When teacher Amanda Davis got the email that she was invited to sit on a task force to create a leadership model for every employee of Corpus Christi ISD, she thought it was a mistake.
“It seemed like something above my pay grade,” Davis said. “All I know is what’s happening on my campus and things that affect me.”
Her principal assured her there was no mix up. Her perspective and voice was exactly what district leaders wanted.
Dawson Elementary Principal Kimberly Ellis was curious too upon receiving her invitation. On the list, she saw 37 people in various roles from every department – instruction, operations, finance, transportation, maintenance, food service.
“What could this possibly be?” she wondered.
It turned out to be three days of work sessions over six months to create a definition of what it means to be a leader in Corpus Christi ISD, a district of 33,000 students on the Gulf Coast.
How should a leader behave, what skills should they have, what values should guide their everyday actions?
Because everyone has the potential to lead, the final product had to resonate with every employee in every role, from bus drivers to the superintendent.
It was no small task. Dictionaries came out, words were parsed. Debates sprouted up over language in form and function. Despite the hard work and the back-and-forth, Ellis described the experience as “really special.”
“So many different thoughts, so many different perspectives – it was compelling to see everyone united in our advocacy of kids,” Ellis said. “I’m excited about where it will lead.”
Leading in CCISD
Ultimately, district leaders hope it will lead to a deeper and stronger bench of principals who can deliver results for students. That’s why they joined the Holdsworth Leadership Collaborative in September 2021 with 13 other districts from across Texas.
According to research, investing in the principal pipeline has the greatest influence on student outcomes, second only to teachers.
Over 18 months, Corpus Christi ISD Superintendent Roland Hernandez, Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Kim James and Chief Officer of School Improvement and Innovation Sandra Clement are learning from experts inside and outside of education to help them create high performing talent systems that get the desired result – a bench of leaders who are truly ready for the complex job of leading a campus.
The process of creating a leadership definition is a signature piece of the program. It lays the foundation for everything that follows by laying out clear expectations that are transparent to everyone across the district.
If you want to be a leader in Corpus Christi ISD, “Leading in CCISD” describes what it takes – Developing Hearts, Empowering Minds and Shaping the Future. While those are broad brush categories, the definition drills down further.
For instance, in Developing Hearts, one of three competencies listed is Cultivating Strong Relationships. A leader skilled in this area is described as someone who “listens to understand with genuine interest and reflection and collaborates with others in shared work experiences that promote equity and ideas of autonomy.”
Gaps in the old system
The next step for CCISD is to integrate the leadership definition into processes used to develop talent. This will require the district to reshape old ways of doing things while uncovering new ways of unleashing the potential of leaders throughout the system.
The skills and capacities outlined in Leading in CCISD can be used to coach and evaluate employees, to reward them for exceptional performance, to assess what skills they need to be ready for the next level of leadership and then build out a plan that will give them the opportunities they need to grow.
What’s different about this?
In education, moving up the ladder is usually informal and subjective. A principal taps a teacher on the shoulder and says “Hey, I think you’ve got potential” and moves her up to department chair, then instructional coach or assistant principal. But often, the teacher is not sure why she got the tap, or what success looks like in each new role.
Clement spent many years as a principal before moving to central office. Looking back with new knowledge, she sees gaps in the old system.
“I would tap people on the shoulder, but I didn’t give them specific opportunities to grow,” she said. “Many times, I would only coach them after they got the job. Reflecting now, I feel like I failed them. I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”
Effectiveness, not entitlement
On the flip side of that example, what if the teacher across the hall wants to move up but isn’t getting the tap? Maybe she starts to feel overlooked and unappreciated.
The beauty of having a leadership definition is that it puts the power to become a leader in everyone’s hands. A teacher can pull up Leading in CCISD and use it to assess her own abilities, and to have a conversation with her principal about where she is now and how she would like to grow.
“The leadership definition allows employees from all positions to see and understand that there are possibilities to move up the ranks regardless of whether they get tapped on the shoulder,” said Corpus Christi ISD Superintendent Roland Hernandez. “Positions are not reserved for people who put in their time. It’s about effectiveness, not entitlement.”
Rooting in culture
While CCISD’s leadership definition is now complete, the process of communicating it and integrating into the district’s culture and practices will take longer.
Leaders at the district and campus level are learning about it and unpacking it now, with plans to introduce it more slowly to the rest of the district’s faculty and staff.
So far, the reception has been good. Ellis chalks that up to involving such a diverse set of stakeholders, giving them voice in its creation, and then asking them to play a key role in sharing the leadership definition with others in the district. This process is a hallmark of how Holdsworth teaches districts to lead change.
“Everyone felt like even if they didn’t have direct input, they knew someone who did,” Ellis said. “I was sharing updates with my staff the whole time and asking them what they thought.”
Davis, who was promoted this year to a curriculum & instruction role in central office, is pumped about her new “Leading in CCISD” mousepad and T-shirt and is ready to persuade others to care about “her baby.”
She believes it holds tremendous promise to root deeply into the district’s culture and strengthen the way everyone cares for students.
“If we as adults model the behaviors in the leadership definition, our students will follow,” Davis said. “Our kids are not numbers, scores, or a way for us to show how good we are. They are humans who will create the community we live in. If we treat them the way they should be treated, if we grow them as leaders, when we look back 10 years later you will see that impact across the board.”