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Front & Center: Superintendent James Craig

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Our formative years in school look different from person to person, but one thing is true for all of us: we owe a hard-to-quantify debt to the people who work in education. For most of us, teachers immediately spring to mind — and rightly so! Yet countless others also work to make sure schools can operate. In this series, we’re highlighting some of these everyday superheroes and asking them to share their expertise.

James Craig is in his fourth year as the superintendent at Sibley-Ocheyedan Community Schools in Sibley, Iowa. This year marks his 25th year in education. With a background in music education, he also served for four years as a principal at Southwest Valley High School in Corning, Iowa. Married with three kids, he is also a volunteer church musician, a member of the Rotary and the Sibley Chamber, and enjoys golf and community service.

What was your first job in education?

My first position was elementary and high school band at North Kossuth CSD in Swea City, Bancroft and Ledyard, IA. It was a unique situation to follow Miss Kaufman, who had had a successful program, especially in marching band. The color guard instructor, Betty Lou, trained me more than anyone else in how to relate to students, work with others on a team, and work through conflict.

I learned a great deal from each of the positions I served in, met my wife while working at Orient-Macksburg, and developed my leadership skills at Nodaway Valley. I coached play and speech, was webmaster, and served as activities director. This experience allowed me to see several different aspects of how things worked outside my classroom.

At Nodaway Valley, I was a member of the curriculum lead team and worked with teams of teachers to learn, implement, and evaluate our professional development. It was at NV that I was encouraged by a principal to go after my master’s in educational leadership. I had never thought about being an administrator up to that point, but after the first class in the cohort I was hooked.

Southwest Valley High School (Corning, IA) hired me to be their principal in 2015. I was excited to take my leadership skills out of just my classroom or just my small teacher group and work with staff and students at the building level. During this time, I did a lot of the same things that I did in the classroom more extensively. I led professional development, worked with teacher groups and a curriculum lead team, and worked to develop a building climate where staff and students felt safe and supported. This work at the building level fueled my desire to reach out to bigger and bigger groups of people. Working toward a superintendent certification seemed like a natural step in the progression and achieving this position has started to fill my bucket for professional needs. It is a thrill to come to work every day to work on building a destination district for our stakeholders and communities.

If you could give any advice to yourself at the beginning of your career, what would it be?

Build relationships first. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. All the clichés. 😁 Seriously, making sure people know you are seeking out authentic communication and intently listening to those you meet are two of the most important things, even before content knowledge and teaching techniques in most cases.

Avoid acting like you know everything. Go back to relationships. Make connections with other employees in the building, including secretaries, custodians, and other staff. Support the other things going on in the school, not just what happens in your own classroom. Be a good team member and student advocate.

Ask questions. Any administrator I’ve ever had has wanted me to ask questions instead of messing up something important right away or just not doing it at all because I didn’t know what to do. As a music teacher, I had to know about registration dates, membership fees, purchase orders, where to look for money and who to ask for it. Ask questions, and ask again. We have great mentoring setups now with mentor/mentee programs and TLC support positions – when I started it was just the principal. It’s scary to develop a supportive relationship with the person that is evaluating you. Now you have a mentor, a buddy or instructional coach, department colleagues, veteran teachers who just know the ropes…new teachers have a team that can include the principal, which gives so many more options for collaboration and collegiality.

What is one skill every superintendent should have?

One of my favorite quotes is from President Eisenhower, who is credited with saying, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

That may seem somewhat manipulative, but I prefer to think of it as a negotiating skill. You have to be able to argue both sides of a situation, then advocate for the side you believe is the right solution for your students. I believe every superintendent should be able to have a conversation with someone that disagrees with them and come out in agreement for the best solution in the end. When you are trying to implement an initiative, you have to be able to get buy-in and see the project through.

What was your biggest “win” over the last year, and how did you achieve it?

My biggest win was getting a new pay structure approved for teachers, providing equal raises for all teachers instead of a stepladder format that rewarded new teachers and discouraged veteran teachers. There is now a negotiated amount that teachers receive, and a bonus for those teachers who have already completed their master’s. We also eliminated lanes and consolidated lane increases to reward teachers sooner for working toward their master’s degree. The plan is also forecasted to be more cost-effective for the school district than a stepladder pay scale. When it’s a win for everyone, it’s a big win.

How does using data and analytics help you plan for and address challenges in your school district?

I appreciate the ability to show my board finance team what happens to our unspent balance when we spend different funds and talk about negotiations. I can show what will happen based on our projected revenues and expenditures, and a more realistic scenario with projected unspent balance carryover. As a newer superintendent, [Frontline Analytics] has helped me learn about school finance and feel confident in our financial position. What should have been the most difficult thing about transitioning to the superintendency has been one of the most successful parts of my term!

What is the best creative idea you have had as a superintendent that has made a difference in your role?

My superintendent’s vlog gets me into classrooms and around the district more than I might be without this tool. This is the fourth season of the vlog, with over 100 episodes in publication so far on YouTube. I interview new teachers, students, and guests, as well as provide pictures and updates on what is going on in the district. I can take the pictures and videos, upload to my computer, then do the “anchoring” from the desk in my office. Not only has it been a good communication tool between the district and our stakeholders, but as I mentioned before, I get into classrooms more frequently and with deeper intent than if I just stopped in to say hello.

I also played Santa. That was pretty fun. I don’t sing like the one superintendent who has a new song for each of his weather announcements. Me before coffee isn’t very entertaining.

What will change most in education over the next 10 years?

At the state and national level, public education is going through a transformation — the most significant one I’ve seen in my 25 years in education. We have so many virtual distance education opportunities now that I think a completely online school on a local level will not be out of the question. I’m sad to see this become a reality, as there is no substitute for a quality parent-teacher-student relationship and society doesn’t know how to create that relationship on the other side of a screen.

What are you most hopeful about for the future of education?

Our students at Sibley-Ocheyedan have survived the effects of the pandemic and are on the other side with little to no loss of learning. Our teachers, support staff and administrators have worked tirelessly to get through the toughest time in education any of them have experienced to date. Now that the pandemic is behind us, I am hopeful we can get back to education, back to increasing student achievement, and back to a culture that supports and holds up our public education system.