Alumnus steps into superintendent role

By

Meghan Krein

Alumnus of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Michael Robert (EdD '11) recently stepped into the role of superintendent of Osborn School District. With 3,000 students, 180 educators and 440 employees to look over, Robert is quite busy — and wears many hats. He took some time out of his schedule to talk about his many responsibilities, the challenges Arizona school districts face and his advice for education graduates. 

What duties do you anticipate will take up most of your time?

As a school leader, it’s critical to know what is actually happening in the schools — with the kids — so I plan to spend lots of time there observing in classrooms, meeting with school leadership teams and collaborating with our district curriculum team to make sure our students are getting the best instruction possible.

During this first year, especially in the beginning of the year, much of my time will be taken up listening to constituents. This means I’ll be in schools, meeting with principals and teachers, meeting parents, holding community sessions and being visible within the community.

Lastly, communication takes time and as superintendent I will spend considerable time communicating with the board and school communities.

How do you feel your MLFTC EdD prepared you for your career as a principal and superintendent?

The DELTA Doctoral Program (which  no longer exists) prepared approximately 10 cohorts of leaders in educational administration and supervision with a broad vision. Multicultural perspectives and social justice strands ran throughout the program in every course. Anyone can provide coursework in leadership — ASU was visionary in creating the DELTA Doctorate in preparing leaders with a vision of equity in opportunity and outcome for all students. I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned alongside other amazing leaders and from world-class faculty. It was amazing to have such a diverse faculty bring multiple perspectives to educational leadership.

What should education graduates know and be skilled in?

Graduates should have information within contexts of where they are serving: contexts of time, place and culture. They need to be able to enter with the teaching or leadership skills necessary to be professionals, but ready to apply them in culturally responsive ways. Schools serve communities, so we need to know the students, parents, families and communities we serve.

What are the biggest challenges confronting school districts in Arizona?

  • Funding: Arizona's public school budgets have been cut significantly over the past 10 years and we receive 85 percent less for capital funding. What that translates to for a small district like Osborn is that back in 2008, we received about $1.6 million annually for capital funding (curriculum materials, books and  technology) — that has been reduced to around $800,000 annually.

  • Teacher shortage: There are not as many highly qualified teachers as there are classrooms in Arizona.

  • Public opinion: There is a narrative out there that public schools are failing. This hurts our teachers, hurts our schools and ultimately hurts the students within them. Moreover, it’s not true. The American public school system serves more children than anyone else is willing to. Income, disability, documentation status, academic standing — none of these matter when claiming the right to a free, appropriate public education for a child. We serve all, regardless of the past they bring to us or the uncertainty of their future. We do so underfunded and in the light of criticism. This happens because of our belief that anyone and everyone can achieve. And day in, day out, without a lot of fanfare and little credit given, these children are welcomed, cared for, taught and nurtured with significant value added to their lives in the form of knowledge and recognition. This is because of the public education that’s been afforded to them and the teachers who make it possible.

How do you advocate for public education?

As a school leader, advocacy for public education comes in many forms. As a school principal, I advocated for public schools first and foremost by trying to create the ideal vision of a local public school and let the community advocate for itself and the type of school they helped create. But oftentimes the advocacy has become for and within the greater system of government, so I spoke multiple times at public forums over the past year where the Ad Hoc Committee of the State Board of Education has convened to discuss a new A-F Accountability System. I have attended and will continue to attend neighborhood association meetings to inform the public of what is happening in their local public schools. And as a private citizen I have supported initiatives and candidates who stand in support of public schools.

How do schools improve?

Schools improve through quality improvement efforts of those most closely related to the issues that arise. District staff and administration must have vision and action steps toward that action that support schools in their efforts. Principals must use their position of seeing what happens in the whole school to maximize opportunities for students — creating schedules that minimize distractions to learning, working with a leadership team to analyze student outcomes and plan for meaningful professional development, creating safe and secure environments for children, and observing teaching practices to make sure they align to intended outcomes. Teachers, in truly collaborative professional learning communities, see the daily work of children based on instruction they have provided. They need time to see what students are producing and examine their personal and team practices that led to this. Everything must be done with a keen eye toward following the needs of children, and always in support of the greatest resource any child can have outside of the home: a highly effective, respected and trusted teacher.

On average, how quickly are educators advancing up the leadership ladder in Osborn District?

The idea of advancing up a leadership ladder is not exactly the way we approach leadership opportunities within Osborn. That concept promotes hierarchy, whereas we stress collaboration.That said, there are many ways teachers can find opportunities to lead. We have teachers that are master teachers — fully released from a class of students all day to plan for and provide professional development, coach teachers through observation and feedback, co-teach with teachers to increase skills in areas of focus or field test new strategies that may be implemented schoolwide. There are mentor teachers who are full-time teachers at a grade level, but serve on the planning and leadership teams at the school, conduct observations and provide feedback with someone covering their class for a time, and provide support and mentorship after school to a small group of teachers. We have teachers leading committees within schools focusing on positive behavior interventions, academic interventions for struggling students or serving on their school site council. We have teachers who are coordinators of after-school remediation and enrichment opportunities, and teachers who serve as club moderators or coaches.

Do you think it’s important for a superintendent to stay in touch with students day to day? If so, how do you plan to do that?

It is not only important for the superintendent, but also for the teachers and principals. As a teacher, I knew that the greatest effect on student achievement came from me, and that I would advance with support of instructional coaches and administrators within my building. As a superintendent, it’s important to know my place within this structure and offer all that I have to support the principals who, in turn, will support the teachers. That being said, visibility and understanding what teachers and students are experiencing in the classroom every day is critical. To that end, I plan on being at school sites often.

How have you supported teachers in the classroom?

I look forward to the beginning of the school year and being able to support teachers in new ways. As a principal for the past 10 years, that support has taken different looks. I've been able to be present in rooms to observe and provide feedback, maintain school discipline so that teachers can concentrate on teaching. One of the biggest ways I've supported teachers is through respect for the profession and trusting the professional decisions they make. There is no one-size-fits-all to teaching. Teachers need support in finding the ways they can best relate to and communicate with children to break through their learning styles.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am a leader who works to drive a team to maximizing their efforts toward a goal. There are leaders in all settings and I have the honor of being in an educational one, with teachers at the center. So I hope I’m able to lead the way a teacher would want to be led.

Learn more about our doctoral programs.