Superintendent Q&A: Developing Leaders

Dr. Candace Singh of California's Fallbrook Union Elementary School District is creating opportunities for teachers, students, and aspiring female leaders across the country.

This year has shown us that leaders are everywhere. You’ve seen students taking the lead on helping siblings with virtual classes, teachers connecting with students and parents both online and in-person, and support staff handing out hundreds to thousands of meals a day. These leaders are not few, far, or in between. You see them everyday when walking through your schools.

Dr. Candace Singh knows this well—she’s been developing leaders at Fallbrook Union Elementary, a district with close to 5,000 students in San Diego County, California, for a decade. Singh became a superintendent with the intent to uplift voices in her district and beyond. A finalist for AASA’s 2020 Women in School Leadership Award, she’s developed a culture in her district that empowers students, staff, teachers, and administrators to take on greater leadership roles. Students are encouraged to take ownership of their own education, and teachers are motivated to pursue leadership opportunities within the district.

We caught up with Singh to learn exactly how she has created a culture of leadership at Fallbrook, how she mentors aspiring female leaders, and what leadership—from the student to the administrative level—looks like in a pandemic.

What influenced your idea of leadership?

I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I worked three different jobs through school. But I had the support of my mom, the most influential female leader in my life. Once I graduated, the first person who hired me as an elementary teacher was a female principal. She was so empowering to me. She trusted my decision-making, inspired me, and encouraged me to keep growing and learning. She was a beautiful example of a female leader, and just watching her do her work—I remember thinking, I would love to do that.

I also had other female role models and mentors in my life who encouraged me, who tapped me on the shoulder and said, Hey, you would really be great at this. That kind of sponsorship, encouragement, and mentoring was a significant reason why I kept developing as a school leader. It has contributed significantly to the work that I do now—I want to be a leader who serves as a model for other women who aspire to be in leadership roles.

School leadership is predominantly male. How do you encourage women to take on leadership roles in your district?

The majority of my site leaders are women, who work alongside fantastic male leaders, too! They make up my assistant principals, principals, and cabinet-level positions. Making sure women have a seat at the table has always been very important to me. Internally, I do a lot of mentoring and coaching with my building-level leaders. I try to support them in their own leadership development, then give them opportunities to grow and take on new responsibilities.

Our internal processes and priorities are also specifically designed to make sure that both men and women are highly prepared to take on the next position when it arises. As a result, we have many women at all levels of leadership within our organization, with ongoing opportunities for modeling, coaching, and development. I pay particular attention to making sure that our women are supported and that their professional growth is intentionally planned.

Another priority is not just hiring women for leadership positions, but particularly seeking out women of color for those roles. In my district, almost 50% of our principals and assistant principals are women of color. I think this is something superintendents have to be very intentional about and pay careful attention to. We want our leaders to reflect the children in the communities we serve.

How are you helping women become school leaders across the country?

I, along with an incredible group of female leaders from San Diego County, started the country’s first Aspiring Superintendents Academy for Female Leaders in partnership with AASA. We started our first cohort of aspiring female leaders in October of 2019 with 35 women from 17 states across the country in our inaugural class. The cohort came to San Diego to meet face-to-face over two weekends before everything shut down.

We continued our work online through the last remaining dates, and it was wonderful because of the relationships we had developed with one another. We became a very tight-knit group of women who communicated regularly in between sessions. Through the end of the last school year and the spring, things were really intense and a bit overwhelming. The Academy became a safe haven where there was camaraderie, mentoring, and coaching for every member virtually. It kept mentors connected with these female leaders who were often doing the heavy lifting in their school systems.

We finished the Academy earlier this year, and these female leaders are now colleagues and friends for life. We’re still in contact with many of them, who are now applying for superintendencies and higher-level positions. We’re providing coaching, helping them practice for interviews, or just being a sounding board for things going on in their schools.

Right now, we’re planning our second cohort, which will start in January 2021. AASA is currently taking applications, and we’ve already received broad interest across the country from women who are eager for this type of professional development and networking. I think it’s inspiring for women to meet other female colleagues who are working their way up the ladder and to see other women in the superintendency. It’s very rare.

How can other school leaders be intentional about hiring more women for leadership positions?

To begin, leaders have to do some analysis and reflection of the leadership workforce in their particular school district. The vast majority of people who teach in our classrooms are women, and I don’t think women typically toot their own horns. We don’t aggressively go out and promote ourselves. It’s actually one of the things that women really have to work on—getting people to see the skills they could bring to the table as far as leadership.

Sometimes there’s a lack of awareness that women aren’t at the table, so superintendents need to be intentional about reaching out and creating leadership opportunities. Not just letting women self-select to apply for jobs, but intentionally reaching out and encouraging them to do so. In my district, we regularly engage teachers—and classified employees as well—in the leadership work that we’re doing.

As a superintendent, you need to really consider the women who are working in your organization right now. Who could you tap on the shoulder and empower with more responsibility? Who could you bring into higher-level leadership roles? You have to actively seek out and create opportunities for women to grow and improve and move into higher levels of leadership within your organization. It has to be an intentional act; it cannot just be that women have to figure it out and find their way to the table.

What’s the impact of having more women in leadership roles?

I talk with young women in our district regularly about how the vast majority of higher-level positions in education are filled by men. But girls in our schools see women as assistant principals, directors, assistant superintendents, and as the superintendent. The majority of the people leading our schools are women. It’s important to have women at all levels of leadership within a school district, because we’re modeling for girls what the possibilities are. Often, one of the reasons we don’t see young girls aspiring to leadership roles is that there aren’t women in leadership for them to see. They may not have strong female models in their own lives, in their own families. It’s hard to be what you can’t see.

I want girls to see themselves as leaders early in their lives, and in addition, I want the boys in our schools to see girls in leadership roles. The more we see women in these roles, the more young women and girls can see that this is something they can aspire to. When boys who are growing up into young men see women in these roles, they then can be mentors and sponsors for women when they themselves are in leadership roles. As girls are moving up and boys are moving up, we’re redefining what it means to be a leader.

How do you teach your students to be leaders at Fallbrook?

In our district, we work on leadership development and teach Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People starting in kindergarten. We explicitly teach those timeless principles to our children: beginning with the end in mind, seeking first to understand before being understood. What does it mean to think win-win? What does it mean to be proactive in your life? Those are skills we know are contributing to their success. They know when they begin to lead their own lives, those same principles will apply. So as they become leaders in their schools and in their classrooms, they’re able to utilize these skills.

We do this through the Leader in Me Framework—it’s a way of thinking about how to develop a culture that inspires students to be more effective in their own lives. It revolves around three big ideas. One is that you are very intentional about teaching leadership principles to children and to adults. This is done through professional learning for our students and staff, which teaches them how to be effective in their own lives. The second focuses on creating a leadership culture that gives every member in the school leadership opportunities. Children have the opportunity to help lead their schools and themselves, and we teach them how to do that.  This creates a leadership environment where you’re empowering children and adults to take on leadership roles no matter what level of the organization they are in.

Lastly, it’s about how you align systems within your school district so that everyone understands the school’s goals, all the way from the administrative level to the student level. After everyone understands their own academic goals, you then empower children to own their learning, and you help teachers engage children in a way that motivates them to take the lead in their own education.

For example, we explicitly teach students how to stand in front of a group of people and talk about what they believe in, what their interests are, where their passions lie. We seek out opportunities for all of our children to do that—not just the kids who volunteer to be the leader or who are more outgoing. In the past, teachers may not have seen that leadership potential from children who are quiet, who might not always have their hand raised. Now, we are watching children come out of their shells more because they’re given the opportunity. They’re just gifts that haven’t been unwrapped yet. In this environment, they feel supported and encouraged to grow into leaders in their schools.

This type of thinking and learning has absolutely transformed the culture of our school district. It’s been magical to watch children grow into the leaders they were meant to be.

How has the Leader in Me Framework helped Fallbrook adjust to changes brought on by COVID-19?

From March to June, we were dealing with triage, as all school district leaders were. We didn’t know what was going to be a problem because we had never been through a pandemic before. The first thing we did was immediately put in tech support for students and parents. We started creating videos, tutorials, and webinars to teach them how to use technological tools in their homes. We quickly mitigated a lot of the challenges people had during that time, and we got through it by consistently reaching out to families and students to support them at home. We transitioned to online learning with less difficulty than most because a lot of the systems we had in place worked.

One of the biggest challenges we had was that we were using multiple types of programs for our kids, and it was difficult for students and parents to access them all. It didn’t provide the ease of use that we needed. When kids were at school, they could easily log onto all of these systems, but once they went home, we realized we needed to simplify and streamline the process.

This streamlining was driven by our instructional coaches and teachers from across the district. They formed teams and reviewed newer, simpler platforms that could accomplish the same kinds of things without them having to go to six different places. They were the leaders in making those decisions, because they knew what tools are most effective for learning. They’re the experts, and we really leaned on them for their opinions and for their professional insight into what works with our kids.

I believe this pandemic has amplified either how effective or ineffective we were before. We know that a crisis amplifies the good and the bad. In Fallbrook Union, we had a organizational culture that emphasized positive, caring relationships. Before the pandemic, we created an effective system that produced opportunities for children to grow and improve academically, socially, and emotionally. Our strong culture and systems existed before we transitioned online, and while we may have a different instructional format for now, we know our approach is working.

How does the Leader in Me Framework address social-emotional needs?

The Leader in Me Framework is one of the most effective frameworks for SEL in schools. It really works to develop children’s personal effectiveness, resiliency, and communication skills. Plus, it empowers them to make a difference in the world. They know and understand their purpose, which is extremely important in the social-emotional development of children. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been using this framework in our district for seven years, and we’ve seen it grow beautifully over time.

One of the reasons it’s effective is that it begins with the adults. Adults in our district have a deep level of care for our students, and they all form strong connections with them. This foundation serves as the basis for everything we do. When we shut down in March, we knew our priority was making sure every child still felt personally connected to their teacher, and their families felt supported. I asked every teacher in the district to make a personal phone call to every child, every week we were shut down. I wanted them to see how they were doing and to hear what their families needed. I also asked staff members to check in on one another. Everyone got a personal phone call from someone else—just to make sure they were doing okay.

Relationships are the foundation for the way we do our work. It’s where we lift off from when we’re working toward the academic and leadership goals we have for kids. It all starts from a relational caring perspective. I think that is the fertile garden that everything else has to grow from. Every year I have been here, it’s been an important cornerstone of everything we do. The way we think about leadership, how we lead our schools—it is all grounded in our relationships with one another and in the ways that children know and understand that they are valued and loved. Our staff knows that children do not work hard for people they can’t trust or don’t like, which is even more true with online instruction. If our kids don’t feel connected, valued, and loved, there’s no reason for them to get up and turn on their laptops. So we have to continue those messages of care and love and concern, even through a screen.

I’ve been in all of our schools these past few days observing our teachers, most of whom are working from their classrooms. I’m seeing our teachers make beautiful personal connections, with words of love and encouragement. It’s the same level of optimism and enthusiasm that they would have face-to-face. We have to create opportunities where children are connecting to one another virtually. That is our job, and after watching my staff do it, I absolutely know it can be done.

What about your district makes you most proud?

Obviously, I’m so proud of my students and what’s happening with them. I know, though, that you can’t have a supportive and effective school district without the really amazing people who work in it. When this pandemic started, I observed the collaboration, camaraderie, and can-do spirit of the 800 people who work here. It brings tears to my eyes talking about it. The way our folks work together is so beautiful.

That sense of collaboration and camaraderie has been established over time. We know that working collaboratively in teams is how we get to better outcomes. It really engages people in the work and in the decisions we make. It taps into the unique abilities and skills of every employee, which has made us really effective. As I watched us transition into remote learning, every single staff member and teacher just stopped and said, Okay, how can I help? They got out of their comfort zones and started doing things they’ve never done before. In the last four months, it has been so inspiring to me, and I’m incredibly proud of the special people who work in my school district every day.


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