Part 1 of 4
Dr. April Hershey is Superintendent of the Warwick School District, located in Lititz, PA. A talented vocalist, she sings regularly in her church and sometime even for her students and staff. A little more than ten years ago, April asked me to help her prepare for an interview with Warwick for the superintendent position. I remember her telling me, “I won’t get the job, but it’ll be good practice.” My response was, “Why wouldn’t you go into this interview, confident that you’re the best person for the job?” and we prepared differently than just getting experience. The decision makers wisely named her the next superintendent.
I’ve had the privilege to work with April for the last ten years and watched her make amazing leadership moves that have taken the District to new levels of achievement in many domains. This post begins a four-part interview that will show you what makes her an (extra)Ordinary Leader.
Geoff: I’m here with April Hershey on April the 16th, 2019, to do an interview for (Extra)Ordinary Leaders. April, thanks for coming and doing this.
April: Thanks for having me.
Geoff: Let’s start by finding out a little bit about April Hershey. Tell me about you.
April: Currently I’m serving as the Superintendent of Schools at Warwick School District. I have been in that role for the last ten years. It’s one of the greatest joys of my life. I am married almost 25 years now to my husband Rich, and we have a son Cooper who is 13.
Geoff: So, what’s the one word that would best describe you if you had to pick a word that would do that.
April: This question makes me laugh because I love words, and so I’ve been racking my brain. I think the word I’ve settled on is “courageous.”
Geoff: “Courageous.” Why did you choose that?
April: You know, not a day goes by when someone doesn’t say to me, “I would never want to do your job.” I think it’s because people have a perception that being a leader is a very stressful job. And there are times when it is, but there is also a lot of joy in the work. But I think it takes courage to be able to stand up for your truths, to be able to stand up for the work that you’re doing. I believe that’s a quality that I possess.
Geoff: What would you say “courage” is? How would you define it?
April: I would say courage is being able to stand strong through adversity and to be able to stick to your core beliefs when making decisions, even when it’s tough to do that.
Geoff: Good. So how did you get into the education field? What drew you into that?
April: I can remember being in second grade and thinking how much I loved school and how much I loved my teachers and how much I thought I wanted to be a teacher. In my spare time I played school growing up and just loved the whole idea. In the summers my sister and I would work in the library and help the librarian at our local school. So it’s always just been something I’ve wanted to do. When I got to middle school and high school and really got involved in music, I knew that music was my second passion. So I went to school to become a music educator.
Geoff: How long have you been superintendent?
April: This is my tenth year.
Geoff: And what changes have you noticed in yourself? How have you changed in the last ten years?
April: I think I have grown tremendously. I think when I started as superintendent, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Having been a school administrator for several years before I stepped into that role, I sort of thought I knew what it would be like; but I really had no idea. I think for me what has been important is being open to listening, to surrounding myself with brilliant and talented people and allowing them to lead and show their talents. I think that’s something that comes with time. At first, I thought I had to know everything and do everything. And now I know that is absolutely not what a good leader is.
Geoff: What would you say was the biggest change that you experienced personally?
April: That’s a really good question. [Pause] You have me speechless. [Pause] I think, knowing that being who I am is enough. You know, there are times we all question ourselves and think, “Is someone going to find out that I really don’t know what I’m doing?” In reality, I think we’ve all been equipped with tools and gifts to allow us to excel in the places that we’ve been planted. I think when I started as superintendent, I was afraid that I wasn’t enough to be able to do the job. Today I know that I am enough.
Geoff: What a great change. What would you point to as the results of your leadership run as superintendent for the last 10 years? What is on your score card?
April: There are so many neat things that have happened. Certainly, for me the joy every year of being superintendent is watching students walk across the stage and receive their diplomas–many of them walking into a career, many of them walking into the military, many of them walking into post-secondary education. What’s such a beautiful thing for me is getting to know these students and their stories and walking along side of them and providing them with the best opportunities we can as a school district so that they can be successful. That’s one thing that’s sort of a highwater mark for me.
Geoff: What would you say makes you different than other leaders that you have either worked for or seen in the field that you’re in?
April: I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work with lots of different leaders. And I would call all of them “mentors.” Even those who I learned things I didn’t want to do or be—they were still mentors. I think I’m a little bit different than some leaders that I’ve worked with simply because I am a woman. There are many fewer women in school administration than there are men. Which is such an imbalance considering that 78% of all teachers are women. And a much smaller amount, about 13%, of superintendents are women.
Geoff: Why do you think that is?
April: My dissertation focused on that work. Even though my dissertation is a bit old at this point, I think the themes still ring true—that women tend to take on a lot of family responsibilities and so to run a household and take care of kids and also be on 24/7 in running a school district is a lot to ask for. And I think some women just don’t want that extra burden. And so women tend to, if they wish to rise through leadership in schools, rest in principal positions or assistant superintendent positions which tend to not have as many evening commitments and those kinds of things.
Geoff: What would you say that you see differently, maybe women see differently, that allows them to lead differently?
April: I don’t want to get caught in that trap because I think both men and women can be fantastic leaders. I don’t think women necessarily have a corner on the market of leadership than men do because I’ve worked with amazing men and amazing women. For me, I think one of the things that is super important is relationship. Relationship is at the basis of everything that we do. I used to say 90% of what we do is “people stuff,” which to me really means you have to know and understand people and my faith tells me that I need to love people exactly where they are. As a leader, when you’re facing frustrations or when you’re facing a series of crises, when you have that basis of a relationship with someone, it’s so much easier to walk through it and problem solve than if you’re at odds with someone or you don’t know them or you don’t understand the lens through which they see the world.
Geoff: How do you see differently now than you did 10 years ago, 20 years ago?
April: When I started as superintendent, I had been an assistant superintendent previously; and I think I was pretty good at it. That was doing grants and writing curriculum and managing professional development for people. When I became superintendent, I still wanted to do those things. I often tell people that as assistant superintendent, you would finish a project and then you could press a submit button. What’s different as superintendent is there’s very few times where you get to press the submit button or say that something is finished.
Geoff: Why is that?
April: Simply because relationships tend to be ongoing and even projects . . . I’ll just think of one. We’re currently looking at a feasibility study which is the renovation of three buildings. That happens about every 20 years. Just when you have completed all the work that’s led up to it, you have another building and it’s another cycle. Rarely is something finished that you can put a stamp on and then move on to the next thing. It’s more like the spinning plates in the air and they’re all being touched at the same time to keep everything going.
Geoff: You were trained as a music teacher. You found yourself in teaching and then in administration. How did you find yourself dealing with things like construction projects and taxes and school law and all the other things that a superintendent has to deal with?
April: As part of the doctoral program and superintendent’s program you have some courses in those areas. You get a little taste of each of those things. But I think as a leader, you have to really take an interest in all of that. My dad was a construction worker, so growing up I was on all sorts of construction sites. It’s somewhat of a passion of mine. So it’s fun for me to sit in a room full of construction professionals and be able to hold my own and have some of those conversations. Certainly, the financial stuff is very complicated and difficult, and I have a pretty good understanding of that. I also have surrounded myself with this dream team of administrators who have specific expertise in those areas in which they are empowered to lead.
Geoff: How did you get that dream team? Did that just happen? Did you inherit that team?
April: I did not inherit that team. I inherited a team of wonderful people who were all interested in doing what was right for kids and who had a similar vision to my own. However, they weren’t the team that I had chosen so many of them have moved on into superintendencies of their own, other leadership positions, gone on to other districts. I can’t think of anyone who was a leader when I began at Warwick who hasn’t found success wherever they’ve gone. But the beauty of what I’ve been able to do is to really get to know people from inside the organization and outside the organization and bring together this terrific group of superheroes with complementary skills that has allowed us to move the district forward.
Geoff: How do you get them to work together? How do you get a group of superheroes to be the avengers without turning into individual leaders?
April: We do spend a lot of time together for different purposes. We certainly spend time together to work on nuts and bolts kinds of things—policies and administrative regulations and procedures and to talk about specific student or staff issues. But we also spend equally as much time, if not more time, together in relationship. That may be sitting by the pool in my back yard talking about each other’s lives. That may be attending each other’s birthday parties or watching our colleagues receive their doctorate. It’s really important to me that we have developed that relationship where we’ve built trust. We spend a lot of time looking at current research on leadership and it may or may not be educational leadership. It may be business models so that we can continue to hone our practice as leaders but also strengthen our bonds as colleagues and friends.
© Geoff Davis, 5/3/19