Dr. Curtis Cain, superintendent of Wentzville School District in Missouri, was recently named the 2022 AASA National Superintendent of the Year.
Cain acknowledges that the last two years have been tumultuous, but as challenging as it’s been, it has also created opportunities for educators to learn in new ways.
1. Keep Alive the Spirit of Innovation
“The brain, once stretched, never returns to its initial size,” says Cain of the ways that schools have changed. His advice to staff in his district and beyond is to keep alive the spirit of innovation that was born in the pandemic.
“The needs of students have absolutely become more complex and more nuanced. And in many ways more urgent than they have been in the past,” he says. “So we're going to have to keep having the ability to demonstrate a willingness to sit at the table, to problem solve.”
School leaders need to think about students holistically and about their overall well-being socially and emotionally, not just their academic performance. “We're gonna have to continue to make sure that those needs are paramount and top priority in any and everything that we're doing,” he says.
2. Remember the Importance of Teachers and Schools
“One piece that I really have been reflecting upon is how important we are,” Cain says. “It's never ever been about us, but it is about the work that we engage in. And it is about what we offer to communities, families, and ultimately, students.”
School shutdowns highlighted how critical schools and the connection they foster can be, Cain says. “If this pandemic has taught me anything, it's that fact that isolation is very troubling. And it's not just troubling for pre-K through 12 students, it's troubling for adults as well.”
3. Meet Students Where They Are
Differentiating based on student skill levels and needs is not new but it remains necessary. “If you go back to the one-room schoolhouse, that's almost a textbook definition of meeting students where they are,” Cain says. “In that case, students had differentiated grades and ages.”
He adds, “Today, using different modalities and pieces of technology and pedagogy, what we're doing is simply meeting students wherever they happen to be, and we're adding as much growth and value as we can on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.”
4. Communicate Clearly Around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
“I think it's important that districts, and ultimately, school organizations are really defining terms such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, not by what's going on at the national, state, or even regional level, but by what this means in district X,” Cain says. “With the charge that some of these terms bring right now, it's really important that you are owning that and you understand what it is you're offering students and families, and you take pride in that.”
Doing this can offset some concerns or debates that might arise given the politically charged climate of the country. “If there are students who have differentiated levels of reading comprehension, we go about meeting those needs, that's equity,” Cain says. “We, as organizations, believe that it's important that kids be able to come to school and not be hungry over the course of the day. One, because it's important for their physical health, but two, they're not going to learn if they're hungry and their stomachs are literally growling. That is an equity-based response.”
5. Listen To Positive and Negative Feedback
When parents do have concerns with school policies, Cain says it's important for teachers and district leaders to listen. “I personally and professionally believe parents have a right to know what is happening with their kids, literally on a daily basis,” he says. “They have every right. And that for me isn't new. I believe moving forward, that's still gonna be very, very true. I call it a sacred trust that happens when you're working with families and with students, and we need to be just cognizant of that fact.”
In addition, teachers and school employees should be reminded of just how much people appreciate their work. “There is joy, and value and dignity in this job,” he says. “There's pride in what we're doing. And there really is a true appreciation from parents in terms of what educators do on a daily basis. Never lose sight of that.”