Dr. Robert Hunt: Leaning Into Healing

With a deep personal and professional knowledge of crisis, Dr. Bob Hunt is ready to lead his new district through the pandemic and beyond.

By Brittany Edwardes Keil Last Updated: October 25, 2021

When Dr. Robert Hunt began planning his convocation speech at Barrington 220 School District, he knew it had to be perfect. This wasn’t just his introduction to over a thousand of the district’s teachers and staff members—it was also the moment that would set the tone for yet another school year impacted by COVID-19. On top of all that, speeches are one of the aspects of leadership that Hunt dreads most. Still, he was determined to share his story in a way that would begin to build the trust he’d need. “A lot of times, you’ll see a convocation and the superintendent will get up and say a few words and turn it over to a guest speaker,” Hunt explains. “To carry the entire program was a little bit intimidating, I’ll be honest with you—but it was important for the district to know who I was and where I was coming from.”

This past summer, Hunt took the helm at Barrington 220. Located in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, the district is the pride of its community, known for being an innovation powerhouse. It had been on Hunt’s radar for a long time, and being its leaders is a dream come true.

In his speech, Hunt wanted to get his district excited about the school year to come, but also to impress upon them that he was prepared—and eager—to guide them through another semester of pandemic-related crisis. In a moment of vulnerability, Hunt shared his story on stage to 1,200 members of his new community. He wanted to give his staff a reason to trust him not only to lead them through the end of the pandemic, but also to shepherd them through the critical process of healing—something he is all too familiar with.

Thoroughness and Teamwork

Hunt has always been interested in what it takes to lead through a crisis. As a long-time school administrator, he has definitely seen his fair share of chaos. Unfortunately, though, Hunt’s leadership philosophy was most deeply impacted not by a professional crisis, but a personal one.

Five years ago, Hunt’s infant son, Hawk, was diagnosed with Burkitt Leukemia, an extremely aggressive cancer that rarely impacts young children. Hawk, in fact, was one of the youngest people ever to receive his specific diagnosis, something that made his treatment plan especially challenging for doctors. “We were told that if we had waited even a week to get him to the hospital—just a week to get it diagnosed and start treatment—we would have lost him,” Hunt shares.

For seven consecutive months, Hunt rotated with his wife to spend multiple nights a week at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital (CCCH), helpless as he watched his son struggle through some of the most intensive chemotherapy available. “I watched his little body take on so much,” Hunt remembers. “I watched him fight and get taken down and stand back up as he fought to live.” Hunt tells us that his now 5-year-old son is his greatest hero and inspiration. During those long months in the hospital, Hunt learned many lessons, but the primary one will always be this: to recognize what truly matters and to hold it close.

The combined power of teamwork and attention to detail Hunt witnessed at CCCH also impacted his leadership style. Although the experience with his son was deeply traumatic, Hunt couldn’t help but be impressed by the seamless, concerted effort of the hospital staff. “Whenever anyone came into our hospital room, they made us feel like we were the center of their world,” he says. “Even when we saw specialists only once or twice, it was obvious that they hadn’t just read Hawk’s file—they cared about us.” It was this care and compassion that served as a rare source of comfort during those hard months.

Today, Hunt is glad to be miles and years away from that hospital room. Hawk is now in remission and starting kindergarten at his new district with a serious plan to become “a professional football tackler.” Naturally, though, Hunt remains forever changed by this experience. As he reflects on that dark and difficult time, he recognizes how instrumental his family’s trust in CCCH was in their ability to endure their trauma and, later, to heal. “There are 6,000 beds in their facility, and yet, we never once doubted that being there was the best choice we could make for my son’s chance to survive,” Hunt tells us. In the most fearful moment of his life, he knew his family was in the right place.

It is this focus on trust—and the attention to detail that builds it—that Hunt aims to bring to his superintendency at Barrington 220. Schools may not be hospitals, but Hunt recognizes the role that they can play in leading families through a pandemic that continues to be deeply traumatizing. Just as the staff at CCCH worked together to guide his entire family through the restorative process of healing, Hunt wants his district to provide that same sense of whole-child care to every student who walks through their doors.

A Crisis Researcher

Hunt’s experience as a parent of a child with cancer is not his only tie to crisis. As a young leader, two traumatic events led him to realize that he was not yet trained to lead through tragedy. First, while Hunt was serving as a principal, one of his students took his own life only hours after speaking to another administrator. Then, his friend, a superintendent at a nearby district, experienced a school shooting.

Both of these events resulted in a deep sense of personal loss for Hunt, driving his desire to better understand the psychological aspects of leading through crisis. “As I walked through that experience with my friend, I realized that we do almost nothing to prepare a leader for a crisis,” Hunt says. “There actually is research out there about how we can frame and process crises, but that is rarely a part of the training for a school administrator.”

Hunt knew that while he would never have all the answers to  these two tragedies, there had to be better ways for leaders to prepare for similar crises. In response to this, he focused on how leaders process trauma in his dissertation, titled The Depth of Sacrifice: A Case Study of Educational Leaders Who Have Led in the Aftermath of a Rampage School Shooting. In it, Hunt interviews a group of administrators who lived through a school shooting in an unnamed high school in the northeastern United States. He wanted to understand not only the experience of leading through a crisis and its aftermath, but also the impact this experience had on the administrators in the building.

As he explores the collective trauma of a school shooting in a small community, Hunt argues in his dissertation that administrators in these situations are themselves victims as well. Not only are they forced to witness a violent event, they are also responsible for providing a sense of solidarity in its aftermath. Hunt recounts how these administrators, while processing their own devastation in silence, visited students in hospital rooms in the weeks after the shooting and led vigils to honor students they had lost.

Through careful interviews both immediately after the mass shooting and years later, Hunt wanted to know what lessons could be gleaned from a district’s path to healing. He found that because school leaders seek to calm their communities in a crisis, they often choose to prioritize others above themselves. While this could result in administrators internalizing struggles that go unaddressed, it also highlights the importance of community in the healing process. In some circumstances, Hunt found that administrators were even moved away from their positions, possibly with the intention of aiding their healing. This, however, only made the traumatized administrators feel even more isolated. Just as an entire community shares a sense of trauma, they must also share a sense of solidarity in order to heal together.

Hunt has used this understanding of crisis while leading through the pandemic. Because of his research, he is adept at explaining different elements of crisis to others. In his convocation speech, for example, he discussed the difference between technical and adaptive challenges.

Technical challenges are the smaller, logistical problems that leaders handle every day. Throughout the pandemic, for example, masking has been a major technical challenge. Interestingly, since these challenges give people an illusory sense of control, they are usually at the forefront of everyone’s minds. “These are the kinds of things that people want answers to—Do this or do that. Yes or no,” Hunt says. “They think that by answering these low-level issues, they will be able to solve the larger issues, but that’s not really the case.”

Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are much harder to grapple with. These are the issues which have no easy answers or clear-cut guidelines. This far into the pandemic, Hunt is much more worried about these adaptive challenges and how he can rise to meet them. “We’ve got students who’ve missed learning. We’ve got students who haven’t even been in a school building for 18 months. We’ve got social and emotional issues coming out of the crisis—our work has got to center on these adaptive challenges,” he explains.

Hunt realizes that leaning into these adaptive challenges is not something he can—or should—do alone. “When I was younger,” he says, “I had this mentality that if you put a challenge in front of me, it was my job as a leader to conquer it. Now, I know that being a leader is fueling teamwork so that we can all conquer a challenge behind a shared vision.”

Investing in Each Child

As is true for many, Hunt became interested in education because of the careful attention he received from his own teachers. Although he describes himself as an average student, he knew early on that he wanted to impact others the way that teachers and coaches impacted him.

Hunt specifically remembers thriving under the guidance of his English teacher and his football coach, both of whom helped him believe in himself by believing in him. “Like a lot of kids my age, I was scared to death of failure in the classroom,” he shares. “As an athlete, I cared so much about how other people perceived me, and when it came down to going out on a limb to make progress, I was terrified.”

It was under the guidance of his teachers that Hunt started to realize what leadership could look like in the classroom. “It’s the classic example. I was reading aloud, which was something that always made me nervous,” he says. “Of course, I mispronounced a word. I wanted to hide and be ashamed, but somehow my English teacher turned things around and made it humorous and light. Suddenly, it was fine, and I was okay. It’s amazing, the clarity with which I can remember that moment.” It was this type of leadership that Hunt would want to carry into his own career as an educator.

Like many school administrators, Hunt loved his time in the classroom and is still energized by being around students. When he first began teaching, he followed in the footsteps of his high school mentors, becoming an English teacher as well as coaching various sports.

Although he has now served as an administrator for over a decade, Hunt still keeps visual reminders of his time as a teacher to help center his work. Among his scattered memorabilia and trophies is an old clock, a gift from a particularly challenging student. It bears the inscription, “Thank you for believing in me.” This clock, he says, is still one of the most meaningful presents he has ever received,  a reminder of the legacy he hopes to leave behind.

Hunt is also grateful for the consistent support of his family, who raised him to believe in the value of hard work and persistence. “I was taught never to take no for an answer and to always challenge myself to do my best, no matter what,” he explains. Although his family—especially his father, a veteran—prioritized perseverance above all, they now remind him to focus on himself every once in a while, too. “It’s been so interesting to hear, Hey, you need to slow down a little bit,” he says.

Hunt’s roles as a father and husband continue to deepen his connection to the superintendency. He loves to joke that his wife, a high school English teacher, never lets him get too far from the classroom perspective. She and their four children provide a wellspring of ideas and motivation. Hunt’s oldest daughter, a junior in college, is currently student teaching, preparing to follow in her parents’ footsteps.

While Hunt’s family has always anchored his work as a superintendent, this was especially true during the early days of the pandemic. Hawk’s status as a cancer survivor means that his immune system is unable to fight off viral infections. Because of this, Hunt was especially intentional in his decision-making, knowing drastic measures may be necessary in order to keep students like his son safe. “I was transparent about how scared I was,” he says. “Sure, there were times when I got a nasty email or someone got angry with me, but I’d say, I have a son who is a cancer survivor. Even though they were angry, my authenticity helped them understand where I was coming from.”

Leading with Innovation

This summer, Hunt’s transition to Barrington 220 was driven by one major goal: to work with a district that prioritizes a different kind of excellence. While Hunt understands the importance of accountability in education, he worries that the shift in the past few decades to more and more standardized testing will result in students being left behind in more substantial ways than exams can reveal. After all, adults rarely equate their own excellence with their performance on a test.

Hunt believes focusing too much on testing limits the playing field for both students and teachers. “Preparing kids for the real world is a scary challenge, but it’s so easy to fall into the trap of letting tests drive that work for you instead of focusing on what the kids really need,” Hunt explains. Students worry too much about their performances based on a limited amount of standards, and teachers are restricted as to what they can explore because they are focused on arbitrary measurements of their own success. What could a school district look like if it prioritized excellence outside of the strict metrics of standardized testing? This question led him to Barrington 220.

Long before Hunt took the helm at his new district, he knew of its unique stance on educational excellence. “It was definitely on my radar,” he says. “The more I started to realize that I was shifting in a new direction with how I interpreted excellence, the more I started to wonder if Barrington 220 was where I wanted to be when I lived out that vision.”

Barrington 220 has a reputation for innovation and for taking risks that some school districts shy away from.  Although the district consistently scores well on traditional measures of excellence, like standardized tests, they also go one step further by ensuring their programs elevate all types of skills and give students multiple paths toward productive lives. It is this broad understanding of excellence that initially inspired Hunt and now motivates him as the district’s leader.

One such innovative initiative is Barrington’s Business Incubator Program, which allows students to participate in an authentic lesson in entrepreneurship. Each student plans and develops their own product or service, all while being coached by world-class entrepreneurs and business experts. They go through the process of brainstorming, market research, and business plan development. Then, the learning culminates in students pitching their businesses to actual investors, vying for the chance to turn their hard work into reality. Originating at Barrington, this highly successful program has been replicated in over 100 schools across the country.

Although he has only been superintendent at Barrington 220 for a few months, Hunt is already quick to list all of the ways that the district is working creatively to educate the whole child. “There is so much I love,” he says. “We’re constantly reconsidering what the student experience is here at Barrington, and that’s something I can get really excited about.” From programs that help students become certified nursing assistants to a flourishing chapter of Erika’s Lighthouse, a peer-to-peer mental health education program—there is something for everyone at Barrington 220.

The Restorative Conversation

We may be nowhere near the end of the pandemic, but that doesn’t stop Hunt from looking forward to the conversation on the other side. Between dueling crises with COVID-19 and heightened political tension, he hopes we can eventually reconnect across the distances that have pulled us apart. “That,” he tells us, “is real leadership. That’s healing—to re-center everyone on the importance of our local public schools and rebuild our shared sense of community around what matters.”

Hunt is already considering the legacy he wants to leave behind. He thinks about his own children, who have attended schools under his leadership for most of their lives. He thinks of students like the one who gave him his clock—students who were buoyed by his belief in them. And, finally, he thinks of the many teachers he has coached throughout his time as an administrator.

“As I enter the last decade of my career, I think of all the people I’ve played a part in lifting up,” he says. “It’s teachers, but it’s students, too. I’ve always loved watching people solve problems and do amazing things. If I’m remembered for anything, I hope it’s that.”

In Hunt’s convocation speech, he shared a metaphor that has informed his approach to crisis. “When cattle see a storm coming,” he explained, “they run away from it, and it takes even longer for them to get through it. Buffalo, on the other hand, run toward the storm headlong so they can get through it as quickly as possible. You have a chance to choose: Will you be a buffalo or a cow?” When it comes to rising to the multitude of challenges associated with being a school administrator, Hunt has always valued facing the storm head on, and, when the time is right, leaning into the healing.

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