Jeffrey Collier & Coty Kuschinsky: Collective Authorship
Jeffrey Collier and Coty Kuschinsky discuss how Saginaw ISD is using collective authorship to build a stronger brand to better serve their staff and community.
In this episode, Jeffrey Collier, Superintendent of Saginaw ISD in Michigan, and Coty Kuschinsky, Saginaw ISD’s Chief of Staff, discuss how Saginaw ISD is using collective authorship to build a stronger brand to better serve their staff and community. The discussion is equal parts of strategy, how-to, and aspirations. Together, they explain the importance of highlighting your district’s strengths and successfully presenting that to the right audience.
This episode is a look inside how to grow a reputable district brand. While storytelling is often preached about, Saginaw ISD is actively telling its story with the help of hundreds of voices within the district in what Dr. Collier calls “Collective Authorship.” It's a powerful framework that can help you and your schools rethink how to share, celebrate, and communicate the stories of achievement with your stakeholders.
In this conversation we answer these questions and more:
- How can you share different perspectives across your district?
- How do you get teachers and staff to be your district’s ambassadors?
- Can storytelling impact your district's culture?
- Is culture more important than tools and tactics?
- How can you make your district’s strengths more visible?
Saginaw ISD isn’t a typical school district, it’s actually an educational service agency providing services, resources, and programs to local school districts throughout Saginaw County. In total, Saginaw ISD serves 12 local school districts, 5 public school academies, and 22 non-public schools, with a total enrollment of approximately 27,000 students.
In addition, SISD operates multiple educational programs to meet the unique needs of students ages birth to 26 across Saginaw County, including: Hartley Outdoor Education Center, Head Start/Early Head Start and Great Start to Readiness Programs, Great Lakes Bay Early College, Saginaw County Juvenile Detention Center School, and Special Education Center Programs.
Intro Quote: Jeffrey Collier (Guest): What is so mind-numbingly simple about this, and it's almost embarrassingly so, because what we're talking about isn't the difficulty in sharing the story, it's the process of the empowerment in valuing the voices of those that are sharing the story. The story of education is written and has been written forever.
What we're doing, is asking the agent voices to be able to authentically share a golden nugget or a daily win to add to the collective authorship of the organization, just to be able to provide a glimpse into the million moments of awe that happen every single day in public education. So we're not even being original.
All we're doing is sharing our vision and our viewpoint of the originality of where we touched that story along the daily stream. That's the simplicity of it.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Welcome to SchoolCEO Conversations podcast. The goal of the show is to level the playing field for superintendents and other school leaders.
If you're someone that is responsible for leading and taking control of how your community thinks and feels about your schools and district, this is the show for you. I'm your host, Tyler Vawser, and to that end, I sit down with leaders in education and authors and researchers in the private sector to discuss how to better market your schools based on SchoolCEO Magazine.
This podcast is dedicated to the practice of school marketing. In this episode I speak with superintendent Jeffrey Collier and his chief of Staff Coty Kuschinsky. Together they explore how Saginaw ISD in Michigan is using collective authorship to build a strong district brand to better serve their 750 teachers and staff, and more than 27,000 students.
Jeffrey Collier has been featured in SchoolCEO magazine in the past, and this is his second appearance on the podcast. Listen in as we talk about how Saginaw ISD is sharing perspectives across the district, how teachers and staff are serving as ambassadors, how storytelling can impact your climate and culture, the importance of taking control of your district narrative, making your strengths and your stories more visible.
Why your brand is in everything, not just your logo, and how to use collective authorship to reach your strategic objectives. It's time to join the conversation.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Well, Dr. Collier, really excited to have you back on SchoolCEO Conversations. You've done a lot of work with SchoolCEO. And then we also have your chief of staff with us, Coty Kuschinsky. And so she's joining us for the first time on the podcast, but also the first time with SchoolCEO. And really excited to dive into how Saginaw ISD is thinking about storytelling and kind of how you've reframed that. And so just to start things off, I'd love to kind of hear this concept that you and I have talked about, Dr. Collier, that you're calling Collective Authorship and what that means and how you're using it at sag.
Jeffrey Collier (Guest): Well, I really appreciate being here first and foremost, Tyler, and, and to be able to have Coty with me here. we're looking to tag team this conversation in such a positive narrative to be able to discuss something.
That's one of my passions. It's talking about sharing the positive narrative about education and what we do every day as storytellers or what we have started to frame as collective authorship when we begin talking about collective authorship. Tyler, and I really appreciate that lead in. We're really talking about the opportunity.
Lifting up an entire organization's voice, regardless of title, regardless of responsibilities. Everybody here in our schools, whether they're intermediate school districts, private schools, parochial schools, public's, traditional schools, everybody has a critical role to play in. Our most prized possessions are students' lives, and the one thing that I think, unfortunately, we do not take stock of on a daily basis is listening to all of those voices, the amazing things that happen.
On a multitude of aspects throughout a day. All the light bulbs that go off the service le or servant leadership, the expertise. And too often I think we live in an echo chamber where we just assume that positive things happen at schools because they should. But we n do not do enough, I think, often to be able to share that collective voice of overall positivity every single day of what our professionals and our students and our communities are experiencing.
So what we are building is a concept, really, it's a conceptual framework of collective authorship where we are empowering all 750 of our employees to be part authors within the overall narrative. I love that. Now,
Tyler Vawser (Host): I love that. Now, why don't you call that storytelling? Or how does that compare to storytelling?
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: Well, I think storytelling in its own right is an absolute human activity. I think it's innately human. It's one of the things that helps bind and connect us. It helps us build relationships and networks. It allows us to get to know each other, to build trust, to build bridges. Really, we do that by getting to know each other's story. But when we talk about storytelling in its own right, even though it's still at the nexus, probably, of where this conceptual framework lives, when we talk about it, it sounds vapid. It sounds as if it's in an echo chamber or maybe a vacuum, that it doesn't have any substance or any meat on the bones. And when we talk about storytelling in its own right, I think, unfortunately, storytelling could be seen almost as a marketing or a branding initiative, only rather than an overall positive dialogue of the incredible work that's taking place.
Tyler Vawser (Host): That's right. There's a saying what others say about you matters so much more than what you say about yourself. Right? And so what your employees say about their experience matters more than what HR or the careers page says. And I think that's what you're picking up on there as well.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier (Guest): Absolutely. And one of the things that we've been recently challenged is the understanding that I often use the term storytelling or ambassadorship sometimes interchangeably, and there really are two different things. But when we think about ambassadorship, it's one of the things I fall back on all the time here in Saginaw, Michigan, is pushing the idea of being ambassadors, being great, loyal partners, candid invested, engaged personnel and educators, professionals. But everybody is an ambassador, and everybody is an ambassador with their own brand, with their own story.
So as we begin thinking about shifting the paradigm thought about ambassadorship being almost an actionable aspect or a byproduct of the action of being an author of what we do, we end up moving towards a collective authorship of everybody's individual stories to be able to build the overall sense of climate and culture within our organization. There's a concept that I've been talking about a lot and hearing this reverberate, it surely is not an original thought. But if we consider the fact that if we are not sharing our story or we're not sharing our own authorship, then we're allowing outside individuals to be able to craft the narrative of what their assumed experiences have been. And when we think about education in its own right and we think about the fact that it is often an assumed commodity, education is an amazing thing.
If we think about public education its own right, it is a free public commodity where we are providing equitable resources to every single kid across the country. And that in its own right is mind blowing to me that we could take that as such an assumed aspect, that we all believe that we're experts because we were all traditionally and had opportunities to be students in a school system. So we are often frozen in time into our own remembrances of what school was like. And because many of us, my deputy superintendent Scott Sawyer says oftentimes most of us have had 13 year apprenticeships in school systems from kindergarten to 12th grade. Well, 13 year apprenticeships. We're all masters by the time we graduate. And what happens, unfortunately, is as we graduate, our memory remains frozen in time for us to be able to not necessarily evolve with how schools have.
So we allow the community to continue to act as the ambassadors for us and share their story from a time past rather than what's happening now. And we, as this assumed free, amazing, magical commodity in our public, do not take the encumbrances to be able to share our own story of what truly is happening. And I think that's where the narrative oftentimes we have this cognitive dissonance where we do not necessarily have this overall clear understanding of the amazing positivity that's happening in schools on a daily basis. And as we walk through our daily routines, we don't take the time often because we're assuming that everybody rightly knows that there is magic happening every day. But unless we share that collectively, nobody really understands it, right?
Tyler Vawser (Host): Yeah. Attention is at such a premium, right? And the more you're able to capture it, the better. But there is always a vacuum there as well. And I think that's exactly right. People make assumptions or if there is a narrative that's not in your control, what ends up happening is someone else is feeling that they're not going to have the full story unless they're part of your district.
There was a statistic that you shared in a talk that you gave Dr. Collier about public perception of public schools. And what was really interesting was on the one side was how people see their local school districts and on the other was the national perception. And I'd love for you if you have the quote or know the statistics off the top of your head to share that, because I think it's such a key point and it highlights what you're getting at around people know the stories in their communities, but the narrative, the larger narrative nationally is quite different.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier (Guest): Yeah, it's from a Forbes study actually in September 22, so just a couple of months ago, and it is phrased as how Americans grade public schools and parents give their this is a national survey that was authored by Forbes and 48% of Americans view their schoolceo, they would give their schools an A or a B. So if we think of a traditional subjective grade lens of an A or B, 48% say their local district is doing really, really well, an A or a B. However, nationally they would only give A's or B's to 24%. So 24% of Americans would say the nation schools are receiving an A or a B. That's double.
Which means then that local opinion is very strong about the product that they are predominantly taxpayers for and it's their own school. Our school is killing it. Nationally, however, it's less than half of that assumed aspect. And then really, as we continue to move forward, parents are very or somewhat happy with their children's school. 69% of public school students or parents are very or somewhat happy with their schools. But yet we have this national narrative that does permeate, that speaks about a dissatisfaction about public education.
And that is the cognitive dissonance that I was talking about earlier, where we have locals that believe, oftentimes they may be alumnus of their local school district. They know where their memory that was frozen in time from their 13 year master apprenticeship. And now all of a sudden they look around, they say, we do things really well here. Nobody else is. And that's a problem. And if we were to consider the fact that if our local constituencies are already predominantly disposed to believing that their schools are doing better than the nations, imagine if we captured that audience and continued to expound on the positivity that's already taking place. It seems very simple, but it does take time and it does take prioritization of that time.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I love that people have a lot of pride in their communities. They have that local experience. They are hearing the stories. And so, yeah, how do we capitalize on that? How do we take advantage of that? I love it.
Well, I want to bring Coty into the conversation, and as we've launched the second season of SchoolCEO Conversations, we've been inviting and involving more teams. Right? So not just superintendents or individuals, but entire executive teams, or in this case, a superintendent and a chief of staff, which is a somewhat unique role in a school district. And so, Coty, I'd love for you to talk a little bit about who you are and your background, but really dive deep into what your role is at Saginaw and how you're supporting Dr. Collier and the district.
Coty Kuschinsky (Guest): Well, I just wanted to thank you for having me today. I've been using Apptegy for a while, so it was an honor to be invited to this. So, a little bit about me. I'm from Saginaw, born and raised, so it was nice to stay here. And I've worked in multiple positions throughout the community. My background is in broadcast and journalism.
I was a reporter for almost three years at a local station here. And then I transformed that ability into multiple different positions. I was a community affairs specialist. I was a cross media specialist at an automotive group here in Saginaw. And then my husband actually works for one of our locals, Hemlock, and they had a communications specialist job opening. And I said, I don't know if I can swing two jobs at once. But this was my dream job originally when I left the news business, and it didn't exist. I don't think schools were really investing in communications at the time they were doing it, but not in a strategic way. So I took on both roles at the same time, and it was a dream role for me, but I wanted something bigger. I was always pushing for the next thing. So I think the position that I'm in now was the dream spot, that if it was there when I left my news job originally, that's what I would have jumped on.
So I read it, the job position opening, and I jumped on it and went to the interview immediately. Didn't really know what chief of staff meant. A lot of people don't, so we can get into that. And it was just a dream come true, and it has been for almost half a year now. I feel like I blinked. And here we yeah, chief of staff. It means a lot of different things. But basically, and Jeff will like to say this, I'm an air traffic controller for the district, and I kind of have a temperature of what's going on in our organization, and especially with communications, both internally and externally. The communications supervisor part of my job title marries really well with the chief of staff part.
Dr. Collier has to trust me. I'm an extra opinion in the room. Whether he likes it or not, I think it's yeah, it's been nice and it's been growing. It's been growing a lot in different ways, and we're seeing what works for each other, but we are very much a balancing block and we kind of banter back and forth, which you'll see in this conversation, I'm sure. And I think it works. We even each other out and we have a lot of great opinions. And I think whatever happens after we leave the office or when we get in a good debate or a work session is so much better because both of our opinions were there. So it's been great.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: I can add in a little bit based on the fact that Coty has been in this role for a half a year, and this is something that I challenged the question and the norms, what if and why not? As we began talking about the need to not only build collective authorship, but build leadership capacity, really, throughout the region, I recognized the limitations of my capacity.
So Coty's position as a Chief of Staff is based first and foremost out of mutual respect and preparation. It's an opportunity to exhibit candor in real time, as she mentioned, the temperature in the room and air traffic controller. I don't know that there are two better descriptions for something that can be a bit of a nebulous conversation as far as what does the Chief of Staff do and what does the Chief of Staff do in public schools? And I think early on, there was some sensibility that maybe I just needed this inflated ego and I needed a Chief of Staff as a superintendent, couldn't be further from the truth. This is about building narrative, collective authorship and capacity and an ability to be able to better understand all of the moving things that are swirling throughout an incredibly dynamic program of public education.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. There is a very wide range of Chief of Staff, right, from assistant and greeter to the White House Chief of staff. And I think over time, this role is actually becoming more common, both in the private sector and here in the public school sector. And so I do think it's an important role. There needs to be someone that maybe doesn't have anyone reporting to them, but has a temperature and a read on what's happening and all those different players, from board members to teachers to students and parents. And I think, yeah, great insight and foresight to say this is something that we need and that can help us accomplish those goals in advance.
SchoolCEO Conference Promo: I want to take a quick break to tell you about the next school co conference happening on March 6 and 7th, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. This is a great opportunity to take some of what you're hearing right now and begin experiencing it with others. We love the content that we put out in the magazine and in our podcast, but it's nothing compared to experiencing great speakers firsthand and hearing them cover concepts like brand and culture and influence in an environment that's really dedicated to help you do your best learning. With no vendor booths, no crowds, no breakout sessions. You get the opportunity to hear directly from keynote speakers for over an entire day.
And to do that with other school leaders that care deeply about shaping a culture within their schools, that help their teachers and staff do their best work, that want to see their brand as a school district improve and change the experience of their community members and their parents. And ultimately, what we want to help you do is do all of that so that you can reach the goals and the outcomes that you have for your students. We'd love to have you join. You can visit Schoolco.com Slash Conference to learn more, and if you have questions, reach out. You can email me at email@example.com and we'd love to see you in Memphis in March.
Tyler Vawser : You mentioned kind of the debates, right? And I love that and hopefully we get into a little bit of that. I do like a good argument, but something that we think about a lot here is that strong cultures, strong executive team, strong leadership, it doesn't mean the absence of conflict. In fact, it usually means there's a little bit more conflict, but it happens to be healthy conflict where you're both trying to get to a certain point or to a certain goal. And by nature of trying to reach a goal, especially a difficult one, there's going to be conflict of strategy or opinion or resources, but you're both trying to get to the same place, right?
And so sometimes when you look at a team that has no conflict, there probably should be a red flag that goes up and you start thinking, wait a minute, this is a little bit too easy. But those teams that really get it, and maybe this is what you're describing your relationship to be is there's a lot of conflict until there isn't. And when that conflict or the issue is resolved or the debate is over, you're on the same team, you're still trying to figure it out. And it might look a little bit crazy to those that are outside going, they were just yelling at each other, but now they're laughing and telling jokes. So yeah, I'm curious how that dynamic works, especially with other executive leadership, the board, what that interaction is not just between the two of you, but with the larger saginaw leadership.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: Well, Coty, I'll set the table here for you. I don't think that as I said, I predicated this is on respect. So we definitely have some strong will and opinion. And it was one of the vetting pieces through the hiring process of how would this chief of staff work here. And one of the things that I needed was brutal honesty and candor. And that's one of the things that Coty brings in spades. So that's a fantastic opportunity. But we also have two things that are very nebulous, really. This incredible high ceiling of expectations and this uber attention to detail. And I'll let Coty build upon those two things because I think both of them drive us as far as what our expectations are for ourselves and the organization. And then our attention to detail is at a microcosm right now, I think.
Coty Kuschinsky: So. I think a lot of folks equate attention to detail, to being nit picky. And to me, I'm big on branding in the way of how you walk into a building or how someone answers the phone. That is your branding. So that is where my attention to detail gets in there, because that is a communication piece to me. It's the wall color, it's the carpet, it's all that. It's how it smells in there, it’s the coffee brewing, it's everything.
So we recently had the Michigan Department of Ed here on Monday. And it's not that we're rolling out the red carpet just because it's MDE, but kind of but also I want everyone to come in here and notice that this is who we are and what we do. This is our standard constantly. This is not just extra because someone's coming in here. So I think we work on that really well together because we kind of have the same standard in that way, or we push it up a notch always.
But when we're talking about debates and candor and being brutally honest, the best work comes out of those conversations. It has to, because we're talking about pushing Excellency and also upgrading what we're doing. It is a big feat, what we are trying to accomplish. I don't think anyone's ever done it before. I came from an organization that has 12,000 employees globally. They would never give access to every single employee to what we're doing. So there's going to be conversations about how to strategically do that because it's a big lift. I think we've said that since the beginning. Everything that we're doing here is a big lift. But we have a great team behind us. I think everyone's invested in what we're doing, and attention to detail is weaved all throughout that.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: One of the things I really love about this also, is our focus on transparency. Now, transparency also can be a word that's defined by the eye of the beholder. But when we talk about transparency, we have really strong conversations about ethics and integrity, because when we're talking about collective authorship, then we really need to pony up and make sure that every voice is cherished and every voice is encouraged to be able to share their perspective. And that does sometimes leave you wearing the Emperor's New clothes. Because if we're going to say that we are encouraging everybody's voice, but please read this script or manufacture this. We don't want that.
We want authenticity and we want to encourage agency of voice. That's what collective authorship is and that's what's so frightening right now and why we're not able to find another modeled practice as we're building this plane, as we fly it because we truly are saying, let's talk about the shared positivity of our profession and let's do this in an integral and ethical way that is transparent. It is premised solely on the highest of expectations of professionalism and focused on attention to detail to ensure that we are talking about the product of our community's most prized possessions, our students, in a way that is promoting the profession and promoting the common good.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, really intentional, and I love that. So as you're talking about collective authorship, I think someone listening to this might say, that sounds great, but how do we involve so many people and stay on brand? Right. To Coty's point, you're trying to be intentional. Somebody's going to say, oh, you're being nitpicky, or I just can't get it right, so I'm not going to try at all. So how do you balance those two different sides of things? So on the one hand, Coty, you've got someone that wants to share their story, and on the other, you're trying to get them to stay on brand, share a particular takeaway or message, and so would love for both of you to just dive into that. And what are those conversations that are happening when the podcast is not on about this topic and about this potential landmine or opportunity, right? It could be either one. Yeah.
Coty Kuschinsky: So we do have brand guidelines, so that's excellent. Any organization most likely has those. But we also make an intention to train every single one of our staff members on their opening day. They're welcome for the ISD on thrillshare. So we discuss with them the standards in which we expect but also make it a safe space for them because we are that safety net. They're all moderated users. We would never let anything go out that we either disagree with or needs work.
And obviously, Thrillshare has just recently unveiled their editing capability, which I'm a huge fan of. Awesome. But also they now feel comfortable to email me and say, hey, I want to work on this or I made a mistake here. And having that comfortability of them knowing we have their back is key. That trust level with 700 people, 700 plus whatever our numbers are hitting that's key. And I hope they feel that way with the organization. And I think our numbers speak for themselves, that they do feel that way. They do feel comfortable because it's growing constantly. So while we have a balance of quantity and quality all the time, of course I think it's more important that each person feels comfortable to share their story because these things are happening and their stories are worthy to be told and they need to feel that way and feel empowered to do so.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: I think it's also really important that we understand that we're still growing and evolving this. We're looking for best practices, quite literally. I'm fond of saying good teachers are creative and great teachers steal or borrow, depending on how we want to talk about that. But really it's about modeling after best practices. So when we talk about these things and we're working through this, really rolling up our sleeves on a daily basis just to encourage and ensure that this is going to be done in Positivity and it's going to be done with candor and it's going to be done transparently. I want everybody to understand that this is a phrase I heard recently that I really like. We are little “e” experts, we are not big e experts on this.
We're still growing and expounding. And the one thing that I'm encouraging everybody to do is to keep this simple, just to be able to encourage everyone to post one positive gold nugget, one win of the day. One thing that as people put their pants on, they're incredibly trained, certified professionals impacting the lives of our community's babies on a daily basis, is there one positive win that you can celebrate? To be able to expound upon a resonating voice throughout our community and by keeping it simple and just having that one golden nugget a day, heck, one golden nugget a week, to be able to say we've worked, we've studied, we've trained, we've had all these amazing light bulbs that have gone off.
We had these magic moments that happen thousands and thousands upon times upon themselves throughout a school day. That's what I'm looking to do. And then as Coty then really works on the background to make sure that we are staying within our brand guidelines and working through these things, all I'm trying to say as the SchoolCEO here is saying hey, just take a shot and share you. Let's celebrate you. And by celebrating you, you celebrate all of us. And that's the positive story that we're trying to narrate.
Tyler Vawser: Really interesting. So obviously there's a branding and a marketing component to it. But as you're talking about that, it also strikes me that at just an individual level, you're training people to look for the positive instead of the negative. Right. And just at a human psychology level, that is a really important skill to develop. Right. You can always find bad things, but you can also find good things. And so I like how you're thinking about that as you're kind of getting going with your day. You're looking for those key moments and sharing those out, which has a double effect.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: Well, we definitely, Tyler, are focusing this on a climate and culture wide approach and we do use the happiness advantage from Sean Acre and the Orange Spot positive. Psychology ideology. So we are merging positive psychology and collective authorship together to hopefully embed this really beautifully braided climate dialogue that is focused on collective authorship. It really is celebrating and enhancing and augmenting the already existing positivity within the most dynamic profession in mankind.
Tyler Vawser: So one of the common barriers to telling stories, or in this case, collective authorship, is simply about time, right? We don't have time, we're busy. And even if you're involving more people, those people have roles outside of telling their stories. And so I'm curious, as you've worked through the ideas of collector authorship, as you've trained people, as they start at Saginaw, that's going to come up. And so how do you address that concern or that objection about time.
Coty Kuschinsky: Yeah, so what we do is we show them during training exactly how it's going to post. So the last training we had was last week. We took a selfie with the whole group. I think we had about 30 new authors for our story that day. And we screen, shared, walked right through the process and showed them exactly where it went. And that took a total of less than three minutes. So they physically witnessed exactly how long it takes.
We show them that that three minutes is worth spending because of the positive output and input that we get in return for investing and participating in our story. So they are quite literally witnessing it right then and there. And then we actually give them a challenge to as a group, find their little table groups and challenge them to post something themselves right then and there. And we do a little competition with it and make it fun so they have that hands on test run and we are there in the room with them. So if there's anything they have questions on or hey, my app, am I pressing this right? We're walking them through that first post, so that's what's been really great. And then after that, if they're still struggling or anything like that, we're here. Aptitude is there. We have all those tools for them. Again, that safety net. We really push home that we want it to be comfortable and safe for them to post.
Tyler Vawser: Makes sense. Dr. Collier, saginaw is a pretty large district, especially compared to where you were before at Agre Sims. And so I'm curious. Yes. Now that you've had both experiences, the very small district, which I think most superintendents can identify a little bit closer with, and then now a large district, almost 27,000 students, right? How do you think about this topic differently now that you've seen both sides? And maybe what advice would you give to a superintendent that's leading a school district of 1000 or 2000 students?
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: My simple word of advice is start.
Tyler Vawser: Just start.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: The one thing that I've noticed is, regardless of scale, now this is one man's opinion, obviously, from two polar opposite perspectives, from a very small rural impoverished school district to now a Scalable Countywide large school district, one of the largest ISDS in the state of Michigan and the two connectors. So we know that that might not necessarily make an entire story in itself with only those two examples. But the one thing that I would encourage everybody to do is to start and to also be very cognizant of the fact that my two experiences right now has been a fact that this is a process of collaboration, this is a process of encouragement and this is a process of empowerment.
Empowerment to our staff to be able to have the ability to cultivate a culture of themselves where we are celebrating each other and learning from each other. This cannot be manipulated, it cannot be forced, it cannot be top down. If it does, then it becomes a mandate that is going to be falsified and we're going to lose the authenticity of our voice, that voice of agency as a collective author within our organization. So my golden nugget, my golden piece of advice to anybody is just start and allow the ability to begin to craft the empowerment within our professionals and our organizations to share their story, which inevitably becomes our story.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Coty, I'm curious, what would you add to that? You come from what it sounds like is more of a private sector background. And so now that you're deep inside of a school district, what are the ideas you've taken from the private sector and applied here? And then what are some differences or things that you have to do differently in a public school setting?
Coty Kuschinsky: That is a good question. Really good question. So I would say the biggest difference that I've seen is our intention. This is a service that we are providing to our community. So while we might say that our children, our students are a product, I'm not selling automotive pieces anymore to anybody, right? So I'm just showing, displaying and telling folks about what's happening here authentically. I'm not changing anything about the day to day work that gets done here. I'm not changing what happens down at special education. They are magic all in themselves. So what's great is just literally you're just taking a microscope, which really goes back to my background in journalism. I'm basically an education beat reporter inside. And that's awesome.
Like I said, it's a dream job, A, but B, nothing's really different because it's happening naturally. And so whether it was Hemlock is one of our smaller school districts or here, the job is the same. It's just the scale is a little bit different. Our dreams are a little bit bigger here, maybe. But other than that, I just think it's your intention behind what you're doing, the work that you're doing. And I'd say resource wise, a lot of folks are scared to start because I don't know anything about social media. Twitter freaks me out, whatever it may be. I don't want to dive into analytics. What's wonderful about the Wide Wide Web, it is there for you. So there's a lot of free resources, there's a lot of folks you can reach out to. And that's what is great about my position here, is that our locals now have a resource in me to reach out if they need help with any communications initiatives. So just start A and then B, ask for help. Ask for help. There's people out there that have it. There's YouTube's. Great. There's help out there. There's great resources with I'm in a Facebook group full of school communicators, and they're awesome people. And NSPRA, Mspra, all those groups are willing to help. So I think the difference right there is just intention. This is kind of a warmer space. It's more of a friendly area. Everyone is just trying to do the best for the students, and they're not so much as the competition of I'll go back to the automotive parts is not there. So that's what's been great. I feel that I'm servicing my community, and I know that everybody else has that same passion in mind.
Tyler Vawser: There's something really important to what you said, which is you don't have to change anything, right? Your role is not to go into the classroom and move the furniture around for a better photo op? It's to tell the story that's already happening. And I think, one, there's a lot of confidence in that?
Like, we don't need to change who we are to attract teachers or to attract students and families, but there's already a lot of attractive things that are happening right here. We just need to make that more visible, more noticeable, and maybe there is some crafting around the story and how you share that and the takeaways you want someone to have, but you don't have to change the raw material. It's already there. And your job is just to highlight that. I really enjoyed how you put that.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: 100%, Tyler, to build upon that just a little bit. Something that was mentioned is what's so amazingly simple about this in my mind. And maybe the action is proving to be a heavier lift, but we're not talking about Widgets, we're not talking about products, we're not talking about advertisement.
We're talking about our community's greatest assets, our students. We're talking about what happens every day on a key human interaction, which is day to day storytelling between humans. And when we talk about how that is, it's such a natural thing to be able to do. It's the empowerment piece and the ability for everyone to say, oh, wow, this is cherished, and my voice is heard.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I love that. And I think even in the private sector, you're seeing some of this, right? We're less influenced by a big billboard with a famous athlete than we used to be, but now we're on Instagram or Twitter and we're following someone that we identify with and we're kind of looking behind the picture, like what's on their shelf? What books are they reading or what products are they using? Sometimes influencers get a bad rap, but that's been it's inauthentic and they're pulling something off of camera that doesn't really belong in their life. But now they've built an authentic following and so they're trying to monetize it right. So I think schools are in a really unique position where if you do it well and you start to your point, you can do that authentically and you have so many opportunities to do it just by nature of the number of students and the families and the community involved.
Coty Kuschinsky: That's exactly the success of TikTok. Influencers are going behind the scenes of the small town bridal shop owner and what they do every day. The get ready with me is in the morning and following them from the beginning to the day to that bride that found her dress and she's smiling. I can think of 20 influencers that I'm following off the bat right here. And that's the authenticity because those are not the people that we are shining light on. We can't relate to Tom Brady anymore. We're not going to relate to the hats of the world.
We are going to relate to getting those kiddos up in the morning and trying to get breakfast in their system before the bus. So those are really important key aspects to when you're thinking about storytelling. You may not think you matter because you've been hearing so much of that top 1% elite, but we are as a community, as a society, hungry to hear that other people are normal, just like us. And I think it makes us feel better about ourselves. It makes us have great ideas of how to grow our personal lives and our professional lives. And that's what I love about what's happening trend wise with social media right now and therefore marketing.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: And what I was going to say, jumping in on that is what is so mind numbingly simple about this. And it's almost embarrassingly so because what we're talking about isn't the difficulty in sharing the story, it's the process of the empowerment and valuing the voices of those that are sharing the story. The story of education is written and has been written forever. All we're doing is asking the agent voices to be able to authentically share a Golden Nugget or a daily Win, to add to the collective authorship of the organization, just to be able to provide a glimpse into the million moments of awe that happen every single day in public education. So we're not even being original. All we're doing is sharing our vision and our viewpoint of the originality of where we touch that story along the daily stream. That's the simplicity of it.
Tyler Vawser: Really interesting. So I want to get your take on something. I recently, for SchoolCEO Conversations, interviewed Jonah Berger, who is a Wharton professor he's written a number of books. The book that he's talked to me the most about, both at SchoolCEO conference and on the podcast was called Contagious or Why Things Catch On. Clearly written before COVID right. You wouldn't write that title today, but the content and the research in it is really good. And I was asking him about the same topic about storytelling, and I asked him, what is it that you think most people misunderstand about storytelling? And it's going to conflict a little bit with what we're talking about here, and so just want to have maybe a little bit of an argument or a conversation.
And he said, what I think people get wrong about storytelling is this, they think a nice story is enough, and they don't think about what the story actually says or what the takeaway could be from someone. And so his advice was at a higher level, right? Maybe not day to day, but kind of that brand narrative or however you want to put it. What are those takeaways you want your audience to have? And then what are the stories that are authentically already happening that make that point or deliver that takeaway, rather than just telling stories and kind of hoping that someone catches on to what you're hoping they get? So I would love to get your thoughts on that and how you think about Saginaw is not the same as every other district, right? There's a particular authenticity to you that's going to look different. So what are those takeaways that you want someone to know about Saginaw and the experience of working or living or having your student attend Saginaw? And I'm curious, what are those takeaways? And then how do you match that or blend that into your storytelling, especially around collective authorship?
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: Well, I surely do not disagree with how that was phrased. I do think that there is a tenuous situation of only viewing the positive. So when I talk about positive storytelling, it almost sounds like we're leaning in on something that's disingenuous. But we're looking to start. Just as I had said earlier, the best place is to start. And we are little e experts in trying to evolve and build into this start. So I think that the key takeaway is being able to see a resonance of voice, a resonance of collective authorship, wherein an organization is empowering the professionals that are providing this incredible free public commodity on a daily basis to understand that something special is taking place. When you have an organization willing to talk positively about what's happening or sharing the wins, even if it's from an authentic voice that might not be positive, it's talking about the valued product that we provide in education in this free public commodity.
So I think that there is probably a greater story to share. Tyler as we move through the evolution of our own process, that will lead into a greater sense of authenticity. But right now, as we start, the encouragement is to just lift the tides right now or raise the tides, so to speak, so that we can continue to get to a point that talks about who are we and what do we truly do within our purpose? And I think that's probably what the author is getting further along with the dynamic of storytelling. And what I'm trying to do as this school CEO of Saginaw Intermediate School District in Saginaw, Michigan, is provide the authentic voice and the lens and the capacity for our people to drive that. So if we have people, young entrepreneurs, families, people that are considering an opportunity to move into the Great Lakes Bay region of Mid, Michigan, I want there to be a resonating story or voice or collective authorship already waiting that talks about what we're doing on the early wins. As we continue to evolve. I think that that natural ability to walk through the agency of that voice is going to continue to tell what the true culture and climate of this organization is.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I really like that. That's a really fair point, and I like that you're seeing it as a process. And I think maybe that's another misunderstanding about storytelling is that it's a project that has a start and an end. And I think what you're saying there is, it has a start, but it really doesn't have an end. At least if you're doing it well and you're committed to it, it's something that is going to continue over the long term.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: Well, this is something Coty and I'll lead into you on this one because this has been a really nice daily banter between both of us. We have 750 beautiful employees here and I would love to be able to see 750 stories every single day because it is it's super simple and it's just sharing, celebrating really the work that we do on a daily basis. And Coty has pushed back a little bit and we've played verbal tennis on this because she would love to see a different lens of that story. And she thinks we're going to break Facebook and Twitter. And I said, bring it on. What a great bridge to cross. So I would love to be able to see that very simple approach of early celebrations and then continue to stand upon a bridge that says, holy cow, we're coming up on 3000 stories a week of positivity. Let's talk about where we want to navigate the authenticity of this further. Coty, what are your thoughts on that? It's a daily conversation.
Coty Kuschinsky: I'm surprised you brought it up because it is such a hot topic between us. Well, we discussed it. I remember the specific conversation when we talked about it where I had a light bulb moment. Know what a great problem to have if we do break the Facebook and Twitter algorithms, which, I mean, we've pushed it where stuff is getting no views no likes, no anything because we've pushed so much content out, so back to back and so much in the day it has happened. But with that said, that is a wonderful problem to have. And when we get to that bridge, let's cross it and we'll strategize again. But I want everyone to tell their stories. So why would I ever sit there and say no, not once a day? That's foolish. So we've come to a good compromise on it, I believe. But I have to ask his chief of staff have that on his radar. That what story are you really telling if no one's seeing it? So those are topics of conversation, and it's a topic in my school communicators group. They're having very similar issues. But that is the world of social media. That's Meta, that's Twitter, that's what we're dealing with right now. So those are very real problems to have, but great ones to have.
Tyler Vawser: One thing I want to point out to the audience is that you're really talking about a culture shift, right, a culture change to where your 750 staff members are thinking about this and the tools are there to help you, right? You're using those that's making it easy. It's not adding more work to their plate. But what you're really doing is kind of setting the table and creating an opportunity, like building potential to where you can share 750 stories or you can dial that back, but there's still the culture that supports that, and you'll have more content, more authenticity that's rising to the surface.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: As a result, we are building something that probably we have not had the technological resources until recently. And now we have this opportunity to fairly simply push out this dialogue. And I like the conversation or the term of saturating our story. I want to permeate, I want to saturate. I would love to have 750 Voices post three stories a day. What an amazing situation. Because I also want to build a communications buffet. And to me, it's not about the social media metrics or the algorithms that are out there. And I understand how those work. To me, this is about being able to put information on multiple sources of information regardless of a specific social media platform. So for me, it's the act of celebration. It's the act of highlighting the great things that are happening on a daily basis. And if we had one, two, three magic moments a day, regardless of your position in an organization, regardless of your responsibilities in an organization, what an amazing situation to saturate the collective authorship that's happening.
Tyler Vawser: There's something else I want to just dig in on a little bit there, which is know, social media tools come and go, right? We can joke about MySpace or whatever, but as we're recording this, right, twitter is kind of in upheaval. Everyone's kind of curious about what the future is. And I think one thing that schools often forget is that they have a more direct line to their quote unquote customers than any business out there, right? Businesses use social media to hopefully get a sale, to hopefully get an email and a phone number. But schools from the start know their students names and those students' parents’ names, and they almost always have a phone number or an email address. Right? And so you actually have these other lines of communication, not just social media, and those are the ones that you control, right?
No one can take away Twitter, whoever's running it, they can take away your followers or change the algorithm or whatever, but nobody can take away your direct line to those parents except for the parents or the students themselves. And I think that's often lost and forgotten. And so how do you tell your stories through the channels that you control the most and are the shortest line between point A and point B and there's no algorithm or filter in between there, right? So that's just something I've been thinking about a lot, is that it's so much more than just social media and in fact, you have a lot of opportunities that are right in front of you and more controllable, more ownership, and it's shared between two different parties without someone in the middle.
Tyler Vawser: And so yeah, Coty, I know you had an example that you wanted to share.
Coty Kuschinsky: It feeds right into what you were saying because my example while training for Employee welcome have we are dealing with a lot of attraction and retention issues. Everybody is right, especially in education. And so that's our immediate feedback is we're just tight. We have not as many people as we should, whatever that feeling might be. And so that's a big positive outcome of positive storytelling. So I have a friend that just recently was employed here. She's an OT at our Millet Learning center. And she's like, so what is going on? So wait, you are posting on Facebook that many times because she knows I'm the communication supervisor. I'm like, no, I only post if once a day because it's just something I have a media release or whatever it might be. And she's like, so who's doing all that? And I was like, everybody. I said, during your employee welcome, you will be trained. And just being able to explain that that's our culture and that's her expectation before she was ever onboarded is awesome. So it's being noticed. And when it is a culture thing that takes the social media, the variables that we don't have control over, out of the equation because it's a culture thing, that is who the Saginaw ISD, is that is what we're doing and they're aware of it before they're ever even hired in, right?
Tyler Vawser: And when there's some new tool or new platform out there, right, you'll be ready and capable of handling that because it's not about the tools or the analytics or the how to it's, the culture. And I like that way you phrase the expectations. Right. So a lot of what we've talked about here today are the expectations, the intentionality, the authenticity. And so I like how all that's coming together.
One question I did have for you, Coty, and you mentioned the training a couple of times and onboarding of new staff at the beginning of the year, and I would assume some existing staff as well. How do you keep people in the loop on your priorities, what the messaging is, kind of how the leadership, Dr. Collier, the board principals, how they're thinking about things as the year progresses, not just those first couple weeks of the year.
Coty Kuschinsky: So if we're talking about how they share internally, our cabinet, for example, our departments, I can use special education as an example, we really empower our cabinet and our leadership. We have an administrative council to be in charge, feel empowered, have control over their communications and what works best for their team. Because I don't know exactly what works best for special education, but I will help them figure it out and I will help them with those strategies to get it there. But we really want to make sure that they feel comfortable and empowered enough. I'm here for them as a resource. If they need help with Canva, for example, we have trainings for that that they can sign up for or ask me. I have team trainings on Canva and constant contact to send out external and internal communications with HR. That's on the books. So those things, we're allowing them to do what works best for them. We're meeting them where they are and helping them grow and push forward and empower them to innovate with what works best for their group.
Tyler Vawser: Fantastic. One comment. And Dr. Collier, you and I spoke about this in person last month, but schools have such a unique challenge, and you shared a really interesting video with me. I think it's called the Blueberry Video or the Blueberry Story. And since then, the school CEO team has actually all sat down. We watched it together, we talked about it, and what a fantastic lens of looking at public education through. And I wish it's one of those things. If you could create a billboard out there and have put anything on it, what would it be? I think for me, the last six weeks, it would be The Blueberry Story. Just that schools don't have the option of picking their raw material or their products right. They have to serve everyone that comes to their doors. And I think you've made this point a couple of times in this conversation that is lost on a lot of people. It is really incredible what we have, and we take it for granted. And so as we're talking about storytelling and collective authorship and getting everybody involved, I think that's one of the really important things to share. But also just helping people realize that superintendents are doing something that no one else is tasked with, which is you are having to serve students and parents, teachers and I think you brought this up before, which is in most towns or even counties, the school district is the largest transportation company, the largest dining company, the largest fill in the blank. Right? And that again is just lost on people.
And so we really love the idea of bringing in private sector ideas into public education and having kind of mixing that together and seeing what comes out of it and letting the private sector experiment with something and then taking those ideas for school leaders to use. But we still have this appreciation for the fact that schools are not businesses and so you have actually a much more difficult task and mandate in front of you. And we had that conversation in person and I just loved where that went. And for me it was really a shift in how I was thinking about some of the foundational elements of what schools should be doing and how the private sector can help engage that conversation. And so yeah, I don't know if you have thoughts on that, but that was a really kind of pivotal conversation that you and I had about six weeks ago.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: Well, I'm really grateful that you bring that up. It's a highly reflective topic to consider that public school districts really serve all. All truly means all. Regardless of zip code, regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of anything. It is a free and appropriate public education for all students. Which means that public school districts cannot deny, in fact, quite the opposite. We provide the civil rights and liberties to all students to ensure that they have the ability for success. And we do that in a paramount way of equitable aspect that is second to none. And as we consider the fact that our school districts often in our towns are the largest employer, they are the largest transportation service, they are typically the largest restaurants serving ridiculous amounts of food, they oftentimes are the largest maintenance and custodial services in a collective area.
And all of this is done on an assumed level of excellence because we as local constituents pay taxes, we should have the gold standard of those services. So we assume immediately that it's already at the highest expectation. And because we have these 13 year apprenticeships of mastery, most of us, most Americans of some form or another of these 13 collective years from kindergarten to senior years of high school, not always, but predominantly, then we have these jaded and often biased sensibilities of already assuming that we know what's taking place. And if we already assume the highest caliber of expectation, we often are let down and the standards may not meet what our assumed concepts might be for public school.
So if we are not sharing our collective narrative of, what truly is taking place, then we're allowing others to be able to share their narrative for us. And if we create a sentence and we leave the adjectives, the nouns and the verbs blank, then typically our constituency is going to fill that in with preconceived notions of a time that's frozen in the past. And that's what happens over and over and over again. And all this is a new concept of being able to share and paint me silly, I suppose, to be able to say, hey, this is how you're being overtly naive. And he's got his rose tinted glasses on. But how in the world do we not combat the ability for us to celebrate the amazing things that we do, these millions of moments of awe, with a positive collective authorship within an organization that is empowering our authentic voice as a whole. Everybody, every single day. In a profession of education, there are.
Tyler Vawser: A few things like this, right, that again, if I could put it on a billboard, I would. Which is just a few lenses like this, right? The largest employer that if we could get that in front of more people, I think they would really have a deeper appreciation for the complexities of running school districts, the challenge of like and I think you've even told me this, it's hard to even know what the end product is, right? I hate it, to put it in that terms, but people may disagree on what a student should know or be capable of when they walk across that stage in their twelveTH year or 13th year. And I think that just understanding the complexity is a really key point. And to your credit, right, with collective authorship and getting more people at Saginaw to describe their perspectives, to tell the stories and show the things that are happening day to day, there becomes more of an understanding of that complexity. Because it's not just one view, it's not just neutral or negative information, but it's all types of information and experiences. And I think if nothing else, right, it gives a deeper appreciation to what schools are trying to accomplish and in many cases are accomplishing in ways that people don't know or understand because they're not fully visible.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: One of the things that I love most about my partnership with Coty has been the fact that I believe in this so deeply and it makes such common sense to me. So the man in the mirror is constantly nodding an affirmative to himself and not only am I going to the store to buy the Koolaid, but I'm mixing it and I'm drinking it. So when Coty came in as chief of staff and trust partner, the ability to vet these ideas back and forth and to really share openly and candidly where I'm coming at very innocently, potentially naively so, but candidly so. For her to be able to see from outside public or excuse me, private market. It's been a wonderful opportunity to really vet and start to take a look at what does this collective authorship really mean? Coty, do you want to dig deeper in that?
Coty Kuschinsky: Yeah, I would say that I appreciate our partnership too, but I would say that it's nice coming from an outside perspective on things, because I was internal communications for about 12,000 folks with my position before this. And so I saw issues in communication that were happening at that large of a scale, and let's not go that route because there's a better strategy from my experience that I saw very quickly. So it was nice to come here and have my opinion and my experience be heard and valued, because human nature, I communicate in this format all the time, and I think Jeff can speak to this with I'm big on bullet points and breaking up the content.
And I saw that that was a trend in education that I kept like, I'm like, nobody is reading these six paragraphs. I promise you they're not. Can we please break this up? So that was very big. That was one of the first things I noticed that was like a red flag to me. Nobody's reading that because we had a huge issue at my previous employment of folks not even opening their emails or if you inundate them too much, how to strategize even the subject line of your email. So folks are reading it. There's just so many different parts of that communication buffet that you can tweak a little bit to work best for your organization.
So just little things like that from a different perspective that pop up. And feeling free to mention it, hey, I think this works a little bit better. We'll try it out and hopefully we're getting the response that we're looking for. So that's always nice. And I think that a big example of this is our difference in communications between our first run with our village and our second. I think that was a good example of even community wide, our countywide communication between how we did it the first time around and the second time around. Let's push infographics, let's push different types of media because we need to hit them on every which way and angle to inform them about what's going on and how we're trying to change our community so you can use it in every which way. And that's what's great about implementing that communications buffet.
Tyler Vawser: Excellent. Well, Dr. Collier and Coty, thank you so much for this conversation. I really enjoyed it.
Dr. Jeffrey Collier: I appreciate this. Tyler, what an amazing opportunity to just sit here and talk about what our passions are. Public education, students, authentic voice. It's amazing. I think the one imperative that we have to keep in mind is that we must think about doing things differently. We must think about what the opportunity cost is if we do not narrate our own collective authorship, if we do not share our story, who will? And we must be courageous right now to be able to build schoolceo for the students of today and tomorrow rather than the nostalgic memories of our alumnus. And that's really key to balance those areas and remember that we're not building schools for the students of today and tomorrow based on adults memories. We're doing it for the future of our students. So my challenge always is if not us, who? And if not now, when? And if we're not going to share our story, who is? And what is the opportunity cost? If we're not willing to collectively share our own positive narration.
Tyler Vawser: That’s a great place to end it. Thank you.
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