Part 4 of 4
For the past few posts, we’ve been talking with Dr. April Hershey, Superintendent of the Warwick School District in Lititz, PA. This post, we complete that interview with an incredible leader.
Rich, Cooper, and April Hershey
Geoff: What kind of culture have you created at Warwick? How would you describe the culture in your organization—for your staff, for your leaders, for your students, for the community?
April: One of the blessings of being a long-time superintendent is the students who are graduating this year were in second grade when I came. So I know many more of them by name than I knew the graduates ten years ago. So the culture of the administration being involved in daily activities in the classroom or supporting students at concerts or spelling bees or athletic events I think is the culture that exists today. We’re all there to support kids in whatever it is that they’re doing.
Our leadership team is constantly doing those things, is there for kids, is participating. Right now, we have some accountability groups going on in our leadership team across levels. The groups are in triads and one’s an elementary person, one’s a secondary person and one’s usually a district office person. They spend time in each other’s world so that they can see the big picture. My hope is that rather than us being in silos by building or by subject area or by sports or music or whatever, that we’re all able to see and appreciate each other and the individuals who make up those different segments.
Geoff: Enterprise leadership.
Geoff: What do you believe about people, and how does that show up in your leadership?
April: I think people are good. I think people want to do good. I do not believe that there are bad kids. I believe that students are put in situations where they have to make tough choices and sometimes, they’re not good ones. I believe that it’s our responsibility to be a safe place for kids and for staff and to do everything that we can to help kids get what they need to be successful.
Geoff: What’s one thing that you see where leaders get it wrong?
April: I think when leaders don’t give that room for grace, they get it wrong. Certainly, there comes a time when perhaps someone has repeatedly made the same mistakes where you need to draw a line. I think that can still be done with grace. I’ve watched leaders who have a more authoritarian style really crush people. I don’t ever want to do that.
Geoff: So let’s talk about you and how you develop your personal competency and fluency? How do you continue to grow as a leader? What would you say to leaders out there who maybe are trying to make it up as they go and could use some guidance?
April: I think the first thing I would say is that getting a coach was the smartest thing I ever did. I don’t say that lightly. Ten years of coaching has changed me as a person, has made me really examine myself, my personal story, and how that translates into my actions, and my vision, and the way that I see the world. It has given me confidence, it has given me a safe place to talk about anything, and the further you move up the leadership ladder, the less safe places there are to be able to do that. So that’s the first thing that I would recommend—that somebody find a good leadership coach. Someone who has the pedigree and the background, who really knows how to help. I’ve always been interested in continuing to learn and grow. I do like to read; I do like to study. I think getting involved in being a teacher of others is a really great way to stay current. That’s been a huge blessing for me. I think mentoring others is a great way to help you look at yourself as well.
Geoff: You’re also a pretty good reader. What kind of things do you read?
April: I like all kinds of things. For fun I like to read historical fiction, but I also like to read leadership books. One of the most powerful ones that I have read is the Extreme Ownership book by the Navy Seals. I’ve actually used that in the course work that I’ve taught others. I’ve read Stanley McChrystal’s books. What’s that last one that has that neat Circle of Leadership. . .
Geoff: Mastering Leadership by Bob Anderson and Bill Adams
April: Yes. That’s the one that I’m still working through at this point.
Geoff: So what’s up next for you with your learning? What’s the thing that you’re focused on trying to improve your skill set?
April: I want to continue to learn and understand more about some of these new innovations with mass customized learning and making sure that we’re fitting our instruction directly to a student’s needs now that we have technology to leverage some of that. I’m learning a little bit more about that, so we’ve gone to see some things that are happening in other school districts.
But one of the biggest things that we’ve taken from the tragedy that’s come this year is understanding how to deal with students’ social and emotional health. We visited other school districts. We’ve started a program now where we will have facility dogs in each of our buildings to provide both comfort and individualized work with students who might need it. We’re having a speaker come this summer to speak to our leadership team in conjunction with the leadership team from Elizabethtown on the social and emotional learning program that’s happening at the Nashville Metro Public Schools. They use a certain model that we’re going to look at, just to determine how we can weave some of that instruction into the curriculums that exist, providing students with coping skills, providing students with understanding of how to deal with their emotions.
Conversely, while we’re doing that, we also need to provide that same instruction to teachers. Because none of us are really equipped in that way in our training. I was not equipped that way as a teacher nor was I equipped that way as an administrator. But more and more we’re seeing students coming to us with extreme social, emotional, and mental health needs. That’s my next challenge—to learn more about that and make sure that we’re providing both skills and knowledge to both our students and our staff who are walking through those times.
Geoff: It sounds to me like you went from being a highly specialized music teacher with technical skills and teaching in music to now this generalist who really needs to continue to have a broad understanding of all kinds of issues – from a mile deep to a mile wide in your understanding. How do you think people can get stuck thinking that their technical expertise is what contributes to their leadership—that they need to be experts? How do you rely on other people?
April: That takes a lot of humility, I think. Unfortunately, I think that’s something that’s lacking in a lot of leaders today. Unfortunately, people want to see themselves in these positions of power. Power is not a word in my vocabulary related to leadership. For me leadership is not a closed fist; it’s an open hand. So I want to continue to learn and grow from the people around me. I’ve got people from every generation on our leadership team, and people who’ve been in other school districts and other systems who bring different eyes to a situation. I just think it would be very inappropriate for me to think that I should know everything. It’s my goal that you need to be a learner—we’re a learning institution.
Geoff: That takes a lot of self-confidence to be able to admit that there are things I don’t know—that I rely on other people for. But how can you possibly know everything, right?
April: You just can’t.
Geoff: How do you interact with the community? What are some of the things that you find? In your job, some people have said that it’s more of a political job than it is an educational job anymore.
April: Now that I’m a parent and I have a student who’s involved in a variety of activities from music to athletics, I get to put the parent hat on. For the most part I think people are pretty okay with that. I can sit next to people at a concert or on the flag football field, and we can just talk about kid kind of stuff. So that’s important to me to get to know people in that way.
Also, I think I’m pretty involved in the community through serving on a variety of boards. I’m on the Treehouse Board at Lititz Church of the Brethren where they’re building an all-inclusive playground. I sit with the local municipality group twice a month, just to hear what’s happening in each area as far as transportation or housing and infrastructure, whatever that looks like. I’ve built good relationships with the police and the fire department and the mayor. It’s important to me to know what’s at the heart of our community.
Geoff: We talked a little bit earlier about the energy that it takes for you to do your job and how you create that energy. How do you deal with the emotional impact, because there’s got to be a range of emotions that hits you, since you’re a human being like everybody else? How do you deal with those emotions and the stress of running a school district? What’s it like? How do you deal with it?
April: At first, ten years ago, it was really, really hard. Even in life, whenever you get criticism from someone, it can be painful. Many people have said to me, “It’s not personal.” I can’t think of a time when it wasn’t personal. So you have to get yourself to a place where you know that you did the best you could with the information you had at the time whenever you made a decision that somebody doesn’t like.
And a good example of that is weather calls. If I get up in the morning, somebody’s going to be mad about the fact that there’s snow. You just have to understand that everybody has their own circumstances and that if you can go to your bottom line and say, “I made the best decision that I could,” whether it’s about safety for kids or whatever that looks like, you have to be confident in that. There are times when the littlest thing will make me emotional. And I will allow myself a certain period of time to be emotional about it and then I need to move on. What’s really cool is that I have a great team of people around me that I can sort of talk through those things. We can be real and we can talk each other off the ledge a little bit. But when push comes to shove, I know I’m doing the best I can.
Geoff: And that somehow you’ll get better.
Geoff: So one last question: What’s one piece of wisdom you’ve learned that you’d like to share with other leaders?
April: Leadership is not something to be feared. So when people say, “I wouldn’t want your job,” I feel like I should have a response to that, like “Why not?” It’s so rewarding. I really want to encourage people who have any inkling that it’s something they might want to do, because there’s such a dearth of people out there who are willing to step out in leadership.
Geoff: What do you think’s at stake?
April: Our future.
Geoff: April, thanks. Great interview!
© Geoff Davis 5/24/19