The Call to Leadership--Interview with Joe Sanfelippo

I recently began coursework in a program for an Educational Specialist License in the State of Wisconsin. My purpose in starting is to push myself to grow professionally and take next steps in leadership development. Since I earned my Masters in Educational Administration ten years ago, it felt right to move forward. Though I remain undecided regarding whether or not I would actually pursue this career path, the door will be open should the calling come. It was a pleasant surprise that I learned this call to leadership philosophy is one I share with Dr. Joe Sanfelippo. Though we vehemently disagree on the merits of random bursts of singing, we at least see eye to eye in the passion and the call. As part of my coursework requirements, I was tasked with interviewing a superintendent. While there are several awesome candidates, I was thankful Joe would take the time from his busy schedule to talk with me. The resulting piece is what I wrote after our interview. What better way to make my learning authentic in this class than to share it and possibly dialogue around it with my PLN? 

Crickets Chirp Proudly: An Analysis of Interview with Dr. Joe Sanfelippo

Making connections is one of the most important steps that an administrator can take both at the building and district level. Interviewing people can have multiple purposes and comes in a variety of formats, and the interview I completed with a current superintendent is one that is reflective of both that person’s every day functioning as well as 21st Century platform. For this interview, I selected Joe Sanfelippo, a superintendent in Fall Creek, WI. Dr. Sanfelippo has been a classroom teacher, counselor, coach, and building principal prior to becoming a superintendent. He earned several degrees in education with the latest being a doctorate in Leadership, Learning, and Service. Fall Creek has received two consecutive Innovative Education awards, and their brand, #GOCrickets is everywhere and widely known. Joe has co-authored several books, hosted podcasts, and is currently leading leaders all over the US through high energy presentations and workshops. Yet, he remains as a current superintendent in a small district in Northwestern Wisconsin where his purpose and passion lie in the form of his three children, wife, and a great school community. Interviewing him was a pleasure, not only because I have a great respect for his intellectual moxie and personality, but because I genuinely learned from his thoughtful responses to the questions posed.
Our interview took place over @Voxer, which has been our connecting space for the past two years. Having that established form of communication made the interview less conventional, but highly practical. Joe answered questions posed while he was traveling home after a trip away, which shows how he manages to meet a variety of demands while maintaining tenuous balance. Couched within his responses was clear, articulated vision of what a high functioning educational system looks like, and he provided responses that clearly reflect how he practices leadership.

Describe your vision of a “world class” education system. As superintendent, what role(s) must you play to ensure the success of such a district?

“A place  that build relationships and builds trust where risk taking is the norm, not the exception.” Joe’s philosophy of education is grounded in relationships and valuing people within the space they occupy. He firmly believes that  if we build trust, people will take risks and new learning will occur and then everyone is moving in the right direction. In order to make this happen, he notes that the superintendent’s role is to provide time, resources, and opportunities for staff  to get to know one another, to set goals and allow for alignment but also values individual learning. He cautioned that we need to be careful to provide time and resources so that staff do not feel like learning is something added to their plate.

Please describe your perception of the role of the Board of Education as a whole, individual Board members, and the Superintendent.  What is your understanding of the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent?

Joe articulated that there is a clear delineation of role between the board and superintendent, stating simply that the board is to set policy and allow administration to adhere to the policy and enforce that policy. He also indicated and emphasized that solid relationship between the superintendent and board is essential to make sure the board does that or the employment situation won’t be positive for the administrator or the community. He indicated that the superintendent must lead the charge to make board members aware of their roles as a whole and individuals and to develop relationships with each while always coming back to the idea that they function as one unit and not one person has more power than the rest.

How do you assess the District’s current levels of performance, program effectiveness, and staff effectiveness?

Joe says in order to understand effectiveness of programs and staff, you need a quality assessment of all to see what is going on in the district, and he noted that there is always a lot that goes on that you don’t know as a superintendent.
He noted that there needs to be clear expectations in regard to programming, because if you let others decide about programming as individuals, it becomes autocratic. He suggests to develop trust and then ask about current reality.  When you know what is actually taking place, bring them back to the center. When this is happening, he notes that it’s not like staff are trying to hurt kids, but practices are shooting out at angles that aren’t going to go straight up, and that results in a less cohesive program. As a superintendent, we need to value staff’s time as learners, help them understand the program in place, and cultivate their growth at the pace that gets them to their best.
In regard to staff evaluations, he spoke to Educator Effectiveness in Wisconsin, stating that it wasn’t a bad system, but it depends upon how it is implemented. The system itself gives continuity from a state level perspective, but it threatens to take individualism out of the process of growing teachers in their craft. He noted that evaluation must start with relationships, and that might not always be awesome, but it is crucial for kids.

How do you manage effective communications with students, parents, staff, and the community in order to achieve district goals?

Joe indicated that they are conscious of being where the people are and meeting them in that space for communication. Specifically, he noted that they place their communications on Facebook for parents, Instagram for students, and Twitter for alumni. In addition to email and text lists, they send out a letter regarding where people can find them, and then people find them.

How do you interact with local government entities and officials?

In regard to this topic, Joe noted that he meets with the village board every year so that they can all be on the same page, but he also indicated that he knows they could meet more often.
He did not indicate this in his interview, but I am aware that Joe represented our state at the national level, and he continues to advocate for education at the state level as well.

Describe your decision-making style. Provide a few examples of different strategies you have used for different situations.

He indicated that decision making has two steps. The first is to ensure that  there is value in making everyone part of the lead up. He says that he develops the process democratically, so that all who want a voice get one and follow up so people feel valued in that space even if they didn’t get what they wanted. Once the process is decided, then they implement autocratically. He notes there must always be a point person. He cautions that if you implement democratically, everyone does what he or she wants, and the cohesion disintegrates.  

What made you feel compelled to take on the role of superintendent, and what keeps you in that position?
Joe believes in the call to leadership and that it chooses you. He noted that once you get an opportunity, it is important to cultivate it. He did not really choose the superintendency as he was in the district for six months as a building principal when the interim superintendent decided to leave, and he was promoted.
What keeps him in his role is that he believes they are doing good work.  Joe love that teachers feel like they have a platform that’s bigger than the school to promote and celebrate what they do. He is invigorated that staff like to see #GoCrickets all over the place, and that Fall Creek is known where it likely shouldn’t be. He wants to remain to see their work to the next level.

What are strategies you use to maintain balance in your life?

In an unfiltered way, Joe noted that this question is bogus because he has no balance. When prompted further, he did indicate strategies, but this was a reflective question for him. I was able to tease out some elements, such as no phone with kids for periods of time, shutting off from obligations once kids are in bed with his wife, Andrea, to watch mindless television, communicating while on the road, so when he returns, he can be present, and working in the same district as his own kids all allow for him to find pieces of balance in a variety of aspects of life.

Joe noted that he is transparent with his board regarding the pace at which he functions. They know he will burn out, but he also knows no other way to lead.  

Reflecting upon how this interview influenced my perception of a school board and superintendent, I have discovered more interest and hope for a potential career at the district level. As a building level administrator, I have witnessed plenty of interactions between four very different superintendents and an incredible variety of boards. I have also engaged with a variety of board members and whole boards. Up to this point, my views have not been completely sorted out, and they still remain skeptical in regard to whether this leadership role is one I would fit. Joe’s take on the relationship between the superintendent and the school board is one that I tend to align well in thinking. In practice, I have seen how there are varied approaches to this, and for further knowledge, it would be helpful to witness how he approaches those relationships. From an outside perspective, the relationship seems healthy, trusting, and transparent. If this ability exists there, it can certainly exist anywhere. All communities have individuals who are willing to lead on a board. What I have learned in practice is that motivations lie very differently for people who run for school board, and the impact on a learning community is great depending upon whether or not a board functions in a healthy way. From this interview, it is clear that if a leader has a solid vision, carries it out consistently, adheres to core tenants, and finds the right match, the best level of performance can certainly thrive. Overall, this interview solidified for me that there are passionate leaders out there that are living the day to day grind, but focusing on their purpose, seeking their joy, amplifying their people, and multiplying leaders. If I were to be in this district level role, that is the ultimate goal. I never want to be stuck in the cycle of politics, drudged down in reactive processes, and drained away from students. Joe’s approach to the superintendency is on point with how I see a superintendent making an impact, and I hope to emulate that performance if ever called to that position.


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