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Two Illinois Superintendents Share How to Build and Maintain Relationships

About Relationships

Two Illinois school superintendents discussed the value of creating a personal-professional network during an AASA national conference session on Saturday titled “It’s About the Relationships: Balancing the Demands of the Superintendency.”

As superintendent of the River Trails School District 26 in Prospect, Ill., Nancy Wagner said she uses several platforms to communicate with the many people in her professional network. Technology has greatly expanded her capabilities.

“The business card is dead,” she declared, “because more than half the time you get back to the hotel room after a conference, and you don’t remember the person and what they were talking about.”

Instead, Wagner said she maintains a presence across all the major social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest for teachers’ ideas and a new messaging app called Voxer that allows users to send audio recordings.

Wagner said her online footprint enables her to be involved in decisions of Illinois state legislators. She subscribes to a national organization that sends her suggested messages on important education issues to forward to state legislators. Since she began participating in the e-mail chain, several legislators asked to meet with her to discuss her perspectives on the ground-level needs  of public education, and some of those conversations have resulted in new bills.

Wagner said she believes it is important to maintain separate personal and professional accounts on social media “because the school doesn’t need to see pictures of my nieces and nephews.” Having an account for the school district helps her disseminate information and provides a forum for parents and students to engage.

One of her most important rituals, however, exists outside the screen, she said. Wagner believes handwritten notes serve as a much more effective motivational tool than e-mail messages, so she tries to provide a Post-It note with a short observation to at least one staff member each week.

Laurie Heinz, superintendent of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 in Park Ridge, Ill., said her approach to establishing communication networks with the community revolved around one-on-one contact.

Heinz, who is retiring this June, remembered tense meetings with labor union representatives at the beginning of her tenure. To make these meetings more relaxed, Heinz invited the union leaders and board members to her home twice a year for a wine and cheese party. In such a social environment, Heinz said all parties were able to hash out ideas more quickly — a labor negotiation that would have normally taken many weeks was resolved in a day thanks to the meetings.

Heinz said the advice she received from more experienced administrators about treating every school board member the same way was ill-advised. By getting to know each of them as individuals, Heinz explained, she was able to better understand their particular priorities.

“A parent might be really focused on gifted students, for example, or a retired man might be worried about taxes,” she said, “so when they say something weird, I know how to manage that.”

Heinz closed her segment with a cautionary note that while communication is  important in school leadership, one has to be careful about not providing too much access leading others to believe they can do the job better.

In keeping with their theme of relationships, the two speakers end the presentation by urging all those in attendance to find one person they have had an interesting conversation with and get their contact information.

(Riley McCormick, a freshman at Vanderbilt University, is an intern with Conference Daily Online.)

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