Doug Roberts is the founder and CEO of Institute for Educational Innovation and creator of the Supes Choice Awards for leaders of edtech companies.
As educators, we have been conditioned to believe that the journey to a leadership role requires multiple stops at higher education institutions. Often expensive, usually time-consuming, and rarely based on practice, professional certifications and advanced degrees often take precedence over experience.
Unnecessary legitimation has become notorious for blocking the leadership pipeline at a time when school districts need a steady stream of experienced pioneers to fill administrative vacancies, especially since 25% of school supervisors resigned in 2021, compared to a typical 14% to 16% churn.
In the private sector, with hard work and a bachelor’s degree, a warehouse worker can work his way up to manager and eventually the C-suite. A doctor doesn’t need another medical degree to get a doctorate in his hospital, and a graphic designer can transfer to creative director based only on his skills.
Teachers, on the other hand, are typically unable to rise in the ranks until they devote their time and money to an administrator certification program. But today their professional options are no longer limited. Ed tech, tutoring and consulting companies are eager to bring experienced teachers on board, offering higher salaries and promises of career growth without forcing them through hoops. It’s an offer few educators can resist.
School boards need a competitive response to retain staff, which means re-evaluating how they view candidates for superintendents and the demands they place on them. Rather than expecting educators to shoulder the burden of giving qualifications on their own, we need to cultivate the next generation of leaders within our organizations.
The recruiting process may seem extreme to school administrators who fear that unqualified candidates will step into leadership roles before they are ready. As the founder of the Institute for Education Innovation (IEI), an organization that is developing and collaborating with inspectors across the province, I can say the concern is misplaced. I have seen educators successfully rise to superintendent status based on merit rather than just degree.
Here are four critical steps that I believe need to be taken to bring real change to hiring. While these guidelines are aimed at school districts, the same principles can be applied to private companies.
1. Leave out unnecessary references.
Superintendent credentials vary from state to state and shift over time. Until we can change legislation across the country, school districts can reduce roadblocks by minimizing additional requirements.
A PhD in education, which prepares educators to apply their research to real-life school settings, undoubtedly gives a potential inspector an advantage, just as an MBA might be an advantage for a corporate executive role. However, coupled with years of experience—in the classroom or in a relevant industry—certification programs or continuing education workshops should also have merit in the eyes of selection committees.
2. Eliminate bias in the hiring process.
According to researchers, male and white educators are more likely to make the transition from director to superintendent than their professional colleagues. Women and colored educators, on the other hand, are often required to hold a district-level administrative position, such as assistant superintendent, before being promoted. They also feel greater pressure to earn a higher degree to compete for a superintendent role.
These higher expectations are not only unjustified, but also unjust. Earning an advanced degree can be so time-consuming and costly that many candidates, inside and outside of education, are unable to take the next step. Rather than forcing tomorrow’s leaders to fit into a broken mold, we should consider qualified candidates who represent the students and clients they serve, have demonstrated success in their current roles, and are recognized as mentors by their peers.
3. Create leadership development programs.
The career path from educator to inspector is linear, starting in the classroom before moving on to the principal’s office and finally to the administration building. Therefore, expanding one’s skills through hands-on experience is just as important, if not more important, than taking an advanced course that fails to address the complex needs of a teacher’s district. Yet hiring committees are so focused on a candidate’s resume that they often fail to evaluate their leadership potential†
Today’s future leaders need practical coaching from leaders and mentors. For example, administrators should recognize teachers who demonstrate leadership potential and invite them to participate in strategic planning to better understand budgeting and management, or to chair task forces to strengthen communication and supervisory skills. Opportunities to network with their fellow educators outside the district can also inspire teachers and principals to share their visions for the future.
It is important for leaders across industries to connect and focus on nurturing relationships, creating a shared vision, and exploring leadership commitments and practices.
4. Look beyond traditional ‘headhunters’ for C-level employees.
Most Chief Inspector headhunters operate within a single state or region, limiting the search for candidates to the company’s network and recycled resume list. When the recruitment pool is closed to potential applicants other than those that a recruiter can earn compensation from, the opportunity to find innovative and inspiring new leaders from other parts of the country is expunged.
This provincial recruiting approach keeps out candidates who might bring a different perspective and makes it harder for aspiring leaders who don’t fit the traditional “shape” — which can include candidate’s race and gender — to break through in leadership.
School districts and businesses must continue to develop leaders from within and consider qualified candidates with the experience and drive, but not necessarily the qualifications, to build a thriving workplace culture and inspire a committed workforce.