EOE February Authors of the Month: Todd Whitaker and Ryan Donlan

  • 1.What motivated you to write The Hero Maker?

School superintendents have some of the most difficult jobs in our country, yet some of the most rewarding. Without the leadership of superintendents ensuring the best possible learning in school districts, all other professions wouldn’t be possible. Now some may say that superintendents are far from where the action is in the classroom, but we disagree, knowing that positive teaching and learning require healthy governance that the top end of any school district. Without it, everything else falls like a house of cards, or at least decays over time. This is particularly true if superintendents and their boards of education have problems. When superintendents and boards struggle, leadership and management suffer. So does teaching and learning, AND the people involved. Trust declines, everyone is “off their game”; Boards start managing instead of setting policy, and superintendents start focusing on things they shouldn’t, like their own job security. This is why we wrote the book. We felt that if we shared with superintendents our ideas on what they could do to help with this, then we could improve the lives of everyone who influences student achievement, and especially improve the lives of students.

  • 2.Why do you think the superintendent-school board relationship can be so uniquely challenging?

Well, for starters, superintendents must lead the people who are writing their paychecks and renewing their contracts. They must lead their supervisors. Additionally, board members may or may not have any experience running school districts. Particularly challenging is the fact that as EVERYONE involved has had a “school experience,” each has a minds-eye picture of what good schools should look like. Compounding this is that board members have a heartfelt interest in doing what’s right by their communities. Some have lived in them their whole lives; many have children in the schools. In the cases where superintendents are outsiders, a big challenge exists when the professional experience of a school superintendent influences the superintendent to do one thing, but the hometown experience of board members would want another. This can be tough. This is true in big cities, the suburbs, or even small towns and rural communities.

  • 3.Can you describe one of your favorite strategies or pieces of advice from the book?

Yes. Most simply, it’s when superintendents serve as Hero Makers. When boards of education members do not feel like heroes, mutually positive relationships cannot be established that lead to everyone involved doing the right thing, and in many cases, agreeing on the right thing.

  • 4.One of your chapters is entitled, “The Superintendent as the Shield.” Can you explain what is meant by that?

Certainly. We often say that superintendents should give others the credit for things that “go right” in their districts, and accept responsibility themselves for things that do not. This belief can be extended to say that superintendents should position their boards of education so that boards get credit for school district achievements, yet in situations of challenge, the superintendent takes the heat. After all, board members are locally connected business owners, church-goers, and little league coaches. Imagine the difficulty they would face if the friends and neighbors who elected them threw spears at them when they were angry about what is going on. That’s where “The Shield” comes in. The superintendent IS a shield, protecting board members by encouraging them to stay out of the fray in the operational, day-to-day decisions, and to focus on the larger policy decisions that less-often rile district constituencies. In short, superintendents protect those who govern.

  • 5.From your experience, why are board meetings so stressful, and what can make them go more smoothly?

Board meetings can be stressful because when upset, people can act as if they are different from their best selves. Oftentimes, when people become apprehensive about decisions about to be made, or are concerned about decisions already made, they can begin to act in counterproductive ways that superintendents may not know how to handle. We share in The Hero Maker ways in which superintendents can recognize what is happening inside the minds and hearts of people, minute-by-minute, in situations where stressors are high, and more particularly, what superintendents can DO about it, to bring about productive result. More importantly, The Hero Maker helps superintendents find again those “good people” that are inside each negative bout of outward behavior. It’s a real practical read that talks about board meetings, and even BETWEEN board meetings.

  • 6.Why is it important for superintendents to take the time to understand board members’ personalities?

Board members’ personalities are layered, as are all of our personalities. It’s when we experience difference with others that problems can result. Knowing how personalities come together to make each of us unique allows superintendents (as Hero Makers) to unearth the underlying things that drive people to act the way that they do. In understanding this, superintendents can connect more effectively, so that people feel better walking away from any given conversation, than they did coming into it. Personality is KEY in hero making. We talk about personality in our book and really dive deep in our special feature at the end.

  • 7.You are eventually doing a follow-up book for school board members. Can you give us a quick teaser as to what we can expect in that one?

Yes, it will be book that will be as helpful to board members in understanding the importance of their roles as Difference Makers, as this book is in terms of helping superintendents understanding their roles as Hero Makers. We understand that superintendents may or may not want to share The Hero Maker with board members, although we really wouldn’t mind. Our next book for school board members, however, will parallel many of the themes in The Hero Maker, AND will share with board members what they should expect of their superintendents as well. Productive relationships go both ways.

  • 8.What or who inspired you to become an educator?

Ryan – My high school social studies teacher, “Doc,” who later became the best man in my wedding. My children considered him a grandfather, and many of the ideas for my teaching and leadership came from him.

Todd – A man who was a coach. He helped me realize the impact that one person can have on so many other people. I knew that was what I wanted to try to do – make a positive difference with my life.

  • 9.What has been one of the proudest moments of your education career so far?

Ryan – This moment happened annually at Commencement, when I would stand on stage looking down over the graduating seniors. Just before I would call each of their names, I would make eye contact individually. It was an “Irish-eyes-are smiling” moment, lasting only a second. I wanted each to know at that moment how much I was proud and honored to serve them.

Todd – Helping build confidence in other educators so they realize that they are in the most important profession that there is and that every day they have a chance to make others feel essential and important. In other words, they can be a hero maker themselves.

  • 10.And finally, please tell us your favorite thing about being in education in one word.

Ryan – “Differencemaking”

Todd – “Impactful”