Aurora literacy teacher Jessica Cuthbertson ponders the meaning of the word “super” as in superintendent as the search continues for a new school leader in Aurora. 

I’ve been ruminating on the word super. A dictionary search reveals several definitions for the prefix: “above, beyond,” “to place or be placed above or over,” and “an individual or thing larger, more powerful, or with wider application than others of its kind.”

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry addressed the media at a press conference in August. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Super conjures images of strength, power, magnitude, superiority, leadership and grandeur. Super Bowl. Superhero. Superstar. Superintendent.

Aurora Public Schools, the diverse school district where I work, is in the beginning stages of a national search for our next superintendent.

Last month I participated in one of a series of focus groups soliciting feedback on the qualities and characteristics our district needs and desires in its next leader. The facilitator took thorough notes, synthesizing and paraphrasing ideas generated by more than a dozen teachers and association members. Several other groups have been asked to give feedback, including community members, classified and certified staff, school leaders, and parents.

But one group of stakeholders hasn’t been asked for their input. The students.

When I inquired about a focus group for students, I received a quizzical look from the facilitator. The group grew quiet.

“Well, I suppose high schoolers might have something to contribute to the conversation?” one of my colleagues pondered.

This got me thinking. What would my students, mere sixth-graders, find important qualities for our district’s next superintendent?

I decided to find out.

On day one of a close reading of the short narrative “Superpatriot” by Avi, I found a natural entry point.

We talked about the word super and what a superpatriot might be before reading the text. And then we talked about the next superintendent. I asked them to follow up by responding to a prompt on Edmodo (a site that hosts online communities for schools). The prompt: “Using what you know and think about the prefix super, what qualities do you think the next superintendent should embody? Why are these qualities important?”

Responses varied but several themes and patterns emerged. My sixth grade students want someone leading our school district who is fair, kind and smart. Someone who speaks more than one language and who understands a variety of cultures. Someone who likes and can relate to both kids and adults. Someone who is creative and commanding.

In their own words:

  • “I think the new superintendent should be fair because being fair is important. For example, it would be fair if each teacher got the same equipment, and it wouldn’t be fair if he gave one teacher more equipment than the others.”
  • “He/she should have respect for people and demonstrate kindness. A person who can help other people because a superintendent should be a helpful person. He/she takes care of everything and solves problems when there is something wrong.”
  • “I think the new superintendent needs to be respectful and responsible because he/she needs to be taken seriously.”
  • “I think that the superintendent should have a college degree (or two or three!) I also think that the superintendent should put themself in the children’s place to see how kids would feel about new rules or ideas. I also think that they should be smart with computers, after all it is 2013!”
  • “I think that they should have experience and make sure they are comfortable with being around kids, young adults like us, and adults!”
  • “The new superintendent of APS should know how to lead because he or she is going to be leading many adults and children. He or she should be respectful because he or she is going to be listening to multiple ideas.”
  • “I would like our new superintendent be creative, intelligent and commanding, so they know what they are doing and do it with joy and care. They should be able to speak more than one language and respect other cultures.”

Of course, the sixth-graders’ comments reflect what they understand about the role. But many of their ideas were strikingly similar to the teacher focus group’s feedback. Teachers also seek a leader who is fair and kind. A leader who listens before acting. A leader who supports innovation and new ideas. A leader who understands and appreciates the strengths, challenges and diversity in the district. A leader who trusts teachers and students.

Our next superintendent will be charged with managing, leading, and supporting a school district of more than 37,000 students in grades P-12 who represent more than 135 different countries and speak more than 115 languages.

A superb task.

As the search for the next superintendent continues, we can’t go wrong as long as we keep our superstudents at the center.