Superintendent's Notebook: Leaders reflect on leadership

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June is transition time in a school district. We’re ending the school year, applauding our graduates and already putting plans in place for when students return in the fall.

This year, the Portland Public Schools also will have a leadership transition: our new superintendent of schools officially starts July 1.

I extend a very warm welcome to Xavier Botana as the new leader of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. The Portland Board of Education selected him after a nationwide search, saying his qualifications match what families, district employees and the Portland community all said they want in a superintendent.

Xavier cites his family’s experience immigrating to the United States from Cuba when he was boy as the motivation for his work in education. He began his educational career as an ESL teacher and worked his way up to a variety of leadership roles, most recently as associate superintendent of a school district in Indiana.

As he begins his new role, I asked Xavier to share his thoughts on what it means to be a leader. PPS also has many school leaders, so I asked two of them to weigh in as well. One is Renee Bourgoine-Serio, who has taught in several of our schools and is now finishing her first year as teacher leader of Peaks and Cliff island elementary schools. The other is Ben Donaldson, the new principal of Lyman Moore Middle School as of July 1. Ben was a Casco Bay High School teacher and ninth-grade team leader until June 2015, when he become assistant principal at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland; we welcome him back.

What inspired them to become leaders? All three cited personal experience.

“I’ve always been the type of person that wanted to understand things globally. As a child, I always chafed at ‘because I said so’ as an explanation. As an adult, I dislike lack of agency more than just about anything,” Xavier said. “That attitude thrust me into roles where I was always going deeper than many wished to go. I think that’s what made me always wind up in leadership roles.”

Ben said being a teacher led him to leadership. “Teaching is a really challenging job,” he said. “As a classroom teacher, my students and I benefited tremendously from the support we received from school leaders. I hope to provide this same support.”

Renee also said teaching was an influence. “The most important work in the world is what happens between a teacher and group of students in a classroom,” she said. “Since my return from teaching in an international school in China in 2012, I have been thinking more and more about how people lead/guide this important work.” She joined the Leaders for Tomorrow’s Schools cohort at the University of Southern Maine to help answer that question.

Leadership is rewarding, the leaders said, but also challenging. Xavier summed it up:

“It’s challenging because most significant decisions have pros and cons. Very rarely does everyone agree with a decision. So, my approach is to try to make sure that people feel that I listened to them, explain to them how and why I made the decision and feel good that I made the best decision with the information that I had at the time.”

All three stressed that good leaders don’t operate alone.

Renee said, “I love building and supporting a team. I really love it when the group comes up with a solution that no individual member of the group could come up with alone.”

Ben said, “The best leaders I know continue to work hard and learn as they go, and are not afraid to ask for help or consult with others when faced with a challenging situation.”

Xavier said, “Being a leader is also about being able to follow. Often, being a leader means that you have to empower others to lead the way and support them to see the matter through to its conclusion. Being a leader is also about being willing to revisit a matter based on new information, and recognizing that you may not have gotten it right the first time around.”

The Portland Public Schools is very fortunate to have such thoughtful and inspirational leaders.

Jeanne Crocker is interim superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. She can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org.

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