In the 1984 movie The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach karate to novice Daniel LaRusso. His “training” begins with what seem to be laborious chores. When he complains that he is not learning anything, Mr. Miyagi begins to spar with him, showing him that waxing the cars, sanding the deck and painting the fence and house were actually building his muscle memory for defensive karate moves. (Watch the iconic scene here.)
For Dr. Art Cavazos, Harlingen CISD’s superintendent for the past eight years, it’s a perfect parallel for the way his district has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
Years before COVID-19 struck, Harlingen began transforming itself based upon the community’s vision for their schools. Art and his team began convening design teams – basically mini-think tanks with diverse representation – to complete a specific mission tied to one aspect of the strategic plan that served as a roadmap to this new vision.
For instance, one team’s charge was to develop curriculum with an emphasis on preparation for career pathways and post-secondary endorsements (which are kind of like majors for high school students). The result was the creation of 12 new specialized learning academies, all of which offer industry certifications. Other wins include more collaborative workspaces for elementary students and a new app for mass communication.
During turbulent times is when real leaders are illuminated – people I didn’t expect have blown me away with their leadership.
Success was not immediate. Initially, teams got bogged down by thinking within the current reality of systems and structures.
“It took us a couple of years to get people focused on what could be,” Art said. “Oftentimes, we own the bureaucracy and can change it.”
Fast forward to this spring. After a chaotic switch to remote learning, Art knew instruction had to get better by the fall. Drawing on his past experience, he engaged design teams of teachers and leaders to work on what they called an “instructional reset.”
Despite the heavy lift, teams were able to lock in quickly and start innovating around new curriculum and training modules to support online teaching and learning.
It was a wax on, wax off moment for Art and his team.
“Like Daniel in The Karate Kid, we didn’t realize we had been learning all along. All those years of standing up design teams and creating change– those were the lessons.”
Because we have been on a journey of transformation for six years, we are able respond to this crisis and not just react. We know how to change.”
‘They walk among us’
In this moment, Harlingen leaders are learning new lessons that will help them in the future.
As everyone stretches to meet the challenge of the instructional reset, people are flexing talents and leadership abilities they didn’t know they had.
“During turbulent times is when real leaders are illuminated – people I didn’t expect have blown me away with their leadership,” Art said. “This has taught me that they walk among us. If we are going to create a leadership pipeline, we need to learn the art of identifying these kinds of leaders at an early stage in their journey.”
Building a deep bench of leaders is one of the district’s most important goals. It’s why they are engaged in a 5-year partnership with The Holdsworth Center, to help them build the systems needed to identify, place and support leaders from the classroom through their journey to the principal’s office or central office.
To do that well, leaders must give others opportunities to shine and help them succeed. It can be time intensive, but it’s necessary to grow people around the leader.
“Some of these teachers have become the biggest superstars,” said Veronica Kortan, administrator for organizational development. “What’s really hit home for us is the importance of giving people the right opportunity and mentoring them so you pull out of them what they may not see.”
One of those people is Teresa Cuellar, who chairs the career and technology department at Harlingen High School. She was preparing to step down as chair when the world changed. With 25 teachers looking to her for guidance, it wasn’t the time for a transition. She stayed on – and surprised herself.
“I have never had to step up the way that I have during this pandemic,” Teresa said. “I became kind of the consoler, the mother, making the teachers feel like it was going to be all right. I didn’t have all the answers, but by promising to find the answers and reassuring people, we were able to get through it.”
Perhaps for the first time, she started to feel like a real leader – people were looking up to her. Leaders above her saw it too – they asked for her opinion and tapped her to serve on a curriculum design team. The principal gave her leadership advice and most exciting, she was named Secondary Teacher of the Year for the whole district.
“I was very humbled by that,” Teresa said. “In the Rio Grande Valley, we have a lot of poverty and other issues, but we can’t let that stop us. I tell my teachers, ‘Don’t ever give up on a student, those are the ones who need us most.’”
Even the superintendent took notice of Teresa. At Harlingen High School’s graduation ceremony, she sat at a table holding red, black and white pom poms and cheered for every single one of the 600 students who walked across the stage.
“I watched her and thought, ‘No one told her to do that, she just stepped up,’” Art said.
Investing in a different way
Leadership has parallels with parenting. A parent never knows what their kids are capable of until they stop hovering and let them do things on their own. For leaders, it can be as tempting to hover at work as it is at home.
The pandemic has forced leaders to lean on others for help, and in doing so, trust them to take on big, important work.
“This district is not made up of one leader, we have many, many leaders,” Art said. “I have learned that my team is very capable – they have all done remarkable work.”
Veronica, who has worked with Art for 20 years, has noticed a change in her boss.
“He has invested in us in a very different way,” Veronica said. “Being able to pick up the phone and say, ‘I really need some guidance’ and have him make that a priority in his busy schedule, there is a lot of power in that. We also have elevated accountability – we are now bringing in recommendations instead of him doing a lot of the guide work. He’s letting go of the reins more and more.”
The shift toward empowering others has trickled down to teachers too. People like Teresa are being given the opportunity to own the transformation underway by serving on design teams for the instructional reset. When it’s time to roll out the curriculum districtwide, teachers will take the lead, not central office leaders.
“I always brag about my school district because they are always asking the teachers, ‘What do you need?’ Right now, teachers need to feel like they have a say in what they are teaching,” Teresa said.
Allowing others to own the details of the work has freed up Art to focus on one of his most important tasks – investing in people and giving them the courage to move forward. On a recent morning, he called a Zoom meeting of 60-70 music educators to deliver a pep talk before the start of the new year.
In his usual style, he cracked jokes and called out people by name, telling them not to forget they promised to teach him to play piano or guitar and to sing. Then he got serious. “We are going to get through this together and when we look back, we will see resilience and persistence,” Art told them. “I have all the confidence in the world that we have the right people to make sure that happens. Taking care of our kids – that is what we are here for.”
Harlingen CISD is engaged in a 5-year partnership with The Holdsworth Center to help them grow outstanding leaders at the district and campus levels. Dr. Art Cavazos and Veronica Kortan are in the District Leadership Program, a two-year learning journey in which central office administrators develop their personal leadership skills and practice growing and empowering others and creating change to drive excellent and equitable outcomes for students.