quickly, right, depending on the support you have.
Well, keep up the great work. We hope that you are not in your twilight of career (laugh). You are a guiding light for superintendents currently and those that we hope to bring on board.
Thank you.
Dr. Steve Joel has been superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools for the past 6 years, a district of almost 40,000 students and 8,000 employees. Previously, he served for ten years as superintendent in Grand Island, Nebraska, and eight years in Beatrice, Nebraska. A native of Long Island, New York, he has degrees from Doane College, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Kansas State University.
Dr. Joel has been honored with a wide variety of awards and distinctions including Nebraska Superintendent of the Year and Leadership Excellence by the Educational Resource Development Institute.  He also has been active in many community clubs and coalitions and serves on a number of boards including the Chamber of Commerce, Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools, Lincoln Community Foundation, The Career Academy, and United Way of Lincoln and Lancaster County.
In his time as superintendent at various school districts, Dr. Joel has focused on comprehensive solutions to significant school and community issues. The immigration raid in Grand Island led to the formation of a community coalition to begin the arduous process of rebuilding community unity, and the tragic fire that resulted in a complete loss of the Lincoln Public Schools District Office allowed for the construction of a new facility. More recently, Lincoln adopted a comprehensive instructional technology plan and developed The Career Academy leading Nebraska into the next phase of K12 education.
Dr. Joel has also served as a consultant to school districts and businesses across the country in areas of strategic planning, team building, and conducting superintendent searches.
Follow Dr. Steve Joel on Twitter
This article was originally published on The Huffington Post
Further Reading
  1. The Washington Post – Academics are only part of the education this school offers its diverse student body
  2. The New York Times – Educators Prepare for Immigration Agents at the Schoolhouse
  3. The Atlantic – A New Era for School Accountability
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