Dr. Jeff Horton: Courageous Conversations

Dr. Jeff Horton, Superintendent of GFW School District in Minnesota, discusses how he and his community moved from worry to hope through courageous conversations and active listening.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: November 22, 2022


In this episode, Dr. Jeff Horton, Superintendent of GFW School District in Minnesota, discusses how he and his community moved from worry to hope through courageous conversations and active listening. Dr. Horton details how to transform the story of your schools in a short time by garnering support from your local community.


This episode is a look inside what it takes for leaders to have courageous conversations with their stakeholders across the community. In this conversation we answer these questions and more:

  1. How can you transform hurt to hope?
  2. What role do accountability and vulnerability play in the superintendency?
  3. Can active listening and open conversations change a district’s story and even its finances?
  4. How can you give your community a reason to believe in your schools and your district’s future?

Dr. Jeff Horton joined GFW School District as superintendent months before the pandemic arrived, schools closed, and change was forced upon businesses and organizations. This is a story of transformation and rallying support to change a community that had 81% voting “No” on a past bond referendum to supporting a new operating levy in less than 50 days and 63% voting “Yes.”Join the conversation to start thinking differently about how you can shape your community’s perception of your district.


Intro Quote: Jeff Horton (Guest): I think that's the highest operating levy that had ever passed. But with that, I think they wanted accountability. I think that as a district, we had to own some things, and as the new superintendent, even though I wasn't here, I still needed to own that on the behalf of the district and say, we made some mistakes.

Here's some things that we maybe could have done better. Was it all of our district? No. There was a lot of different pieces involved with this, of course, but there are some things that we just had to say, you know what, you're right. We need to do this better and we need to develop and reestablish trust with you by showing you accountability.

We heard you we're gonna act on that. Here's what we did and here's what we're gonna do next. And you have to keep doing that. And I think we're reestablishing trust and it takes time. But I think people are getting back there.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Today on SchoolCEO Conversations, I speak with Dr. Jeff Horton, the superintendent at GFW Schools in Minnesota.

We talk about courageous conversations and how to move your entire community from worry to hope. And how to transform education for your students while you also attract new teachers and new offerings for your entire community. We dig into how to build a strong foundation of communities support using vulnerability and active listening, and ultimately how to better market your schools.

With your community support as you listen to this conversation, I hope that you'll grab a few takeaways and after you finish listening to the episode, that you'll share those on Twitter or LinkedIn and share those takeaways with your colleagues in other districts and with your own team members within your own schools.

It's time to join the conversation. Dr. Horton, I'm really excited to talk with you today. I really appreciate you making the time.

Jeff Horton (Guest): I'm super excited about today as well. Thank you very much for having me.

Tyler Vawser (Host): One of the things we talk a lot about at SchoolCEO is that marketing is really the practice of influencing how people think and feel about your schools and your district.

And just in our conversations leading up to today in the recording, it's clear that you've done a really good job of that. You and your district have kinda come to that moment where there's a crossroads and having to decide is this going to be successful or not? And really taking on that challenge.

So I'd love to hear you just start talking about what was the story about GFW Public Schools when you started? And as a follow up question, what's that story that's being told now?

Jeff Horton: When I started at GFW Public Schools the district was in a very tough position. And being a new superintendent I've been here for all of a couple days and people are looking to me to help lead them forward.

And I think the very first thing you have to do is to understand the story that has been going on prior to you getting there. So I think going out and doing listening sessions with the community was one of the biggest things that has led to the success here at GFW Public Schools. Going out and talking to not just the people that you wanna hear those positive things from, but you need to go talk to people that are not seeing things going well.

And if you as a superintendent aren't willing to go out and listen to those who have different viewpoints—that if you're not willing to walk into a room and know that there's gonna be a lot of people that maybe aren't going to agree with decisions that have been made—then who else is gonna do that job?

And it's important as a leader to go out there. You need to talk with people and talk with those who may not say always the nicest things to you or about your organization, but their voice is still extremely important. And if we don't take time to listen to them and understand why they feel the way they do, it's really hard to move people forward.

And I think we've worked really hard at trying to do that, to understand where are people and why are they feeling this way? How did we get here. And then to offer them some options on ways we can move forward together and bring them together throughout that process. And I think, you know, from starting in this district to where we are now, we went from a place of a lot of worry, hurt, confusion but hope too. I think there was a lot of hope.

And I think now we're at a point where you say, wow, we've put some things together here by working together as a community. And we've really transformed what education is looking like here for our students. And I think the most exciting part is we're just getting going.

We've really been working on building the foundation and from here we're gonna be able to do so much more. So, I think this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, being able to serve the people here in GFW.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really interesting. I'd love for you to dig into, like, maybe a few things that you heard when you did that listening tour. So when you had just started, what were some of the things people told you and what are you hearing now, especially on those same points?

Jeff Horton: When I first started, remember we had just closed down schools across the nation. So this is 2020, school districts have been closed down, and I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to get in contact with people.

Additionally in our district, people are spread out quite a bit. We're a rural egg community, and so what does that mean and what does that look like? Well, you know what, there's a lot of space on a farm, and so I would go out to farms and I'd be out there till all hours of the night. And we were very far apart from each other, so we had to do the social distancing.

So we had these massive circles that we were trying to get into, to have conversations. We did a lot of the typical things you did. We tried to access people online. We did things in different languages. We did things by going out to community centers.

I tried to go to every gathering I could, just to be available to listen. And there was definitely some themes that emerged. And I think in our district, I think there was a lot of hurt that was going on at the time. The district had gone from a place where we were one of the first districts in the state of Minnesota to go one-to-one.

So that's a district that says, “Hey, we're innovative. We're ahead of the curve.” To a place not even a decade later that you're looking at possible dissolution and not even having a district because your finances are in disarray, schools are getting closed and you're wondering, how did we get here? A place that had so much pride and had a lot of success in many different areas of academics and technology, athletics, and activities—to this.

I think there was a lot of hurt and a lot of confusion as to what happened. This isn't the school that I remember. Cause a lot of our folks stay here and they were graduates and they're like, what has happened and why has that happened?

So, I think that was the theme I heard. The second thing I think I heard was they wanted a reason to believe. So, despite the frustrations, despite the hurt, they were—most people were—looking for a path forward. They're like, how do we get out of this? How do we get back to what we perceive once was? And I think that was really important.

So there was a strong degree of hope and that's a very powerful thing. And if you can work with people to understand what it is they're trying to do and provide them a place to channel that energy, you can do amazing things.

And I think that's why, when they tried to pass a bond referendum prior to me being here, 81% of people said no. And on day 41 of me being here, we had 63% of people vote yes on an operating levy. That tells me that people want a district here and believe in the district. And in our community, I think that's the highest operating levy that had ever passed.

But with that, I think they wanted accountability. And I think that as a district, we had to own some things. And as the new superintendent, even though I wasn't here, I still needed to own that on the behalf of the district—and say we made some mistakes—here's some things that we maybe could have done better. Was it all of our district? No. There was a lot of different pieces involved with this, of course.

But there are some things that we just had to say, you know what? You're right. We need to do this better. We need to develop and reestablish trust with you by showing you accountability. And I think that's why having that hundred day plan right out the gate and then coming back right after that hundred days to say: This is what we said we were gonna do. This is what we did, and this is what we learned. And now, here's what we're gonna do next.

Then we come back again and say, We said we were gonna do this after listening to you. We heard you, we're gonna act on that, and here's what we're gonna do next.

And you have to keep doing that. I think we're reestablishing trust and it takes time. But I think people are getting back there and I think that those are the three major things that I heard was the hurt. People wanting that sense of hope and wanting to get back to where they were and then to be held accountable—you know—to know that they can trust in us to do the right thing.

Tyler Vawser: When people were asking you, how do we get out of this? How do we reestablish that pride? Did you have an immediate answer or were you just listening at that stage?

Jeff Horton: At that time I was just listening and I think that I had to better understand. We all have our natural answers and a lot of us want to be problem solvers, and we want to get right to that answer, right? Let's get to action.

But you have to intentionally stay in that listening mode and processing mode because there's nuances there that are very important. And if you're not taking enough time to do that, I think you miss some of those nuances that might become an issue later on down the road because you make, what you think is a good decision, in all the best interests and all the best intentions, but maybe you missed something.

So again, that's one reason you have to go out and talk to people that don't necessarily agree with you or agree with the things that are happening prior to you being there, in this case, because their perspective's important. There's a reason they feel that way. And so we have to learn more about that.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Dr. Horton, you seem very comfortable with challenge and vulnerability, so I'm curious where does that come from?

Jeff Horton: I appreciate you saying that. I think that's something I continually work at. I've been very lucky to have, just some amazing leaders in my life that I have looked up to.

I didn't plan on being a superintendent. I was a teacher. I was very happy teaching. I thought, maybe I'd be an assistant principal someday at the end of my career. Maybe that may happen. I didn't know, and somehow I ended up here.

But, there was one of my mentors, and his name was Dr. Paul—a very seasoned principal. Amazing leader. And I remember one day I was a teacher at the time and he had sent out an email to the staff. And I didn't know anything that was going on in his life or anything. He shared a story about one of his kids and the struggles that were going on and the struggles he was facing personally.

And I was just totally blown away. I mean, to be so transparent about your life and to be that vulnerable and that comfortable and that confident. To show that vulnerability to others, it really made me stop and think about that. What does it mean for a leader to do that?

And so as I continued to be mentored by Dr. Paul in my teaching career, and eventually moving into administration, I learned more and more from him about being vulnerable. And I saw other leaders modeling that as well. And I think, without them modeling that for me, I wouldn't have understood that as well. It’s hard to be vulnerable at times, but I have a core belief that all people are good people and all people want to be successful.

And this includes staff and students. You have, in the 21st century here with the social media, the polarization of our political parties, the polarization of media, even. To say one thing means 40 some percent of people may feel a different way. And that's hard to be vulnerable.

But I think, despite all that, you have to believe that an individual person looks at something for what it is and will make a reasonable evaluation of that information. By being vulnerable and opening yourself up, you have to have some trust in others to say that, they're gonna recognize what's going on and they may support or not support something.

But I think that all people are good people and they're not looking to hurt others. If not, if anything, I think that's the opposite. People want to help others. We don't always get that feeling when we watch TV or log into our social media accounts. But I think that's the truth—that most people wanna help others.

And by being vulnerable, it helps other people work through, what might be their own insecurities about being vulnerable with you, or an organization, or others. And you have to be willing to be vulnerable as a leader. And you have to be willing to admit, Hey I made a mistake. I did something wrong. I can do that better.

And I think that gives other people permission to say, you know what, maybe I can do this better too.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I really appreciate that. That is the hard part about leadership, right? You sometimes may expect as a leader that you're supposed to have all the answers, and yet sometimes the best answer is admitting honestly that you don't have one yet, but together you'll get there.

Jeff Horton: I agree. I we have this image that we all have to be perfect and can never make a mistake. That's something that we can never achieve. If we truly believe people are continually growing, that means you as a leader are also doing that.

Tyler Vawser: The campaign that GFW started soon after you began was, I believe it was called Riding the Ship. Is that correct?

Jeff Horton: That was one of our campaigns, actually. We started out with a hundred day plan, and then we had our post hundred day plan period. Then we eventually got to Riding the Ship. So, we've actually had a few campaigns—even few within a year—which seems really fast. But there was a sequence of events that led to a transition, which then created new branding, if you will, for a new campaign. So Riding the Ship was one of those, yes.

Tyler Vawser: Okay. I would love to talk a little bit more about storytelling. So, everyone talks about storytelling, but I've found it's actually really deceptive. It's not quite as simple and straightforward as we think, and few leaders actually do it. You've talked before about how every leader has good ideas, but many aren't able to turn that into a story that creates action. And so, I'd love for you to just dig into that a little bit more. How did you get storytelling to work for you at GFW?

Jeff Horton: Well, I think a basic concept of storytelling is, is anybody listening? It's hard to tell a story if nobody's gonna listen to you. In order for somebody to listen to you, they have to connect with it. If you've ever picked up a novel and you can't get through the first page of it, it doesn't matter what the next 99 or 199 pages say, right? They lost you. They didn't hook you in. So, you gotta figure out what's your hook. I'm gonna go back to listening as a superintendent and why that's so important. Because if you don't understand your audience, you can't tell a good story.

So, I had to go out and do a lot of listening and spend the first hundred days going out and speaking with people—whether it be farmers, business owners, our Latinx community, legislative folks, the media, students—I had to figure out what it was they were looking for.

What stories do they want to hear? What's gonna resonate and connect with them? I think the second piece from that is, it has to be an authentic story. If the story's not authentic, they're not gonna listen. They're not gonna believe in it. So, it has to be authentic, it has to be genuine. They need to see the passion behind it.

And then it has to be truthful. You have to be able to hang your hat on that. And in a place where there's mistrust, that can be really hard. So, you have to take a lot of time to do, I think, research, so, you can bring that to people in a digestible amount of information, in a single PowerPoint slide, in a single sentence.

You can say to somebody, this is a thing, and let me show you why that's a thing, so they can believe it. One thing we showed our public was we talked about the impact of special education funding on school districts. The federal government currently does not fund at the level that they promised when IDA was passed as legislation.

So that falls to the states. The states aren't fully funding special education either, so that falls to the school districts and the local tax payers. As a former director of special education, I have a strong passion for students who are receiving special education services or may have a disability.

And I believe the things that we're doing are right, but it does have a cost to it. And when you are doing that, then that impacts other things. So, I think that's why it's been such a big advocacy piece across all states. And with all superintendents and school organizations is to fully fund special education.

But in a single graphic, we were able to explain that, and that resonated. It was truthful, it was authentic. People wanted to hear about why the district finances were where they were. And is that the only reason? No, but that is a piece of it. That's one of many pieces you can put together to tell your story.

The other thing I like to do is, I have an equity tool that I use, and I use this tool to help me better process through what the positive, neutral, and harmful impacts are of a decision or of a story. And a lot of times what I come to, after going through that is: I need more information. I need to better connect with certain groups of people within our community, to better understand how they feel about a topic or something.

So, when you're coming into that story, your understanding of that perspective is deeper. You've connected with some folks and you can embed those threads into your story to tell that authentic, truthful story that's gonna resonate with them. And so it, it takes a lot of time to do that. The interesting part about GFW for me was, we had to pass an operating levy in 41 days.

Usually, you spend a year and a half on a process like that, or more. And we had 41 days. So that was quite the intense effort, and quite the learning curve for me. We were up five in the morning going out to visit with people, and we were out there till 11 at night talking to people.

Tyler Vawser: What was the story that you're telling, at six in the morning or late at night that resonated with them? Because you're right, 41 days isn't much time at all. So there must have been something to that story or narrative that was truthful and authentic, like you were saying, but it had to have some kind of hook if it got them to show up to the polls and vote for it.

Jeff Horton: I think the first and biggest thing was actually just having the opportunity to be heard and to express their hurt. After the first two questions was, “Where's the coffee? Where's the donuts?” The next one is, “Tell me what happened, tell me your story, tell me your experience about what happened.”

And so my story for the district wasn't necessarily new. It came from the story of the community. But we were able to take that and focus it into something that acknowledged where people were. Touched on the hope, which they wanted to work towards something bigger, and then offer them that path forward. So I think again, it really goes back to that listening, that accountability, owning those things, the vulnerability and hard work.

I think our community values hard work, and I think, when they see somebody working that hard to understand and listen, I think that was a step in the right direction. That says, you know what, I'm gonna try this.

Tyler Vawser: It's really powerful. Before this call you had shared some of the presentations you used, and in one of them you mentioned, or you shared, a video of Simon Sinek, who I think is a great speaker and I've really learned quite a bit from him.

But he talks about the golden circles and having an organization's why at the center. So, really understanding that why. And I'd like to double click on that and ask you, “What is GFW's why?” And then how that influenced what you were just describing around storytelling and listening.

Jeff Horton: I think that was what we were searching for when I first started is, we didn't have a why. We lost it.

We went from that district that was the first one to go one-to-one ,with iPads in our state. And that was huge. The media came out, they took a look at it. We were trying to transform learning in new ways, and innovative ways. And then now we're here, right? We're looking at facing a projected negative 12% fund balance.

People are talking about the district breaking apart and ceasing to exist. The programming has been cut back beyond what is appropriate. I think the district was in survival mode. And why wasn't even on their radar. But I think through listening and talking with the community, we're able to reestablish what our why was.

Starting with myself as a leader. I believe that we need to challenge the status quo of education. We are not where we need to be. Are there some good things? Absolutely. There's some great things, but we need to challenge the status quo. To make ourselves better and rethink how we are serving students.

If we're seeing 4% drops in enrollment across the country, why are we seeing that? What is it that we're not doing that makes families feel like public education isn’t doing what it needs to do? And I'm pro-edu, I'm pro-public education all the way here, but we have to take a good look at ourselves to say, how are we challenging ourselves to get better?

And how are we changing ourselves to improve? So that's what I come in with as a leader. And as I work with GFW, I think the process that really helped us get back to that was, we said in the operating levy, if we pass this, we will invite the community in, and we're gonna go through a process in order to gather your input and define what our future looks like.

And a lot of times you might want to do that upfront, but I had 41 days and that wasn't gonna happen. So we had to do it on the back end. We said we're gonna do this, so we're gonna do it. So we brought the community together. We did equity diagnostic surveys, we did community surveys, we did another round of listening tours. We put together focus groups and planning groups.

And eventually that came up and turned into was our new strategic plan. And I really love this and I can't take credit for this because there was another person on our team that said this, but I thought it was really good. And this person's vision that they threw out as we were trying to process, they said, “what about growing future world class leaders?” And if you look at that G.F.W.: growing future world class leaders kicks that off. So, I think that was awesome. And I think that really is why we do what we do: Our why is to grow future class leaders. How do we do that? Okay, now we're gonna have a conversation about that, right? And what do we do? So, I think we did start looking from the inside out of that circle.

And everything we have done since then has been based on that—it’s how are we still challenging the status quo of what was to become what is. And I wouldn't wish statutory operating on anybody in our community. That was very hard for our community. But sometimes you have to take things apart in order to put them back together the right way. And when we just keep trying to add a piece here, do here, that's not changing the system. That's not changing what needs to get done because there's other things in there that need to get moved and that takes a bigger writing of the ship.

And that's how we got to that writing of the ship, was, we had to dismantle some things. Not everything. We need to keep some things. I'm not saying we need to get rid of it all, but we need to undo some things in order to get things right.

Tyler Vawser: It's really difficult when there is a crisis, especially a budgetary one to focus on something like the why. I would imagine a lot of people and leaders want to say, let's get the budget fixed, let's fix these other things, and then we can, have the luxury of talking about our philosophy, our why and our reason. But so often you actually see just the organizations, the school districts that are really succeeding or come out of hard times as GFW has actually pushed pause on the fires to get the why.

And then from there they're able to fight the fires or take whatever analogy you want to successfully win after they have figured out that why. And it sounds like that's exactly what happened for you.

Jeff Horton: I think that's true. And I think all school districts have opportunities. All of us have budgets that are millions or hundreds of millions or so of dollars.

That's a lot of money, and you can do a lot of different things with that. How much are you willing to do and how much are you willing to work with your community as a leader to see that systemic change happen? When you're doing that, you're moving people's cheese, and when that happens, you're gonna create something.

So there's a lot of dynamics that come into play and that's hard thing to do. That's hard for boards, that's hard for superintendents and leaders to do. And that's why you have to get out in the community so much and you have to work with people and you have to get a sense of where you can go and what you can do.

But also at the end of the day, you have to remember that you are here to serve students and to help students be successful. And for us that's growing future world class leaders. And that means at times, and GFW faced this too, we had to make some really hard decisions. And my hats off to the school board.

When the times came to those moments, they made decisions that have led us to where we are today. And that comes from being a superintendent and board team that comes from working with your leadership, that comes with working with your staff. But developing that board superintendent team, cause that's what you are, you are a team.

You're in it together. Even as we see these elections happening right now—and there's a lot of dynamics and school board elections across the country. That's a hot topic right now. But no matter who's on your board, that's your team. And you don't get to handpick your team.

And that's okay. Just like in the community, there are lots of people that have different perspectives and they're bringing you those different perspectives. That can be a strength too. And hats off to our school board for making the tough decisions when they did because that's why we're able to do what we were doing.

Tyler Vawser: I have so many questions about school boards for you. Like you said, it is a contentious topic. It maybe used to be the boring part of an election and now it's definitely top of mind for almost every community. What is the relationship between you and your board and how have you made that productive?

Jeff Horton: I've had a lot of transition, actually, in my school board. From the day that I was hired, to the end of my first six months, I think half my school board turned. And then I think, by the by this next election, I will have only one school board member that was here when I was hired.

I've seen a pretty quick turnover on stuff and I think some leaders could could resonate with the fact that when you do certain things that a board wants to do, sometimes the group that isn't on board with that idea as much gets elected and now you're dealing with somebody who isn't necessarily on board with the things that you've been working on or the strategic plan that you set.

So there's always this thing. So I think for me, in recognizing that one thing we did was we called up the school board association, our state, and we said, okay, we've got X amount of new board members coming on. They're coming in a really tough time. How can we support them to be successful? So before they even started in office, we were already talking about how do we onboard our board members and support them to be successful?

How do we teach them what boards do? Because a lot of board members run and they say, I'm gonna change everything. You're one of six or seven people, or whatever. And that's not actually the reality and that wins elections, but that doesn't get work moved forward. You have to bring your other board members along with them.

So teaching board members how to work as a team and supporting them to do that helps you as a board, I think, move forward. So I think we worked really hard on trying to onboard our board members and then we also kept the school board association on for part of our strategic planning because we thought this is just gonna build nicely.

So we have to be very strategic in how we support our board members coming in during a tough time and how to keep the work moving forward. And not everybody agreed with some of the things that happened and there was some frustration and that represented with the community thought, and that's not a bad thing.

So that perspective I think was good for us to have and good for the community to see expressed within the conversation so they felt heard and that their voices were showing up at the board. But working together as a team, I think it's all about developing that team and working together and as a superintendent, establishing trust with your board members—showing them options and information, doing the work to help them be successful.

I don't want my board members to look bad. I wanna make them to look as good as I can, so I'm gonna try to do everything I can to help that with that.

Tyler Vawser: How did you encourage your board members, especially with the turnover, to listen the way that you were? If you're on a listening tour, you're trying to gather feedback. How do you make sure that they're listening, but also listening to more than just the group that put them into office? How do you make sure they're hearing more perspectives than just the one that is loudest for them?

Jeff Horton: That is a wonderful and complex question. As I see political parties endorsing candidates as I see PACS getting involved as I see even groups within a school district that are endorsing candidates, when somebody gets into office, they say we supported you.

So I think that's really hard. And our community members who get elected, the majority of them are not people that have been formally trained in education. They're learning as they go. It's hard, I think, and I think what we need to do is we need to go back and look at the policies.

You have to set the foundation. Whatever work you're doing, you have to have an anchor point, right? So your anchor point for board members is policy. And that's the governance work is what does it say, what do our policies say that we're supposed to do? And then to teach them what the policy says. And if they don't like it, okay, then let's talk about that and let's change that policy to become what it is you want to be as a board.

But also at the same, here's the best practices and boards, and I think that's where your school board associations come into play. And there's other groups that can help you with that too. So I think there's a parallel board development process that happens parallel to all that. And again, in trusting that all people are good people and want to do good things, I think they're gonna see that, wow, there's a reason why we do that.

And they're probably gonna latch onto some of that. And while it can be fearful and scary at first, I think over time you're gonna be okay. But you can’t, just like in all the things we went through, you can't get lost in the day to the day emotion of the larger picture of where you're trying to go, because if you do that, you lose sight of the forest.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. It's really well said. It is a complex question and answer. I don't expect you to have all the answers. I think as communities, and as the nation, we are figuring this out as we go. I would like to talk a little bit more about recruitment.

This is something at SchoolCEO that we talk about all the time because it's a critical issue. It's always been, but in the last few years, it's become even more important. And I know that your team and you were really involved in an aggressive recruiting campaign to find staff and teachers. And so I'd like to dive into that more with you and hear what that was and what advice from that could you share with others that are in that same situation.

Jeff Horton: It's pretty amazing that we are fully staffed at this time. I just have to say that out the gate and I don't know that I have the magic answer, but it seems to be working well for us. And I think also it's important to say that we not only are dealing with a natural turnover that all districts are dealing with right now, but we've added over 100 new student opportunities in the last two.

And we've done that by riding the ship. And so we've had the normal turnover, plus we've had to staff all that other stuff that we're adding. So our additions were probably much more than the average district proportionally regardless of size. And I think that some of the things that we've really done a great job at is we've looked out into the workforce.

We've identified who are the types of people that we want to get here to help us move towards that growing future world class leaders. And I think having licensed teachers is essential. We have to have them and our teacher prep programs do a great job and the universities do a great job, but there's also other people out there that can come into our schools and help us out.

And I think in career and technical education, this is one area that we can really take a look. We have we have a person working in our district, for example, right now, who has been working outside of the classroom for their entire career. And this person has come in to the CTE world. We now are transforming our CTE experience for students are within the first month of school.

Some of our female students approached me. We're very reluctant to take somebody's class and said, this is my favorite class. I was walking down the hallway and I heard two students having a conversation say, I don't care what class that teacher teaches, I'm signing up for as long as I get into some class that this teacher's doing.

I don't care what it is. These are just little snippets as I'm walking by or people are stopping me. We've suddenly found new partners in the community that are saying, we wanna invest money in your schools. There are people out there. That can bring value to your school. And in our state, there's a special application that you can get a teacher license for somebody who has certain level of experience out in the community.

And so we started thinking, okay what are, there's great people out there and maybe they didn't go into teach, make a decision at 18 to become a teacher. I hate to break it to any students listening. You might not know everything at age 18, you learn a couple things after that, right?

So in looking back, years later they say, I might have, I might like to do that now that I'm 35, 40, 45 years old. I'd like to, I've done this out here. I wanna bring that back into each others. And that's a really rewarding thing. So having opportunities and pathways to help people come into the, into that mid-career really helps.

And that takes a lot of different things to have that happen, but that's one place we've found some success. Another area is growing our. Growing people within our organization, supporting them to go back to school, creating an environment where they are supported and then can get into that. Another area that I think that we do well job is in mental health.

So there's some amazing mental health people out in the world and they have some really strong gifts. And I don't mind saying this during our podcast, we underpay them. If you take a look at what people that have a master's level beyond degree in mental health counseling and psychology, some of those people are working for next to nothing, and they're working super hard jobs too, while they're at, because they're passionate about what they do.

They're passionate about mental health, they're passionate about kids or adults in those situations. They have a deep skillset that can help us, especially in post covid world where mental health is such a topic, right? So how can we harness their skills and help them? Is there a role for them in that?

And these are people with master's degrees and beyond sometimes. So do you have a mechanism within your district to welcome those people in, to get them into a classroom or get them into a role where they get a license, of course. To fill that. And we found those people. When we started doing our job postings, I wasn't getting any hits when I was calling it certain things.

And we said, okay let's rebrand our position and we rebranded it. All of a sudden, I had more people from the mental health world than I knew what to do with. I'm like, oh my gosh. And all these people are out here and they want to be a part of the school district. And our problem was we just weren't marketing it, right?

So we had to make sure that we were using not school language, but professional world language in our titles and sometimes we get a little lost in our acronyms in the educational world. But let's talk about that. What makes sense to somebody else? So bringing in and utilizing the skills of the community, we found ways to bring in people that speak different languages, and some of them didn't have the quote on quote qualifications from an educational standpoint.

We put these barriers in who's to say that you need this to be that? And so we took a look at that and what barriers are we allowed to take down that would allow somebody who is highly skilled and maybe had systemic barriers in their life growing up that didn't allow them to check this box.

But they still have all the skills, they have the language pieces, they have this, they have that, and we found ways to bring them. Again, and these are all perfectly okay, we didn't do anything, that wasn't okay, these are all licensed individuals per their area, what internal systems and structures do we need to look at to take down barriers to help people come in and do that?

And by doing that, I think we've opened up our pool of candidates, and I think we're a stronger district because of that, because we now have new perspectives coming in. We have different types of skill sets. One of our, one of our more favorite teachers now is coming from a non-traditional approach to education.

And that's okay. There's a role for some people like that. Can everybody be that person? No. That doesn't work for all subject areas and all things we're doing, but in some areas it can work well and it's rounded out our staff. It's made us a little bit more diverse in our thinking.

I think it's made us more diverse in terms of the language opportunities for students and the access and barriers, and we're, I think we're a stronger district because.

Tyler Vawser: What I'm hearing is how much it's a holistic approach to education and community, and it's not just those that have chosen that as a profession. But zooming out and looking at the larger picture of what is a school for?

What is the actual objective of students in a classroom? And I really like how you're involving the community. Showing that everyone can get involved. Maybe not everyone does, but at least there are opportunities for those that have had a different career and to contribute back, even if they're not going to take a traditional teaching path.

One thing the audience doesn't know this because they don't see the video here, but you have a lanyard on that says courageous conversation, and I would be remiss if I didn't ask about that. I'm very curious to know what that means and if that's something. Others in the school district are wearing.

Jeff Horton: I've had this for a while actually and I do continue to wear it, and I think that's just really what it is. It's having courageous conversations with individuals and developing a space and a framework where you can have those conversations. And I think so often in such a polarized political climate we don't take time to create the space to have a conversations.

And that takes work to just throw a group of people in a room and say, let's talk about. It probably isn't gonna work out too well. It might, but you're gonna have to be on your toes and you're gonna have to have a heck of facil, facilitator by taking time upfront. Just like when we talk to our teachers about starting the classroom, I don't want you doing instruction day one on your math standards or whatever.

I want you to take time. I want you to build the class relationship with each other. So as when we go into a place to talk about a tough topic, and we set the framework to have the conversation, and we've seen places where we put people in there, and I know that there's well-intentioned to bring these different perspectives together, which is good, but if you don't have those norms established, you don't have people buying into those things and agreeing to different protocols and also monitoring themselves.

When you say something, I might go to a state of emotion or I might make, go to a place of having some type of intellectual response. Like I might get defensive, like I'm gonna have different emotions going. How am I? How am I monitoring myself? And also, once I can understand myself, how am I observing others in the room?

That shift of the body, that thing, how am I picking up like, okay, there's something happening over there. I need to be privy to that. Where are they on their compass when they're saying something to me, let's not personalize that. Let's understand that they're coming from a perspective and a place and we need to work through that.

But if we don't spend time working on ourselves and then working on our teams to have courageous conversations, we're not gonna be able to do the work we need to do. We're gonna hit a point where we maybe can't move beyond that.

Tyler Vawser: I really like that. A final question, I wanna be conscious of time here. How do you define success for yourself and for your district?

Jeff Horton: I think one piece that I've really tried to use as a point of success, and I think this goes back to accountability, is it's working through the process of listening, developing a plan with the community, with the board, with the staff that we want to achieve.

And then it's following through and holding myself accountable to doing that and then showing people that we've done that. I think that is one way that we need to show success. We need to show accountability. I am perfectly comfortable being held accountable, but the public and to the board and everybody else that I should be held accountable to, that I need their help in defining what it is we want to do.

And once you're clear with me on what you wanna do, I'm very happy to work to achieve that. And for me on a personal level, I get excited about, about opportunities for growth both for myself, but also for organizations. And I don't shy away from a challenging conversation.

I don't shy away from a school district that's facing dissolution and a negative 12% balance. That I get excited about helping and serving others. And that's what I am all about. It's about serving others. It's about challenging that status quo and bringing people together to a place where they want to go.

I think that's how I would probably define success. And I strive to do that and will continue to keep growing myself and hopefully grow those around me in the organizations I work for to achieve. The picture of what they want to do within the focus of best practices and research and again, where we need to be going for students.

Tyler Vawser: It's fantastic. It sounds like you're very much on the right track and it's exciting to hear about the success that you, your community and GFW Schools has had. Thank you so much, Dr. Horton. I really enjoyed this conversation and I’m excited to have others listen in.

Jeff Horton: Thank you very much. It's been a joy.

Tyler Vawser: SchoolCEO Magazine publishes original research interviews and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders. If you work in K-12 leadership, administration, or in communications, we'd love to start mailing the magazine to you. Go to schoolceo.com, click subscribe now, and check the box to receive the print edition of the magazine.

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