5 Lessons Learned as an Educational Leader

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By:. Richard Surrency, Superintendent, Putnam County Schools, 2023 Florida Superintendent of the Year

I am the elected superintendent of the Putnam County School District serving in my seventh year. Since my first day in office, beginning in November of 2016, our district has focused on improving student achievement and on-time graduation for our 10,500 students.

In 2015, only 54.9% of our seniors graduated on time. Through a strategic initiative, we improved the graduation rate to 92.5% in 2021. This is the largest increase in Florida during the same time period.

In 2017, 11 of our 18 schools were receiving state turnaround support to improve school performance as determined by Florida’s school grading system. Our instructional team led an initiative to improve school culture and standards-based core instruction and intervention. At this time, we have zero schools receiving state turnaround support.

These improvements highlight the importance of leadership both at the district and school levels. As a superintendent, I have learned many lessons about leadership over my 44-year educational career. I would like to briefly share five of those lessons that may help you overcome challenges in the future:1. What unites us is greater than what divides us. Our schools are facing many new challenges today, and these challenges sometimes divide us. When collaborating with other decision-makers and stakeholders, it’s important to respect our individual ideas. However, finding a way to focus on the common ground that brings us together can help to move you forward collectively to resolve any issues you may be facing.

2. There is always an answer. The dilemma that NASA faced during Apollo 13 was solved from the use of duct tape to assist the disabled spacecraft and return it to Earth safely. As school and district leaders, when solving problems, remember that more ideas on the table generate more options to consider. Always look for creative options when trying to solve a problem.

3. Simultaneously fight the little battles to win the war. In June, 1944 the Allies, led by the U.S., mounted the largest invasion during World War II in Normandy, France, to eventually defeat the Nazis. The invasion consisted of many small battles by many different nations all focused on the goal of winning the war. As leaders, we must strategically focus on many different daily tasks and initiatives with the overall goal of improving student achievement. Celebrate small wins, and you will achieve your overall objective.

4. Be willing to do what others will not. What are you willing to do to improve student outcomes that may not be popular with all stakeholders? As a first-year superintendent, I changed school times to align with the research of optimal learning times for elementary and secondary students. It was a very unpopular at the time, however, our district has made significant gains as a result. Stay focused on the outcome of students, and be willing to face tough challenges.

5. Plant a seed for later... create a legacy. As a leader, what are you doing today that will benefit others years from now? What seeds are you planting in your school or district that will grow into successes that you may never see? I am currently in the process improving our community by building and remodeling nine schools as part of a 10-year Revitalization Plan. I will most likely be retired before this project is complete. In my office, there is a large sign above my desk with a quote from author John Maxwell that reads, “My goal is not to live forever, but to create something that does.”

If you would like to contact me for additional information, please email me at: rsurrency@my.putnamschools.org.