Susan shares a little about her family, pastimes, and background (2:28)
Her career path from college up through the present day and why she decided she wanted to be a teacher when she was still a preschooler! (5:03)
Starting a program for gifted students (9:30)
How starting the gifted program led to Susan moving from teaching to administration (10:10)
How Susan helps her principals and other staff members develop their leadership skills (and her “loose/tight” management approach) (15:10)
The qualities Susan believes make a person a good candidate for principal or other school administrator (18:07)
Susan describes some of the struggles she encountered on her path to becoming an administrator (21:22)
Some of the valuable lessons Susan has learned from those struggles (27:03)
How she stays focused on her goals, even during the difficult times (29:20)
One of the greatest stories from Susan’s career in education administration (33:04)
For Susan, what makes it all worth it (and why she sometimes counsels aspiring admins to wait a few years before making the switch) (38:00)
The best leadership advice Susan has ever received – make sure it’s “we” and not “me” (42:46)
A commitment to bettering the world for others is critical for an administrator (43:00)
A book that has had a huge impact on many of the colleagues and staff members Susan has recommended it to, as well as on her own life (43:32)
Susan’s advice to admins on working with the students you serve – never forget that each child is a unique individual (44:08)
Susan’s advice to admins on working with the teachers you work with – get to know each teacher well so you can bring out the best in them (44:34)
Here’s the advice Susan would give her younger self if she could travel back in time to when she was just starting out in school administration (46:02)
Books mentioned in this episode
Connect with Susan Bunting
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Educators lead Episode 37
Integrity Is the Key Component of Effective School Leadership
Show notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/susanbunting/
Welcome to Educators Lead where we interview leaders in education to offer inspiration and practical advice to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. I’m your host Jay Willis and I want to thank you for subscribing to our show.
Intro: Dr. Susan Bunting has been superintendent of the Indian River School District since July of 2006. Prior to assuming the head leadership position, she spent 28 years in the district as a middle school language arts teacher, an elementary gifted and talented teacher, supervisor of elementary instruction and K-12 director of instruction. An experienced conference presenter at both state and national conferences, Dr. Bunting co-created Indian Rivers Leadership Institute, which has been recognized as a Superstar in Education by the Delaware state Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, she designed and leads the District’s. Administrative Development Program and created Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E., the district’s program for economically challenged four year olds. In 2012 Dr. Bunting was nominated as one of the four finalists for the national Superintendent of the Year award by the American Association of School Administrators. She’s the first superintendent in Delaware to achieve this distinction. That’s just a brief introduction, Susan. But tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Susan Bunting: I enjoy being with people and care greatly about the advancement of the students that I have been blessed to have in this district. I was a native of this area, and then moved to the Washington area for about 15 years and happened to return to this rural area in southeastern Sussex County to assume whatever job I could find. (My husband was involved with my family’s retail clothing business.) So I did for a while do some tutoring and then I began to do a substitute job here in the district and I was lucky enough to land a permanent position within that first year that we lived here in this area. So we have returned to this area and I’ve been here ever since.
Jay Willis: OK. So tell us something interesting about yourself that most people wouldn’t know?
Susan Bunting: That’s a tough question. Probably they’re not quite as aware of my comfort level in the outdoors. I really – I’m an outside girl. I love green trees and flowers and Mother Nature. I do find a great relaxation that occurs when I can be outside. And my job of course keeps me inside so much that’s probably a feature that isn’t publicly known. When you also dress for the job all day, it’s not one that you would think I’m just as happy in a pair of jeans at times strolling through a woods.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Are there many places to hike around where you live?
Susan Bunting: Delaware is totally flat here. So hiking is just strolling – you know it’s a walk down the sidewalk or into the woods. But there are no hills to hike on. But we’re about ten miles from the ocean and the beach is always a nice place to walk.
Jay Willis: Yeah well yeah we’re down in southeast Texas so it’s pretty flat here, too. Lots of trees though.
Susan Bunting: We have lots of trees and we have four seasons. Though lately the seasons have been totally mixed. Yesterday it’s 61 and last week we had snow. So it depends on the day – tomorrow will be freezing again so we just roll with it. This has been a very unusual winter for us.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So kind of walking back a little bit from that, tell us a little bit more about your career path. So from the time that you – I mean at what point did you make the decision to go into education?
Susan Bunting: Probably when I was a preschooler. How I can remember always being interested in teaching something. To dolls or to stuffed animals or I was the older child in my family and so I’m sure that my sister had to endure some of my little campaigns to decide to be an educator. My mother had been an English language arts and home economics teacher. So it was just something that came naturally and as I went through school I often had the opportunity to help my classmates in one way or another. I guess at times my teachers would rely upon me to take someone under wing who was having difficulty. I was a good student in school and so I guess some of that came from just my success in the classroom.
As we became high schoolers we had the opportunity to be a member of the Future Teachers of America Club. And I can remember being a very active member, being president of that group. And I was sharing with someone the other day that as I came through high school, and I was a junior or a senior, (we had a K-12 school) and we often would be asked to take the role of teacher for example in one of the younger grades if a teacher had to be out for a doctor’s appointment late in the afternoon. We as high schoolers became the teacher. As a superintendent now I just am horrified by the liability of something like that! (Laughter) I would actually take over the first grade classroom, finish out the day, load the kids on the bus, make sure everything was closed out for the day, and report to the teacher when she came in the next morning because we were all in the same building so that was an easy thing to do. So I just always had that inclination toward teaching and caring for others and it’s been a very rewarding trek.
Jay Willis: So you went to college and then you’re – what was your major in college?
Susan Bunting: I was a psychology major actually. When I started I was a history major and there didn’t seem to be any hope at all of getting a job as a history teacher. But I was always very interested in people. And so I actually became a psych major and had it not been for the fact that by the time I was in college, I was married. My first daughter was born while I was still in college so I chose not to pursue a master’s degree in psychology. I was at American University in Washington and the master’s degree involved an actual residency with unpredictable hours at an actual institution. And I was an abnormal psych major at that point and I decided that I couldn’t do that. So I picked up the double major – I had an education K-8 certification by the time I finished school. And since then I’ve used the psychology a lot. I just didn’t pursue the advanced degree.
Jay Willis: Yeah so then you graduated and what was your first position?
Susan Bunting: I was a third grade teacher in Montgomery County Maryland.
Jay Willis: OK. And then what was the next step after that? How long were you a third grade teacher?
Susan Bunting: Just a year. And then I had a second daughter and I was a stay at home mom for a little while. I did a lot of tutoring and I worked for Reading Institute in Bethesda Maryland. And then when we decided to relocate because my father’s health was failing, we returned to Delaware and as I said I became a substitute for a person who’s still a good friend of mine and the following year I had a permanent position at a middle school teaching seventh to ninth grade English language arts. And I did that for actually not a long while because it was the era in which gifted programs were being created for students. And I had that opportunity and someone must’ve said to me, “This is something that you would be good at.” And so I applied and started the gifted program here in the district for elementary students and it grew to be a first through sixth grade program. And then we reorganized and sixth grade went with the middle school so I then became a grade one to five teacher and did that for a dozen years. And I have been at Central Office since 1991. I became the supervisor of elementary instruction and then later became K-12 director of instruction. And I did that for a decade and then became the superintendent.
Jay Willis: Wow…so at what point in your journey did you make the decision to move into school leadership?
Susan Bunting: I guess in a way when we became the organizers of the gifted program, we became school leaders in the classroom. I had again a natural affinity toward teaching my peers. There would be something that I would be asked to explain or to take a new teacher under my wing. But as we started with the gifted program we had to create it. And we did our own testing in curriculum writing. And then of course we conducted the classes, but we also – since we were on the cutting edge of gifted education in Delaware, we would be asked to help other districts get started with a program. Or we would be asked to speak at conference’s, or meetings where legislators or where other administrators happened to be. So we became teacher/leaders. A partner that’s still in the district (she’s retired but she still lives in the area) and I were often called to do those extra things. So we became leaders of sorts and not administrators officially but we you know we were in leadership roles. And then that just naturally led to eventually someone saying to me that when the job opened up as a curriculum kind of person in central office, “Think about it.” And it was probably that encouragement from someone that I had long respected that made me take that next step and apply for the job. And the rest is history.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So what do you think it was that that person saw in you that caused them to encourage you to go in that direction?
Susan Bunting: I wish I could read that person’s mind and tell you. I’m not sure, except that I’m very well organized. I have a tremendous empathy for students, particularly students who need someone to care. I really like people and I guess I have been successful in the teaching part of it. Professional development is something that I truly believe in and greatly enjoy doing myself. So I will actually get highly involved not in teaching the masses that are teachers at this point, but I do a tremendous amount of professional learning with the principals in the district. I believe that they must be learning leaders in their building and they all know that and they rise to the occasion. And it’s a real privilege to be able to continue the teaching of others and bringing out their very best qualities and I have a philosophy that everyone can be doing a better job at what he or she is doing. So we are continually growing. And we grow together. You know I have a lot to learn as well.
Jay Willis: Yeah, you know, it’s amazing – I’ve had I think 32 guests on the podcast so far and just the message that I continue to get from the best leaders is that they really are the best learners. I mean they just constantly are looking for ways that they can grow and improve and never feel as though they’ve just arrived and you know there’s nothing more for them to learn.
Susan Bunting: Never. Truly never.
Jay Willis: So have you had the opportunity since you’ve been in the position that you’re in to I guess kind of do the same thing that that person who came to you and kind of encouraged you to go into a leadership role -have you had the opportunity to do that in the position that you’re in now?
Susan Bunting: Yes; the person who actually spoke to me and made me take a leap happened to be…it’s strange, but her mother and my mother were teachers that came to this area together and roomed together for…you know in those days’ people would have a room on the top of some older person’s house for example and you would rent it. And so they had been good friends and I guess Judy saw something in me. She had. She had been a leader in the special ed department in the district and just saw something in me that was worth nurturing and supporting and encouraging. And she actually was the secondary – we changed roles and she became the secondary supervisor when I was the elementary supervisor so I got to work with her. She was a grand mentor and I’ve had some other mentors along the way that have been very supportive and enabled me to grow. And I try to do that with others. Most of those people are still tangentially in my life. I’ve been blessed in that respect.
Jay Willis: Well so I guess my question is kind of, you know, if you have seen people who maybe were in a similar role to what you were in where you’ve kind of seen those leadership qualities in other people and you’ve kind of encouraged them to maybe pursue a leadership role – have you had that experience yourself?
Susan Bunting: Absolutely. Ad I think if you look at – I have sixteen principals in the district and central office staff, but even in my cabinet, I have seven others in my cabinet. Particularly my principals have been selected and I take them through an administrative development program. I can see, I can perceive, I can predict the ones that are going to be successful. And so I help them make that leap as well. You know when I’m involved with the hiring of a principal, I have had the opportunity to really field test that principal in a leadership role through that administrative development program. And I get highly involved in it; I bring other people in as well but I have a part of every session. I do book talks with them, I do a lot of experiences, I read all their paperwork all the assignments that they turn in and then respond to those.
So I truly get to know them through that program. And can…I know when a position opens up at a school with these qualities and these needs opens up, as far as the leadership goes, and I know exactly the right person that I want to recommend for that position. So being involved with the prospective administrators in the district has been a great asset. And I think that hopefully I do even more than was done in the past. As I say when someone tried to encourage me to come into administration I’m hoping that that’s one of the things that my principal would tell you – that I’m highly involved with them. Not in a Big Brother kind of way but in that supportive role, that role that is going to make them better at what they do. And I feel very strongly that they are excellent educators who have the right philosophies and the right determination to help students be the best they can be.
Jay Willis: Yeah so you’re not micro-managing but you’re there to support.
Susan Bunting: We call it loose/tight. They know. They know the non-negotiables, but they also know that they have latitude, because each school is different in my district. I have some wit some amazing demographic changes in the last ten years. And others that are far more reflective of an upper middle class situation. So we have to be…we have to customize to best meet the needs of the staff and the students at each site.
Jay Willis: So what are some of the best predictors for a successful principal? I mean how do you see – what qualities do you see in these people that would indicate that they’re ready to move into school leadership?
Susan Bunting: One, I look for a deep curricular and instructional knowledge because that’s the only way we’re going to get the best service to students in the district. I look for people who have a work ethic of understanding that administration is going to be a 24/7 job. There’s just no way to get around that. But if you’re doing your job well you need to mix that with your knowledge of curriculum and instruction. I believe they have to be learning leaders who are highly visible, in their schools, particularly. But also in their communities they need to be involved. You do not turn off these jobs when you pull out of the parking lot of the end of the day. You know you need to be back and supporting your kids in competitions in in presentations. It becomes your life. And you have to recognize that and you have to have your family support in doing that.
You have to be a good listener. You have to care deeply about the people with whom you’re working. You have to be a team player. You have to believe in collective work. It’s a we not an I kind of mentality that I’m looking for. You’re looking for someone who has the grit to have the courageous conversations with people – as much as you care about them you care enough to have those tough conversations when they’re warranted, and that’s not always easy. It’s not always easy to write it down on paper. You know, “Here’s how you need to grow” or “I’m giving you a letter of reprimand because as a parent would sometimes say it hurts them more than it hurts the person who’s receiving the spanking.” But you know it needs to be done for their long term best interests. So those are just a few of the qualities. You could go on and on but when I start with an administrator on my team I will tell them the two things that I particularly value are honesty and integrity. And the integrity piece is a huge one for me. I just think that has to be the basis of everything that happens because if you don’t have the integrity people will not trust you, they will not work with you…it’s not going to work. So integrity is really the basis of everything I’m looking for.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Is there any easy way to measure that or does that just kind of come over time through your relationship?
Susan Bunting: It’s a gut reaction.
Jay Willis: Yeah.
Susan Bunting: It really is a gut reaction. And fortunately for us, we’re too big to be small but too small to be big. We also know a lot of the people who then become prospective administrators in the district. And so they’ve had a grounding in our district, they’ve probably spent several years as teachers, so you’ve had an opportunity to get a sample of what they might be like even in their classrooms. And that helps also.
Jay Willis: So tell us about some of the struggles that you encountered along the journey to becoming a school administrator. I mean obviously you were working to be an effective wife and mother, and also working at the time, so I’m guessing you had additional classes you had to take in order to get into administration. Like how did you juggle all that and then what are maybe some of the other struggles that you dealt with?
Susan Bunting: I think you have to have family support to do that. I was fortunate back in this area to have parents that weren’t too far away who helped with dinners and transportation for the kids and so forth. As you go through and you have to have again we’re back to grit and determination. You have to make up your mind that for a while you’re going to sacrifice other things. And hopefully you’ve involved your family in that decision so that they will back you up when you have to spend part of Sunday afternoon writing a paper as opposed to doing something fun. So you know that’s part of it.
One of the things that I’ve encountered along the way is the challenge that is created by the changing demographics in our area. Since I’ve been at Central Office for example we have changed from less than one percent of our student population being Latino to over 30%. So many of these children are coming to us with no English whatsoever, though we do have a burgeoning group that would be born here to parents that aren’t American citizens but of course they are American citizens because they’re born on American soil. So that has created a changing demographic that is a challenge. Some of our schools are looking at kindergarten classes that are 75 – 80% Latino now. So the dual language, the second language situation, has been a challenge but our staff members have heart and they have enough passion to meet those challenges and try to adopt new methods and adapt to the changing situation and we believe “No exceptions. No excuses” we’re going to move our children forward. So that spirit, that indomitable spirit, has been very profitable for the district as a whole but it’s something you have to keep encouraging and you have to keep sharing that philosophy because sometimes the hurdles are there and you need to get across them with enthusiasm.
Another thing…I’ll be very frank – there is an uphill battle to climb for women superintendents. The numbers are growing. But we came in many cases from curricular backgrounds and traditionally that wasn’t always true. People came through business routes or coach routes, you know, some different pathways. And I think you’ll find that it takes, on the whole, it takes a little bit longer for women to be selected to be superintendents. They have more years of instruction under their belt. And that’s really profitable because they are better grounded in instruction and can change. They can influence instruction in classrooms because they’ve had so much experience.
I don’t think most of our female group set out to be superintendents when they started. They wanted to be teachers. And they’ve exhibited qualities that have enabled others to say, “I need you here” or, “Consider being a supervisor or an instructional coach” or something of that sort. So sometimes we do face a stereotypical image of “mom still should be at home” you know once in a while you run into that. But I find sometimes that our board members don’t think that we have the courage to do the tough things; they see us as loving educators who want everybody to succeed and we’re going to do whatever we can to get them to succeed but we don’t have the toughness that they automatically assume men have. I know in my district I’ve been challenged many times about holding people accountable and I’m thinking, “If I hold them any more accountable they’re going to scream.” But they know what the nonnegotiables are, they know where the line is, and I’ll be frank again – if you lie to me you’re out. And I’ve done that. That integrity piece is just paramount and me in my estimation. So those are some of the things. You at times have to face financial challenges but those are implicit in any job that you might have or any organization. So I think for superintendents some of the things that I have covered are really universal obstacles that have to be overcome.
Jay Willis: I know in my own household, Dad’s the softie, (laughter) so I would say, you know they would always would prefer to have a punishment or discipline from Dad instead of Mom because you know Dad’s a softy.
Susan Bunting: The old saying used to be, “Well wait to your dad gets home.” And you know that role has changed a little bit.
Jay Willis: So two things – how do you feel that you have grown in, you know, what are some things that you’ve learned I guess through some of the struggles that you’ve just shared as an administrator?
Susan Bunting: I think you have – I call it my lobster shell. And once in a while I get a crack in it. But you have to prove that you have the ability, you have to prove that you have the right qualities, you have to prove that you can do it and you don’t turn the other way when things become tough. Because there are times when the media or rulings…I run into a huge problem once – we had had a court case that had some religious connections. And the ruling from the court had us change certain practices that we had done in the district. I am a rule follower and a rule enforcer. Compliance is important. I’m not ever going to get in trouble with an audit for example because I haven’t followed the rules. That’s just not me.
But my board members were very upset and although the case had been against the board and not really against me at all, I inherited the situation as I came into the position. But the court ruling was one that was not well received by various members of our board and therefore the implementation, and the things that we could no longer do or that we had to do differently didn’t go down well. So we had a major…some of the teachers protested a little bit and of course they’re under the board and things were rough for a while. But you overcome those situations. So my lobster shell has to stay intact.That’s one of the things I’ve learned – try not to take some comments and some actions personally; try to understand where the person is coming from. Which, I think I’ve always been good at that part but I sometimes I have to give myself a little lecture and say, “Wait a minute. Tomorrow will be another day – we’re going to go back and do what we do for the sake of students not because we have an adult who hasn’t been very thoughtful in how they’ve reacted to something.
Jay Willis: Well so that is a question I would have is because I knew that as a leader, you kind of need to have that lobster shell, right? But at the same time you’re a person too. And sometimes like you could have some difficult things going on at home whether it’s a death in the family or you know there’s just a variety of things that can happen over the years. So I guess, what do you do to help keep yourself focused on what you’re really there to accomplish? In those times of kind of maybe some personal turmoil?
Susan Bunting: I’ve had the blessing of working with a good team. Regardless of the level – even in a classroom I had peers that would collaborate with me or could say, “Let’s look at it this way.” Most of the time I played that role with others but once in a while, at some point, some of my key administrators in Central Office and I will have to have a little chit chat and balance each other. We had another very difficult lawsuit at one point. And my personnel director and I were directly involved in it. Again, we hadn’t hired the person but when things went south, we were there and you know, the legal situation comes to the current people, never the people that caused the issue. And that was a very difficult one to get through. But, together, if I had a bit of a down day, my director of personnel would be up, fortunately, and we would keep each other balanced,
So I would say – your team, if you’ve created those relationships, remember, and you have developed trust in your people of integrity, you have someone there is going to be able to –very few when you’re superintendent because you have a very limited “it’s lonely at the top” kind of situation, but you’ll have people that can kind of level things for you. I also have a very strong faith and sometimes that’s all I have to rely upon. And that will get me through. And then of course we have family, who can help us right our ship and look at things a different way and say, “Oh, come on.” (Laughter) So there are those various release valves.
Jay Willis: The community – that’s a lot of the support system…
Susan Bunting: It depends on the week. (Laughter) Generally, because I’m a hometown girl and I’m back in the area where I grew up and that counts for something.. So that has helped. I think our community was extremely excited when I became superintendent and I value the community. So I try to be highly visible in the community and involved them in such things as right now we’re looking at the beginning of that referendum campaign. And I want the community involved from the beginning. And I think they know that – I reach out in a variety of ways through podcasts and through monthly newsletters, and our district newsletter and. We have a website and I do a monthly newsletter as well. I answer my own e-mails, I answer every phone call, I will get back to people. They value things like that.
Jay Willis: Which is time consuming but I’m sure it’s extremely valuable.
Susan Bunting: It’s what you need to do. So you do it.
Jay Willis: So you’ve been in education for a while and I’m sure you have some incredible stories of the impact that you’ve been able to make and be a part of. But what has been one of your best moments as a school administrator?
Susan Bunting: Tough question. If I had a long time I could think of many. One of them was and we mentioned it in the introduction, we started a program called Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E. which stands for Verbally Intensive Literacy and Language Activities for Growth in Education. We had very little early childhood care availability, particularly of a preschool nature where there would be educational activities. So we obtained a grant and we started a program here, actually in the building that I’m in. It has turned out – we started with 8 students but we were recognized nationally – the American Association of School Administrators has an award they gave us probably 15 or 16 years ago now. We’re starting it – because it was a community effort we had a partner, a local poultry farm actually, partnered with us, and so this is a Civic Star Award.
The children of Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E. came in one by one at the beginning, it was an unknown thing, but we from the very beginning linked it so that it would be a seamless transition for the students from the four-year-old program into our kindergarten. And I can remember a day at the beginning, I was like the chief cook and bottle washer, and I actually did the registration for the students, and I can remember a grandmother coming in and as she filled out the paper and handed it back to me she said, “I have always dreamed that my children could have some kind of preschool education. That didn’t happen. But now you are making it possible for my granddaughter.” And a tear rolled down her cheek I’ll never forget it. But ironically because of the Civic Star Award,we were able to save the prize money that we had and use it for scholarships. And ironically,12 years later, one of the first recipients of the scholarship to the college of that person’s choice happened to be the little girl that was the granddaughter of the grandmother who came in to register her child.
And this girl has become a correspondent and actually she was working with LifeTouch for a while and she keeps in touch with us. But she became our poster girl of sorts. So things like that or when someone stops me on the street – one thing by the way that I love to do on the side is tutor kids. Through the years I’ve tutored a lot of children. But they’ll stop me on the street and show me their children or tell me that now they have a job at so on so and, “Thank you so much for the time that you spent with me” or “Thank you so much for believing in me.” And those are the moments. It’s not anything where there is a plaque on the wall or you know, a piece of paper that someone gives you. Or recognition in the newspaper. It’s the testimonials of the people who come back and say thank you, and that means so much to us as educators – we did our job! You know, we did what we set out to do and that was to make a difference in someone’s life.
Jay Willis: What a powerful story. That’s neat. I guess that probably in your position, sometimes it can kind of be a thankless job. Especially at the beginning, I could see, and maybe throughout…it would be kind of one of those things where you second guess yourself especially during you know when you have a really hard conversation with somebody and maybe have to have some kind of disciplinary action where you just think you know, “Man, am I doing any good here? Am I doing the right thing?” And so for you to be able to see that once in a while. I would guess it helps kind of remind you of really what you’re there for and that you are making a difference.
Susan Bunting: Yes, it does in fact this morning I had one of my next to last principal’s interview. I had a guy in here who I happened to hire as a person in my _____ _____ program where I used to run the program. He was someone who wanted to break into the district and he actually took a job as a part time custodian, part time social studies teacher for me when we started. So to see him now be a very successful principal for 8 years… You know, again we’ve kind of nurtured and encouraged and watched him grow. And just watching these people have such a successful career and you knew you did something at the beginning to get them started. That’s what makes you come back another day.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well would you say because I know that some of our listeners maybe are teaching currently in the classroom and they may be considering making the move, as some teachers call it, to the “dark side.” (Laughter). So they’re thinking about that but their concern is, they don’t want to lose that connection that they have with the students and maybe the really deep personal connection and impact they feel like they have a chance to make with the students. And then you know you just kind of talking about how it’s a 24/7 job and, you’re a lot more prominent in the community, and kind of everywhere you go you are the superintendent. So I guess my question would be like, what makes it all worth it?
Susan Bunting: I’ll go back to the recipients or the people at the other end of what you’ve tried to make happen for them. I do think it’s important as they consider this to know that there is a bit of a dark side, there’s public criticism. Anybody can write on the district’s Facebook page something that’s really, really derogatory. They can be out in the community telling totally false things. And that seems the fall on the shoulders of the admin more than it does on the teaching staff. So you have to put up with that kind of thing and just hope that you’ve established enough of a reputation so that someone will say, “Oh, you have to be kidding. I know her better than that.”
The time commitment and being away from kids and we’ve had people who have gone back to teaching roles because they didn’t like being detached from children. So they do need to think about that if they really love it, particularly in Delaware, there are teacher leader positions that are emerging that enable you to still work with students in some kind of out of classroom position. But it’s not really a totally administrative position. There are far more choices in today’s world for those out of classroom leadership positions, instructional coach positions, all sorts of things that will enable you to keep your feet in the teaching world because you might be working directly with students or even directly with teachers more often and doing less of the administrative kind of tasks. So they do need, I think, to thoroughly think about it before they make the leap. It’s easier and it’s wiser to think about it first.
I also advise people when they talk with me about, “Well you know, maybe I’d like to be an administrator.” I often will ask them how many years they have in the system. And then talk with them about, “Maybe this will be better for you in another three or four years. Because we really want to spend 25 years as an admin?” That’s a long time. That’s a long commitment, one that sometimes causes people to burn out. And so I want them to enjoy the power of teaching plus, I mentioned earlier, I feel you have to be a strong instructional…you have to be that learning leader. With the best staff of teachers if you don’t have a learning leader at the helm of that school you will not be able to make the strides that you need to make. And accountability is such a big feature right now.
So I guess, “Think before you act.” But there are rewards. What you do miss and I will tell you that I miss that too – how I miss the direct connection that I had. When I was a teacher of the gifted I had total control over my classroom, my curriculum that I taught because the two of us wrote the curriculum. We just – you know it was sort of a self…you had to be self-sufficient. And it was a new venture; we were embarking on a new venture, which was very exciting and very rewarding. You don’t have that same kind of reward when you move in to and administrative role. But you do have other kinds of rewards. So, contemplate before you make the move. Make sure it’s the right thing for you at that point in your life.
Jay Willis: So I’m going to run through some rapid fire questions if you’re ready for those.
Susan Bunting: OK.
Jay Willis: All right so first off what do you think is the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Susan Bunting: Make sure that “it’s a we and not a me. “
Jay Willis: That’s good. What would you say is your biggest strength as a school administrator?
Susan Bunting: I wish you’d ask some of my folks. Wow, that’s a tough one… Commitment to bettering the world for others.
Jay Willis: That’s a pretty good one. Is there a book or two that you recommend for other school leaders that have made an impact on you?
Susan Bunting: Lincoln On Leadership has made the biggest impact…I was a history major in college, remember? But I have used that many times with my staff members; I use it with – all my cohorts that come through ADP read that book. And I quote it – it’s a part of our culture here. It has made an unbelievable difference, like an indelible mark on things that we do.
Jay Willis: What advice would you have for a school administrator working with the students that they serve?
Susan Bunting: Think of each of them as an individual and not as a number. And serve the need. Find out what that child really needs and make sure that he gets it in one form or another.
Jay Willis: Kind of along those lines what would you say is one piece of advice that you would want to give to a school administrator for working with the teachers in the building?
Susan Bunting: A similar kind of thing – each teacher is an individual. So you need to get to know them so that you can take advantage and help them work with their features and their best points. And that also comes into play when you’re doing – a grade level, for example. If I have a teacher who is really gifted in organization I’d probably want to make that person the chair of that particular grade level. Or I might have one who’s very good at teaching her peers. So I you know I need to know my people to make the whole organization function really well. But I go back to that same philosophy about finding out and then making sure that each one gets exactly what you can to make them the best person they can be so they can help others become the best people that they can be.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Yeah. That’s good. So last question. If you had a time machine, and you could jump in it and go back to the point in time when you had just made the decision to go into school leadership – so maybe that was when you we’re teaching that gifted and talented class and somebody came to you and said, “Hey, I think you should consider this.” If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice what advice would you give to the younger version of yourself?
Susan Bunting: I might be answering this indirectly so redirect my thinking…I did not ever become a school principal. And I would like to go back and be a principal of an elementary school or middle school. And have that experience to add to my repertoire. It’s one of those neat things that I just wish I’d had the opportunity to do because I love working with teachers and I would be just a little bit closer to the students and I think I would have the skills and the knowledge to move that school forward. Now, ironically, here’s the funny part – I didn’t envision myself standing in the lunch room two hours a day dealing with lunch duty. And I can be a disciplinarian but that’s not where my heart lies; my heart lies with instruction. So when the opportunity came to become an administrator at Central Office and deal with instruction….the time was right the job was out there and I took it. But I do wish I had also had the opportunity to be a principal for just a little while.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Is there anything that you wish you would have known at that point?
Susan Bunting: I wish I had known that people are not as insightful as I thought they might be. And they’re not realistic. I guess I’ve learned that. You know, I’m a diehard optimist. I don’t see that in everybody but I’m also a realist. And I have to spend part of my time getting people who are totally idealistic to be real, or people who are totally pessimistic to be real and to be hopeful, you know. So I have to be that intermediary and I’m disappointed in people sometimes, because they don’t see the big picture. Or they don’t see the possibilities.
Jay Willis: What are some ways that you have helped people to see the big picture? And get them to that place?
Susan Bunting: I believe in communication. And I think I have a skill in presenting facts without becoming argumentative. And hopefully enlightening them so that they can at least begin to see some of the other side. But I also can make people who are just, you know if they are there just gung ho to get something new and different out there or they’ve got this grand idea, I think I’m able to work with that person also to make the realism come into picture with facts and figures. I’m good with figures and with statistics and so forth. So usually I can find something that’s just hard data to help them see how things might work out and maybe we need to take a slower pathway to that same end. So I have a way of saying, you know, “Work with me and we’ll get there;. We just won’t get there tomorrow” because we need to make sure that we have people following us. We’re not running a race. Or, you know we’re leading the pack but there’s nobody in the pack! (Laughter) So you have to turn around and…I’m big on having people reflect. So yeah, you’ve got stuff even along the pathway and, maybe recalculate.
Jay Willis: Well Susan finally if any of our listeners want to reach out to you after the show, what would be the best way to connect with you?
Susan Bunting: I am always willing to get emails. My e-mail is. Susan.Bunting@irsd.k12.de.us And my phone number is 302.542.9120. So phone calls, text messages, emails…I will get back to anyone that contacts me.
Jay Willis: That’s great thank you very much for her providing that. Well Edu-leaders this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of today’s show and other resources visit EducatorsLead.com and type the word Susan into the search tool to find more information about this episode. Susan, thank you for sharing your journey with us today.
Susan Bunting: You’re very welcome.
Jay Willis: And that wraps up another episode of Educator’s Lead.
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Educators Lead is a podcast created to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. This show is for you if you are interested in educational leadership as an assistant principal, principal, superintendent, teacher or someone who hopes to be a school leader one day. Educators Lead offers inspiration and practical advice to help you lead more effectively. Jay Willis interviews school leaders three days a week to discuss why and when these educators made the decision to move into school leadership, challenges along the journey, and stories that made it all worthwhile. Educators Lead is a great resource for any educator looking to make a greater impact.
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