A Future Focused look at growing a culture of learning

An Interview with Washington State Superintendent of the Year – Dr. Adam Swinyard

Q. Congratulations on being named Washington State Superintendent of 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 … Dream, Access, and Opportunity … for Every Student

Our SPS promise aims to ensure every student has a dream, access and opportunity.  We emphasize that Promise for every student and every family. We repeat that promise everywhere.  We want every kid to feel inspired by a loving community to dream big.  We want Hi expectations and Hi support opportunities for every student from academics to extracurriculars.  We want every student to be the best version of themselves a provide the access and opportunity to make it 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 if teachers don’t know how to actualize that belief, it won’t get us there.  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 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.  In every situation, I do everything I can to learn as much as possible.  I leverage the collective insight of the group.  I don’t have to come up with all the answers.  I just need to listen to the wisdom in the room and help facilitate the best decision possible for our kids.

Q. What do 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 create belonging and connection for everyone.  Districts choose to focus on different things like curriculum, assessment, instruction, performing arts, or sports.  Those are great and virtuous things to do.  We do some well and have room to grow in others.  But I want us to focus on love and kindness, joy and belonging.  That doesn’t mean we won’t have conflict or that we agree on everything.  It means every interaction will focus on love and 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, more focused, and centered around love.

Q. How do you live into that message?

Model Love. Champion Love. Unpack Love.

First, you have to model loving kindness as a way of being.  In good times, hard times, and unpredictable times.  You need to champion that vision and make it the most important focus of everything we do.  Then you need to unpack it.  We met recently with our leadership team to define what it IS and 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 that week to make micro corrections.  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?

Be super clear on our leadership vision

We create space to do the work.  We set times for learning together and prioritize those times.  We unpack what leadership looks like in SPS.  We have 200 administrators in SPS, each with different leadership philosophies, values, and approaches.  We can’t leave it to chance.  We have to be really clear about our collective vision of leadership and provide learning opportunities to grow in that direction.  We pursue win-win strategies while valuing and respecting people – creating belonging by making everyone part of the process.  Our schools belong to the communities we serve.  Win-win strategies keep us connected.  Help us create the strongest coalition possible.

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

Exponential Leadership

Our senior leaders help us nurture departments, and 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 a large event, but ultimately it will take everyone together. Thousands of individual micro-interactions are critical to creating authenticity to the vision: love and connection.  Otherwise, a few small actions can do more 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 starting out 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 really vulnerable and open about what you do know and what you don’t know.  We will make mistakes.  We need connection and belonging.  We need to convey that we are all in this 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; 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 largest 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 incredibly important our team of strong leaders has been.  Our district leadership team builds, nurtures and supports our leaders. principals teachers and colleagues.  Building a strong trusting leadership team is the most important 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 very 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 for you.  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 own 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.

I worry that without student engagement, we will lose this century to adversarial conflict.  Our current educational environment is the antithesis to 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 a sense of connection and belonging, creating spaces for love.

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

Posted in
Larry Nyland speaking

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

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com