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Sanfelippo, in Packed Thought Leader Session, Delivers Appealing Nuggets for Leading Schools With Intention

Joe Sanfelippo energized the crowd at his Thought Leader session, "Lead From Where You Are." Sanfelippo is the author of a book with the same name. Photo by Howard Lipin.

Coffee wasn’t needed to energize a crowd of attendees on the first morning of the AASA conference in San Diego. All that was needed was a shot of Joe Sanfelippo.

The recently retired superintendent of the Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin revved up a standing-room only crowd at the Thought Leader session “Lead from Where You Are,” where he imparted nuggets of advice and orchestrated thought-provoking exercises. The use of humorous videos also brought home his points.

Speaking quickly while striding through the audience during his session in the Knowledge Exchange Theater on the exhibit hall floor, Sanfelippo acknowledged the tough job many superintendents have in handling students, teachers, staff and school board members. “This job is absolutely isolating,” he said.

Many people don’t know what superintendents do so he encouraged them to get out into the classrooms and hallways. Every interaction with people matters.

“Give yourself the best chance possible,” said Sanfelippo.

Superintendents need to tell the full story about their districts because people will judge only what they see. To illustrate, he showed a photo of a crying girl he encountered at his school. She was holding up her middle finger. Audience members laughed but Sanfelippo explained that he had asked her which finger she got caught in a door.

“When you fill in the gap, you fill in the gaps based on what you think might have happened. And this is exactly what people are doing to us every day,” he said.

Sanfelippo encouraged superintendents to recognize and acknowledge their staff and led the audience through an exercise to text a thank you to someone from their school district.

“It’s hard to take care of kids when we’re not taking care of the adults wo are taking care of the kids,” he said.

Joe Sanfelippo, retired superintendent of Fall Creek, Wis., talks during his Thought Leader session; “Lead from Where You Are” February 15, 2024. Photo by Howard Lipin.

Other advice Sanfelippo gave included:

  • When school leaders talk to parents about good things their kids did, give detailed examples to tell a story that will have a lasting impact. Don’t ever forget that everybody is somebody’s kid.
  • Greet every staff member at the door for a meeting.
  • Invite students to speak about their successes and accomplishments at board meetings to remind everyone why they do what they do.
  • When they hire a new teacher or staff person, treat it like a sports team announcing a major trade and make a big deal out of it.

In the end, Sanfelippo said superintendents must create an environment that enables everyone can do their best work.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of people that wake up in the morning and say, ‘Man, I can’t wait to be average today.’ Average is not a place you aspire to be,” he said. “It’s a place that you end up. It’s like going to Denny’s. Nobody goes to Denny’s. You just end up there.”

(Luis Monteagudo Jr. is a freelance journalist in San Diego and a reporter for Conference Daily Online.)

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