“Building leadership capacity” is one of those annoyingly pat phrases from management theory that sound good on paper but usually wind up being meaningless in school districts, with their hierarchical structures and often-severe demarcation between administrators and teachers.
But Michael Lin, who came to Southern California’s Corona-Norco district in 2008 and became its superintendent in 2012, has helped make leadership development concrete in this school system of 53,000 students, most notably among its teaching force.
Since 2009, the district has supported teachers who want to earn certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Senior teachers are selected through a competitive process to become “teachers on special assignment,” full-time positions in which they can take any number of roles, including professional-development coach.
And they can sit on the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee, a position that helps keep teachers abreast of district policy and increasingly gives them the opportunity to help shape it. Most recently, teachers weighed in on the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP, submitted as part of the state’s overhaul of its K-12 financing formula.
Half the district’s students are Hispanic, and more than 40 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Leadership opportunities extend to all staff, too. Both teachers and nonclassified personnel can apply for the superintendent’s leadership seminar, a program in which teachers spend the year reading and analyzing leadership texts with Mr. Lin and a variety of senior staffers. A second seminar instituted this school year focuses on the more specific, technical skills that participants need to put theory into action.
In all, the district’s approach to leadership largely turns the popular “career ladders” idea on its head. To Mr. Lin, traditional leadership paths for teachers can, in effect, force teachers into roles that may not be a fit for them. Corona-Norco’s approach is to learn each participant’s strengths and areas for improvement first, and then tailor experiences and advancement opportunities from there—whether inside the classroom or out of it.
“Ours is organically evolved. There’s a huge emphasis on developing the capacity of the individual first,” Mr. Lin said. “I want [participants] to know about their areas of improvements, their strengths. And then provide them options to take a look for what suits them best, so they will have a more authentic alignment of where they want to go.”
Creating a Culture
Mr. Lin’s early career was as an aerospace engineer, before he turned, in his mid-20s, to coaching, teaching, and serving as a human-resources director. But the engineer’s focus on developing and improving systems lives on in his drive to support leadership, and to make it part and parcel of the district’s strategic plan.
He is also characteristically modest about his role in the district, attributing the groundwork to its focus on leadership to Kent Bechler, his mentor and immediate predecessor in the superintendent’s office.
And he credits the district’s focus on building its talent to its stable, productive relationship with the Corona-Norco Teachers Association, its teachers’ union, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
As other districts were laying off teachers, Corona-Norco’s union agreed to a pay cut and a five-year salary freeze in 2010. Recently, union and district leaders agreed that the additional supplementary cash provided through the state funding overhaul will be put into student services rather than salaries or benefits.
But it’s Mr. Lin who sets the tone, his colleagues say.
“What’s really different about Michael is that not only is he supertalented with his technical skills, he has relationship skills that are also really impressive,” said Samuel Buenrostro, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. “We like to think that, number one, we work collaboratively, and we feed our teachers and provide an environment for them to succeed.”
Building that culture of leadership took some time, said a veteran teacher.
“When you talk about teacher leadership, some people don’t really get it—they think, these are people who just want to be administrators,” Renae Bryant, who recently moved to take a position as a coordinator for English-language-learner services in a nearby district. “Definitely, it was the principals, at first, that did not understand it. The [school] board members did better, because they got their feet wet with the national board first—we showed them our crazy binders. It’s a collaborative board, and the members really educated themselves.”
There’s a huge emphasis on developing the capacity of the individual first. I want [participants] to know their areas of improvements, their strengths.
Now, the district is starting to see dividends, making use of its leaders in creative ways.
Suzanne E. Adame, a teacher on special assignment at Garretson Elementary, heads up the school’s instructional efforts for English-language learners and its parent-outreach initiatives. She also sits on her school’s leadership team, helping to act as the teachers’ representative at those meetings. And she provides coaching for teachers, modeling new teaching techniques aligned to the Common Core State Standards.
“The district did a great job of providing staff development, workshops, teachers working to develop modules. It was just that a lot of great teachers, experienced teachers were shaken by the changes, so it was appropriate that we included some modeling,” she said.
At times, Ms. Adame still senses some nervousness from other teachers who aren’t quite sure what to make of her varied roles, but that has lessened over time.
“For some of my colleagues, it was like, ‘Don’t go there, don’t go to the dark side; you’ll lose sight of who you are, your profession,’ ” she said. “But I have been able to stay a teacher.”
There’s still work to be done in Corona-Norco, Mr. Lin acknowledges. He’d like to focus on improving the curricula for the leadership seminars and possibly provide stipends for personnel who advance their skills through the district’s initiatives. Most of all, he wants to avoid complacency, despite the progress the district has made at retaining teachers and closing achievement gaps.
“It’s the time you have to be careful. It’s something my dad used to say: ‘You’re too happy!’ … It means you need to be cautious and not overplay or take for granted what’s going on,” he said.
In some ways, the true test of his leadership will be only after he leaves his position. That’s because Mr. Lin is focused on ensuring that the culture he creates in Corona-Norco outlasts him.
“When I leave here, I want to be sure that whatever good work has taken place is not personality-driven. I don’t want people to say, ‘He did this and this and that.’ I want people to say that Michael and his staff have put systems in place so that the work can continue.”