Growing a culture of learning and love

An Interview with the 2023 Washington State Superintendent of the Year
– Dr. Adam Swinyard, Superintendent, Spokane Public Schools (SPS).

Congratulations, Adam, on being named Washington State 2023 Superintendent of the Year! WASA highlighted your work as a champion of equity in announcing your well-deserved recognition as superintendent of the year. 

 Q.  How do you focus a large district on equity?

Clear Focus on … a Dream, Access, and Opportunity … for Every Student

Our SPS (Spokane Public Schools) promise aims to ensure that every student has a dream, access, and opportunity.  We emphasize that Promise for every student and every family and repeat that promise everywhere.  Every kid needs to be inspired by a loving community to dream big.  We want high expectations and high support opportunities for every student, from academics to extracurriculars.  We want every student to be the best version of themselves and to provide the access and opportunity to make that happen.

Q. How do you make that a reality for every student?

By Working on BOTH Culture AND Systems

Fulfilling our promise of access and opportunity to every student takes Culture AND Systems.

It can’t be just culture OR just systems alone. A belief in every student is ideal, but it won’t get us there if teachers don’t know how to actualize that belief.  We need systems in addition to culture. Likewise, systems and opportunities won’t get us there if adults don’t believe every student should have those opportunities.  We need to center our belief in students around the systems needed to actualize our promise of dreams • access, • opportunity for every student.

Q. What are the bedrock values that you use for leading uncertain times?

The most important thing is Getting it right, Not being right

Our culture puts a premium on being right.  Thinking about getting it right is a mind shift that changes how you see the world and how you interact with people.  I do everything I can to learn as much as possible in every situation.  I don’t have to come up with all the answers. We need to leverage the wisdom in the room and help facilitate the best decision possible for our kids.

Q. What do you want to leave as a legacy in the DNA of the leaders who follow you?

Love and Kindness.  Joy and Belonging

I want us to create the most loving & caring place we have ever worked—a place of love and joy where we make belonging and connection for everyone.  Districts focus on curriculum, assessment, instruction, performing arts, or sports.  We do some of those well in Spokane and have room to grow in others.  But we want to focus on love and kindness, joy and belonging.  That doesn’t mean we won’t have conflict or agree on everything.  It means every interaction will focus on love, kindness, and belonging.  That builds trust, relationships, and a greater level of engagement for kids.  If kids don’t feel a sense of belonging and welcome, they won’t stay engaged. That is where we lose them.  We need everyone in the district to be more connected, focused, and centered around love.

Q. How do you live into that message?

Model Love. Champion Love. Unpack Love.

You have to model loving kindness as a way of being.  In good times, hard times, and unpredictable times.  You must champion that vision and make it the most essential focus.  Then, you need to unpack it.  We met recently with our leadership team to define what it IS and what it IS NOT.  People think it is soft and nurturing and lower standards.  Instead, it is about openness, clear expectations, and being mindful of the impact of our words.  And it is about timing.  You don’t give bad news on Friday and let the employee stew all weekend.  You have hard conversations on Tuesday when you have three more chances to make micro corrections that week.  To show that you still care.  That you value their contributions. This deeper unpacking helps build understanding.  We will all make mistakes.  I make lots of mistakes.  No one is perfect.  Everyone needs to drive this work.  We need a laser focus on kind and loving work that contributes to the greater collective good.

Q. How do you grow leadership within your SPS leadership team?

Being super clear on our leadership vision.

Creating space to work and learn together is crucial in SPS. With 200 administrators, each with their unique leadership style, values, and approach, it’s essential that we don’t leave anything to chance. We have to be clear about our collective leadership vision and provide learning opportunities to grow in that direction.  Pursuing win-win strategies while valuing and respecting people is critical to creating a sense of belonging and making everyone feel a part of the process. Our schools belong to the communities we serve.  Win-win strategies keep us connected.  Help us build the strongest coalition possible.

Q. How do you grow that leadership … how often do you meet with leadership?

Exponential Leadership

Our senior leaders help us nurture departments principals, building leadership teams and teacher leadership teams.  It has to be exponential to reach 6000 employees and 30,000 students and families.  I can’t do it all.  Some may hear me at events, but ultimately, it will take everyone working together. Thousands of individual micro-interactions are critical to creating authenticity to the vision: love and connection.  Otherwise, a few small actions can do real harm – proving the antithesis of our vision.  We can accept mistakes. But, a pattern of non-loving interactions is unacceptable and must be corrected.

Q. What advice do you have for new/aspiring leaders?

Be Vulnerable.  Be Human

There is power in being vulnerable.  Power in being as human as possible.  Our society’s schema venerates the strong leader. New leaders want to be seen as credible. They gravitate to this social construct.  But when you do that, it can be problematic; you can lose your way.  You have to be vulnerable and open about what you do and don’t know.  We will make mistakes.  We need to convey connection, belonging, and the sense that we are all working together.

Q. What keeps you going when times get tough?

Solitude. Reflection.

The need for solitude.  Time for reflection.  Time for sense-making.  Leaders face so many differing stakeholders, options, and perspectives.  Problems stack up.  Situations may suddenly elevate to crisis proportions.  We need time alone for thoughtful consciousness, to reflect, and to clear our heads. Otherwise, we get stuck in ceaseless processing, problem-solving, and strategizing.  Prolonged periods in that state jeopardize our mental health.

Q. What part of your work will have the most significant lasting impact?

Our Strong Leadership Team

We have made progress on a vast set of complex topics.  In 2½ years, we have endured our first boundary changes in 40 years, difficult levy elections, the pandemic, and much more.  Reflecting on that, I realize how critical our team of strong leaders has been.  Our district leadership team builds, nurtures, and supports our leaders. Principals, teachers, and colleagues.  Building a solid, trusting leadership team is the most critical factor for the superintendent.  Our progress would not have been possible without a strong leadership team.

Q. How do we lead for a future that we can’t yet see clearly?

Engage our Students

Education, as we have known it, is obsolete.  We have to engage students to prepare them for the 21st Century.  Foreseeing that future is problematic.  We do know that we need an adaptive and flexible mindset.  The new Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology can write a sophisticated five-paragraph essay.  Do we build walls to protect our historic view … or embrace teaching in a new way?  There are no easy answers. Adaptability and flexibility are key.

Our kids will drive this change.  Students are more vocal, articulate, and persistent than ever about their hopes and dreams. They are eager to assume more autonomy over their learning.  We can show our students what today’s workforce requires of them. And then listen to their ideas on how to get there.  There are many paths.  We must be courageous enough to choose pathways to innovation.

Without student engagement, we will lose this century to adversarial conflict.  Our current educational environment is the antithesis of the experiences of our digital native students.  They expect information to stream on demand.  We have to create motivational – not adversarial – ways forward.  If we don’t respond to this moment with creativity and love, we will beat our heads against the wall and create unnecessary harm. We need to be very thoughtful – not to lower standards – but to consider alternative roads forward.  Conversations with our kids will point the way forward.

Q. What else would you add?

Connection and Belonging 

I appreciate every opportunity to talk about the promise of public education and the necessity to focus on connecting and belonging, creating spaces for love.

Thank you, Adam, for sharing your focus on love, learning, connection, and belonging! 

Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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