Tom Burton: How Superintendents Can Think Differently
Former superintendent Tom Burton shares how leaders can challenge assumptions and think differently to drive change. He discusses the importance of data, dissent, transparency, and authentic relationships in shaping culture.
In this episode, former superintendent Tom Burton shares how leaders can challenge assumptions and think differently to drive change. He discusses the importance of data, dissent, transparency, and authentic relationships in shaping culture. Burton advises staying positive, celebrating wins, learning from mistakes, and consistently modeling desired behaviors. Key takeaways include valuing all voices, showing gratitude, and implementing changes systematically.
Tom Burton has been an educator for 35 years including a superintendent for 8 years at Princeton City Schools in Ohio. In July 2023, he retired and shared his insights and expertise with SchoolCEO.
In addition to this episode, you can learn from Tom Burton’s TEDx talks. Watch “Sometimes the Apple Bounces” about breaking the cycle of poverty and “Finding Resolutions: Questions the Answers” about developing the mindset to confront ourselves and make progress.
- Leaders need to challenge the status quo and get comfortable with dissent and disagreement to spark new thinking. Ask "why" repeatedly to dig deeper.
- Model the behaviors and mindsets you want to see. Consistency between beliefs and actions builds culture.
- Stay positive and solution-focused. Don't let setbacks derail you. Reflect but don't dwell on mistakes.
- Implement programs and changes systematically. Evaluate frequently and course correct.
- Collaboration and transparency lead to better ideas and outcomes. Value all voices.
- Gratitude and recognition motivate teams. Look for authentic ways to say thanks.
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Intro Quote: Tom Burton (Guest): The superintendent is challenging. It's crazy. It's unique. It's ever changing. I mean, all those things. But, man, what an unbelievable role it is and what an unbelievable responsibility it is now. We have to be vulnerable enough if you're having a bad day or if you're having challenges, not be afraid of talking about it. But the reality is, if that's who you are all the time, then guess what your organization is going to be like. And then as you're complaining in general about how the organization is negative, you're actually the reason why it's negative. It's not just a superintendent, right? I mean, it could go all the way down to all the building, all the roles, all of that.
Tyler Vawser (Host): In this conversation, Tom Burton describes his approach to leadership and the importance of thinking differently in education. The conversation touches on the practice of questioning answers, the use of data and decision making, and the importance of effective collaboration. These practices are essential to developing innovative approaches and achieving goals within your school district.
Tom Burton spent more than 35 years in public education in Ohio. Over the past 8 years he served as superintendent at Princeton City School District. Just last month he retired and in this conversation he shares his perspective and experience over those 35 years. We discuss the answers to questions like: How can one train themselves to think differently as a leader in schools? Why is it important to challenge the status quo? What role does collaboration play in effective leadership?
Let’s join the conversation.
Tom Burton (Guest): So, Tyler, I'm going to give you a little glimpse into my brain real quick. I'm going to ask you three questions, and as fast as you can, I want you to write down your response.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Oh, you're putting me on the spot. Okay.
Tom Burton: You ready?
Tyler Vawser: The tables have turned.
Tom Burton: Yeah. All right. What color are you thinking about? What flower are you thinking about? What piece of household furniture? Color? Flower. Household furniture. Put your pen down.
Tyler Vawser: Okay, done.
Tom Burton: All right. By chance, did you choose red or blue?
Tyler Vawser: Yes.
Tom Burton: Did you choose rose, tulip or daisy?
Tyler Vawser: Yes.
Tom Burton: Did you choose couch, love seat or chair?
Tyler Vawser: Yes.
Tom Burton: I am a savant. So, like, I'll do this, it'll be amazed. People be like, oh, my God, how'd you know? But it's simply because the way that we think, we typically think in very traditional ways, and for us to move and grow and do things a little bit differently, it's beholden upon us to think differently. So why can people say that you just don't wake up one morning and say, bam, I'm going to think differently. Right. You're used to doing things a certain way for a reason. So for you to do something different, you have to train yourself. But it's the way that we think, and you can only do things differently by doing things differently.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. That's really interesting. So I'm curious about thinking differently. So I like what you said. Thinking different is not just something you can wake up and say, I'm going to do it today. It requires practice. So for Tom, like, how did you practice that day to day as a leader at schools?
Tom Burton: Well, you know, it's interesting you asked that because I think sometimes things are inherent. I had a Ted talk a long time ago and it was all around questioning the answers. And that whole thing, I think, was revolutionary for me. So inherently, I don't think like a pessimist. I'm very optimistic. But I do think that for us to think differently, like, when somebody says something, you just should wonder, like, where do they get the information? What's the data that supports that. And then I think that the more you hear from other people and you kind of unpack some of that, and you have developed these beautiful, trusting, vulnerable relationships that you're going to be able to not be afraid of someone's retort or if they push back any dissension.
We find out a lot of times in education, we don't really speak with a lot of data in mind. We feel a lot, which is okay, right. We're in the feeling empathetic field. But for us to really grow organizations, one way of thinking differently is just challenging the status quo. So a great example is every one of our Leadership Academy meetings and really our district cabinet meetings, they're all data. We may have 14 pages of documentation, right? An agenda. It's crazy. People look at that and say, tom, there's no way you can get through this in two days. But it takes about an hour, because, see, we have a professional obligation. If one of our colleagues puts something in an agenda, we have a professional obligation to read what they put in there. So we spend a lot of time in groups, right? And all that.
What people talk about is not germane to the overall mission of the district. Sometimes it's maybe so myopic. It could be a specific activity which could be related to the agenda. It could be related to the work of the district, the mission of the district. But if it's just one, I mean, do we really need to spend ten minutes talking about the nuances of an activity? If we have a colleague that thinks it's important enough to put it in there, we should know about it, we should support it. And so by doing that, that has allowed us to kind of move quicker with deeper embedded data, that has allowed us to drive instruction and drive the overall vision and mission of the district to be able to achieve some great things.
We have an amazing, amazing leadership team. Amazing. And so we push on each other, we pull on each other. And when we meet, by and large, there's no titles. And it's easy to say that I talk a lot about the difference between when you really believe something and you really behave something. I behave in such a manner. Like, I talk about collaboration. So when I pull people in, we actually authentically collaborate. We believe in equity at the highest of all levels.
Tom Burton: So if you look at a leadership team, it's very equitable. Right. When you look across the board, it's diverse, it's beautiful. Not only just in age, although we could get a little bit younger, but by and large, it's age, its race, its gender, its ethnicity, its experience levels. So that's how I behave, so people know what I believe in. And so with that, when you look specifically at thinking differently, how do you behave just in and of itself? Right? There when you talk about what you believe in, ask somebody if they see you behaving in that manner. And even though that seems so simple, that is something very, very different. And actually, if people are going to be really honest with you, if everybody says, oh yeah, you're perfect, you're this, you're that, then you know you need to think differently because your team does not trust you enough.
To tell you the truth, I've had people write to my face, say some things in a nice, respectful way, but that really got me thinking big time differently, that if I value people's time, I shouldn't be late to meetings. And sometimes I'm okay with being late because I was dealing with a pretty big situation, but other times I wasn't okay. And it's bothersome and I apologize for being late and try to do my very best to stay on schedule, but that's something people have pushed me on and I appreciate. And they're right. I am terrible if I'm dealing with a situation to not be present within that situation.
So if I'd say, excuse me 1 second, I got to call somebody to get to a meeting to talk about curriculum, that could wait, but I'm going to value their time more than you. I think all those little things can help you think differently. And I don't know if that gave a lot of specifics, but I hope that's one helpful. Yeah, I hope that's two nuggets that may help drive some change.
Tyler Vawser: Something I think is interesting in your answer is you talked about questioning the answer. Is that really true? But at the same time trusting the person, right? Like verifying what the answer being proposed is, making sure that that's right. Kind of going back to first principles, as I would explain it, but still trusting that the person, that they're not going to bring something forward unless they have seen something in it and they find it valuable.
Tom Burton: Well, here's how the narrative changes, though. So when we have conversations now, we lead with data, right? So if your expectation is to be a data driven district where every single kid has a number but they're not a number, right. You have to know the kid's number. You have to understand where they are academically, what they need social, emotionally, what they need from a mental health perspective. And a lot of times those boil down to numbers. If you don't know the numbers, then you don't know the kid. Right. But the reality is, to me, we have to have those conversations. So when we talk about our performance, they're not going to come into my office and say, or when we have a stand up meeting or whatever. They're not going to say, hey, we really improved. What does that mean? Right? It's going to be like, hey, we went from four stars to five stars, or we went from a performance index of 66 to a performance index of 71. See that, then what am I going to follow up with? I'm not going to say, are you really sure? No, the conversation is different where if someone says, boy, you really improved, then I, as a leader, have to say, what does that actually mean?
And that's where I think it's different thinking. Because if you do that enough and if you help people understand the value of it, the conversation changes. Therefore, you actually show how you value that other person because you've helped them be more successful and more specific and interestingly. When I talked about that Ted Talk, my son in the Ted Talk, I talk about how right outside our old house he had this huge maple tree. And he looked at this maple tree and he was just like, daddy, why is that tree so big? And see, I had a little bit of knowledge about nature. My first major was wildlife management. So I was all stoked about that. So I said, well, you see, son, the maple tree is a tree. And I started going into this name information. It really didn't matter or anything, but I was feeling good about who I was by saying it. And he said, well, why? And then I gave him more information and he said, well, why? And then I got frustrated. I said, Because it's just the way it is. And then we were walking in. He goes, Daddy, what's that thing flying? I said, that's a whirly bird, bryce it's actually a seed from a maple tree. What did he say? Why? But I didn't know these answers, so what did I do? I Googled maple tree facts so that I could impress my son. Not really. I keep asking all these questions.
So if we question the answers that are there, which is what he was doing, and if you think about this, and I encourage anybody to do this if you ask somebody on your team, do you value the education that we bring each day? Or ask them would you want your son or daughter in so and so's classroom? And then after they answer, say why? And then if we just play this out further, they'll probably say something like, well, they're really engaging, they're really collaborative, they communicate great. And then you say, well, why? Well, because it's really important for them to be able to collaborate. It's important for them, well, why? Right now we don't want to do that, really. But you're going to get my point that for us to kind of dig down a little bit deeper, not only in the answers, but the questions that we ask, I think we get a little bit closer to this Latin phrase which is called noskate ipsum, which is to know thyself. And if you know yourself, then you're going to be more likely to go back to your first question. Tyler to be able to think different.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I really like that. That's a perfect example of that first principles thinking or kind of working from the end backwards. And kids have a quick and sometimes frustrating way getting to that faster than adults. But, well, you know what? Things for granted, right? We just kind of assume that everybody's on the same page and it's the old we've always done it this way. And the person that keeps asking why usually gets to kind of open everyone else's eyes to the reality of what could be instead of just what has been.
Tom Burton: Yeah, so interestingly that you interesting you said that. So I have two quick points to that. One has to do with the culture code I'll talk to in a second. The other one is when we look at asking questions and we look at creativity, the same thing happens as we get older. The average kid, if you think about this, asks 14,280 - 2 million questions, and I can't combine million and thousands, but I just did for nothing but humor. But Tyler, when you think about a little kid, they ask questions all the time, and they're learning at an exponential rate, at the fastest they'll ever learn. And as they get older, we ask fewer and fewer questions. Now, when you look at this study that was done in the culture code, and many authors have talked about this, they look at this activity that they had with kindergarten kids when they had to use, like, dry pasta and marshmallows to build the tallest structure. And they competed against these major, unbelievable engineering students, CEOs, all kinds of different fields, and they outperformed them every single time. And they did so in a unique manner, right? It wasn't like, hey, let's take a look at this. Let's try this one out. They just did it right. They just asked questions. They failed. They moved. And the more we get into education, the less we do that. And that is something that we need to be more comfortable with and especially from a leadership perspective for us to think differently, to move right.
If people say, this is what I love, one of the best questions I love is when you say, well, did you expect that we were going to get the results that we got? And somebody says, I knew it, right. And when they say that, 90% of the time they're talking about the results being bad. Like, I knew we weren't going to do well, right. Or I knew that was going to happen. Well, if you knew, then what are you going to do differently? Or what can you do differently? Now, you can't go backwards, but when you have that little feeling inside and you're like, oh, my goodness, I'm not so sure about this, or I would do things differently, or whatever, then do those things differently and evaluate those as you move through the whole scientific methodology, right. But don't be afraid to look at things.
One of the things we did too, Tyler. And you got me on a soapbox now, brother. But one of the biggest things to me that's interesting is when we look across the country at how we implement programs, by and large our implementation processes are not good. Now some superintendents out there be like every single time we implement something, we implement it, we evaluate it, we modify it, and we do it all across the board every single time. It works perfectly. Well, you know what? Whoever you are that thinks that, please call me up because I failed so many times, I want to learn from your perfection because this guy here is not perfect at all. But one of the things like when we look at how we implement programs and we go back to the whole evaluation process, at the end, we can point directly to our failure to implement at a high level. And that's what happened with us a couple of times. We've moved, we're at like number eleven in student growth.
Last year we met the Academic indicator, achievement indicator. This year in our schools we have beautiful, diverse population, 70, 75%, economically disadvantaged, 80% students of color. We love our district, love the diversity, but school districts like ours typically don't perform like we performed, and I believe 100% it's because we took a deep dive into our implementation processes. So if we value a program that's new to our school and we don't value the implementation because we went back and we saw we didn't implement it with fidelity, and then by the time we did, all of a sudden we started seeing great results. Well, that was our own craziness. We should have looked at things differently right from the very, very beginning.
So that's another example of how we could think differently. When you talked earlier about thinking with the end in mind, if the end in mind is great results, if you know that and you unpack that all the way, then you would have to value the very beginning implementation. You'd have to.
Tyler Vawser: So what do you think gets in the way? If someone says, I knew it, I knew this wasn't going to work out, you got to do things differently. Why don't organizations, why don't people in your experience take that leap? And in your case, why did you decide to do something differently? And I think have the courage to say we're going to try something when there's no guarantee that this is going to work.
Tom Burton: Yeah, a really good friend of mine said that sometimes I used to get stuck on stupid. So that's what I think happens not to be mean about it, but I do feel like we are our own worst enemies when it comes to anything, when it comes to change. Like, we overthink, we analyze, we're not asking the right questions. We are surrounded by people that are yes, men and yes, women. We do that and we can't do that we have to have people that will push back or dissent professionally and be like, I'm not so sure about that. Tom, can you go a little bit further? I need a little bit more information before I can really understand it deep enough to be able to support this. And some of those questions are really routine, but we don't ask those questions. And if there's no dissenter in the room, that's a problem. And at some point, you're going to reach either consensus or everyone's going to be at a point where we need to move on. But the reality is for us to really kind of think differently. Maybe you assign somebody to dissent, that's their role in the meeting. And there's a couple of people that are in our cabinet. I don't need to assign them because I know they're going to, and I love it.
Tyler Vawser: That's great. I think that might be my role in most groups. I don't know if it's smiled upon always, but occasionally we talk about this idea of a Mars team when schoolceo presents about some of our recruitment data that we've done, and we talk about, you've got to really figure out what your district stands for, what's the culture, all of those things that Mission Vision, those things I think sometimes are kind of cliche, but you really have to get those five or six people together that if you had to go build your organization, your district in a new place on another planet, Mars, that you think they could accurately represent that and we always say that you need that one person, that they're a little bit too honest.
Tom Burton: Right.
Tyler Vawser: It hurts when they speak because they're going to say the thing that most others are afraid of hurting feelings. And you don't need a lot of those people, but you do need one to keep you honest and really push you to say, you know what? Maybe we aren't delivering on what we're saying. We're know those are the really helpful conversations, especially if the other five people are the positive thinkers. They're the ones that think, you know what? It doesn't have to be that difficult. What they're saying is true, but we think we can accomplish this, even if it's going to be difficult.
Tom Burton: Yeah. Tyler, I like everything that you said right there, but doesn't that happen all the time? No, you're right. You were spot on. But it happens. Like, we have all these qualifiers and we have these precursors before we start. Right. Hey, man, boy, you are doing such a good job, man. It's awesome. But I don't think you should have said fu to four parents. So, hey, in the future, maybe you shouldn't do that. Hey, thanks for all the great work, man. I'll see you later. We do that all the time, and that, to me, is something that we need people like you just said now, not everybody. But to make out a team, I've used 16 personalities before, and I love that because it takes a whole bunch of different personalities to really make it work. And when we look at our team, we have, I think, all those different personalities, it's a little bit easier with me because I got a couple of different personalities, so I kind of represent a couple of unique ones. But I think you're 100% right. We have to have people that are going to understand the value of vulnerability and the value of dissension and not be afraid to push the envelope a little bit, even with crazy ideas. Right. Steve Jobs right. The future belongs to the crazy ones.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah.
Tom Burton: Maintaining Positivity in Challenging Roles
Tyler Vawser: Really interesting. When I spoke to you before we started recording for the audience, we had a phone call a few weeks back and it was really interesting to me. As I was going to ask you, talk about the challenges of the superintendency, like, what's been most difficult. And you turned the question around on me, and you really kind of gave me this point that you know what? This is the job. And there's moments when it's difficult, but you really focused on the positivity side of it. You focus more on the solutions and the problems. And I would love for you just to talk a little bit more about that, where that mindset came from. And is that something you've always had or is that something you had to develop?
Tom Burton: Man, listen, the superintendent is challenging. It's crazy. It's unique. It's ever changing. I mean, all those things. But, man, what an unbelievable role it is and what an unbelievable responsibility it is now. We have to be vulnerable enough if you're having a bad day or if you're having challenges, not be afraid of talking about it. But the reality is, if that's who you are all the time, then guess what your organization is going to be like. And then as you're complaining in general about how the organization is negative, you're actually the reason why it's negative. It's not just a superintendent, right? I mean, it could go all the way down to all the building, all the roles, all of that. So to me, like, having a positive mindset is something my mother always talked about. And in fact, on her deathbed, literally on her deathbed, Tyler and it's a long, drawn out, horrific story, but my mom literally second last thing she said was, Tommy, you're going to make a lot of mistakes, especially you. And when you make those mistakes, right, you want to learn from them, whatever. But Tommy, you wake up the next morning, I want you to think of these words. Never let yesterday use up today, right?
So you made some mistakes, did some things you shouldn't do. It doesn't mean you're not reflective. It doesn't mean you learn from them or whatever. But if you focus so much on what you did and not what you're going to do, you're going to run right into the future and you're going to have no control over that at all. And my mom would always have this she'd always say, PMA, positive mental attitude. She would say it all the time, and it's been about ten years since she's been gone, and I still try to live that way with her being on my shoulder all the time and encouraging me. The last words I heard to say was, I love you. And I think that for us to be really honest in roles that are really challenging and unique, we need to understand that if we don't love our job, if we don't love the responsibility and welcome their responsibility or whatever, are we really thinking that the community is going to do that? Are we really thinking that the Board of Education is going to do that?
So when you're having a bad day, I would say think twice before letting it change your behavior. It doesn't mean you don't own it, but just think twice. Right. Is it really important? Do we really need to bring other people into this? And you should talk to people. I mean, mental health is so important. You should be able to have cathartic conversations, but if all you're doing is having cathartic conversations, then is there really joy with what you're doing? And we need great superintendents. We need people that are going to change the envelope, that are going to do things differently. But one of the aspects to doing that is knowing when you need to leave and knowing how you're working with other people. And I have a really dear friend of mine that left the field and I think too early, but not too early for him. I have another really good friend of mine that left, and she retired and is so happy about leaving. And if you listen to the conversations, it's really different. One almost had to, the other one got to like, I get to be a superintendent man, that's amazing. And so I think the positive attitude, I think you have to find a lot of joy.
But I will caution everybody right now, so whenever in my entire career, I've, oh, my goodness, this is absolutely amazing. Look at this, blah, blah, blah, there's something that would happen that bring me down. So I always have these qualifiers after I say something positive just because of the voodoo out there or whatever, I'm just like, hey, listen, we got these great results, but everyone's working hard, but we got to keep getting better just to not put anything out there in the universe where the universe has to slap me back.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I think anyone that's lived some life has learned that lesson. When you say, oh, things could never get better, this is it. We'll never have to worry again. Wait about 24 hours.
Tom Burton: Yes.
Tyler Vawser: Interesting. So how did you push that down throughout your organization? I definitely see how if the leader is negative, that's going to go through. But there's still going to be challenging things. You're still going to have, hopefully, confidence that you can lean on. But within the organization, how did you push the Positivity down without just modeling it?
Tom Burton: Right.
Tyler Vawser: Modeling it is, of course, important, but what are some other practices that you found really helped those that worked directly below you get it and then those underneath them?
Tom Burton: Yeah. So there's so many buzzwords that we have in education, and people have their own definitions all the time. So when I talk about authenticity, people would be like, yeah, we got to be brutally honest with people, or whatever, but brutally honesty, when you think about that, it actually hurts feelings. Hey, I'm just being brutally honest. I really don't like the way you look. Right. Well, that's going to hurt people's feelings. I believe more in, like, radical candor and authenticity. So you can't do that every once in a while. You have to do that all the time. So as I'm preparing to exit after 36 years in education, I wrote a personalized card to everybody.
All of our leaders, many of the people that supported me in general, some community members. In fact, my wife's throwing a party for me, and instead of people coming there and saying thank you, I'm actually saying thank you to them. So I've handwritten notes for everybody coming, how they were influential in my time at Princeton, what they meant for me in my time as administrator or throughout my life or whatever. That shows the value of how important connectivity is to me. And so today, I passed out cards to everybody, and I sent unwritten, they're blank. I mean, they say the word empower on them, but everything else is and I passed them. I said, take as many cards until there's no more cards. So take one card and pass along. And then some people had two cards, some people had three cards. And I said, instead of me giving to you something that outside of a card, I mean, those words I meant. I gave them a Viking pen. That meant something. Right.
The value of togetherness and working. I asked them to give the gift of gratitude to somebody else. And so I know people already started writing it, and some have already sent them, and they knew exactly who they were going to talk to. But I wanted only certain people, honestly, to get those notes. So how do you make sure that happens without saying, you write to these two people? You write to those two people. So there has to be an authentic way of doing that. So I passed it out and said, write to whoever you want. If you're going to choose to write to somebody who supports you on a daily basis at Pac, here are some address labels to make your life a little bit easier. Instead of having to look up addresses. Because didn't you like getting a letter in the mail and lo and behold, what do you think is happening right now? Probably at the postage meter, right? They're doing that and it's an authentic way of doing it. It was really direct but really kind of leading by example.
But it also was given some specifics to be able to kind of show kind of the positivity and gratitude and pushing that down. That's just really one small example. There's a couple of others too. Like when you're together, if you're going to value people's internal and external growth, then if you don't talk about leadership during your cabinet meetings, well, then you're missing an opportunity if you don't value the fact how people learn, because I didn't. Right now I have the infinite game. Simon Sinek. Great book. Think again. Adam grant impact players, liz Wiseman. And those books are amazing. And so we had an opportunity to really do a deep dive in those, well, the Infinite Game, I really wanted to go a little bit stronger. So I'm getting ready to purchase all these books and trusted colleague of mine came up and said, you know, Tom, man, it's just going to be hard for me to get through that book, but I'm going to do my best. And somebody else said, man, it's on my reading list. And somebody else said something I'm like, oh my goodness, what am I doing to my beautiful team? What is important? Is it important that they read? Yes, that actually stimulates the brain. That's critical.
But in this specific assignment that I want them to do, didn't I want them to really learn and understand the concepts within Infinite Game? So what I did is I used my friend Mr. Google and I googled Simon Sinek infinite game video. And there's about an hour and 32 minutes video that breaks down the book. So we did it each cabinet, meaning we watched that in small chunks, had an authentic conversation, talked about it. So two things happened. One, the content was digestible. People watched it. It was authentic engagement. We had great conversations. And guess what happened when they went to read the book? It became easier. Interesting instructional methodology there.
So I think when you show that, then you show that you care about them. You show the positive nature about learning and then you also do it in an empathetic way by doing things, by saying thank you. But it's not even saying thank you. Right? It's how you say thank.
Tom Burton: So, you know, we talked earlier about Communicators joining this great podcast. I hope I just don't take it down a little bit. Hopefully my guest appearance will actually provide some value. But Tricia Roddy, our amazing communications director, just got back from NASPA, the National Public Relations Conference, and it was amazing. And three, so he got nominated for three different awards there. All three of them won and it was for publications and it was for coverage of an event. It was amazing. Amazing.
So today we were talking about gratitude. So if I would not have mentioned that to Trisha, boy, that would have been a big miss when you talked about communication. It would have been a big miss if I didn't say something. And so we praised her and everybody clapped and all that. That just is a consistency, authentic way of saying thank you and showing gratitude. But guess what, Tyler? I haven't always done that. Like, I literally bypassed people. I thank other people, congratulations, blah, blah, blah, blah, and then I'd miss an award and then I'd get back. So what does a team do? We always do a once around, and typically it's Tanya West Wright, our great new associate superintendent, who'd say, hey, I just wanted to congratulate. That was wonderful. She didn't say, hey, Tom, you idiot, you didn't mention so and so. She would just do it. And that's part of the vulnerable, authentic relationships that you need to develop as a team and realize it's not about you as a superintendent. It's never been and never will. It is about your team. It's about those they serve, and most especially about the beautiful students we get to help each and every day.
Tyler Vawser: I really like what you said about Tanya just stepping up and doing it right. I think that is a big piece of culture when people can stop saying, that's the leader's job and saying, I know the leader, and I know the culture and what they're trying to create, and I can go ahead and step into this moment or take an action without permission. Right. And that, to me, is really powerful. And that really is when you know the culture is working, but also that the leaders ideas have moved from head into the hands and feet of the others.
Tom Burton: Thank you.
Tyler Vawser: Tell me a little bit more about Princeton City Schools in Ohio.
Tom Burton: Yeah. So, Princeton is a beautiful example of what can happen when communities come together. So we have two cities, four villages, parts of three townships, parts of three counties. It's amazing. So when you talk about diversity amongst the student population, it's not just that it's all the way throughout our community, but each of our communities is not really diverse. So we have the oldest historically all run black municipality north of the Mason Dixon line in Lincoln Heights, next to Glendale, and evendale, which are very affluent districts, which predominantly are white. Although Glendale has a little bit more diversity than what people give it credit for. Springdale, which is diverse. Sharonville is more like blue collar, but it has some wealthier areas in there. And Woodlawn is predominantly black, but beautiful school. Sherry Thompson does amazing job running that school. That is the community there.
And so we have all these different communities that come to Princeton, and we're very diverse. 80% students of color, about 38% African American, or black, about 35% Hispanic, about 20% Caucasian or white, and then the rest is other. Not to be disrespectful, but there's a compilation of Pacific Islander and so forth. But I have to tell you that they all come to Princeton and it is amazing to see what happens. And typically with 70% plus economically disadvantaged, a lot of times you don't see the student growth and a lot of times you don't see the achievement. But we want kids appreciate the student voice that we give and kids take advantage of that the staff voice and collaboration. We're really proud of the district and we say that Princeton City Schools, we are the community and the community is us.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's amazing. As you think about moving into your next season, what advice would you give to someone that's starting out as a superintendent?
Tom Burton: Yeah, well, first of all, I think it used to be this old adage, what keeps you up at night? And I would say we can, should and need to do more. Right. And so that is something to think about. But the reality is you have to celebrate the successes and understand not like go back and do an autopsy, but understand why certain things didn't go the way that they should and then make adjustments and not be afraid to be vulnerable, to be able to say, hey, I made a mistake. I stood up in front of the whole staff, 800 staff members, right around 800, and man, I was vulnerable as heck. Started talking about when I was a kid and some things I did that I shouldn't have done. And that even though I had great teachers that were supportive and a great parents, the reality is, sometimes kids are still going to do things they should not do. But don't give up on kids, because they could be a superintendent one day.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, very good. You mentioned earlier one of your keynotes is if not you, then who? Do you want to just give the elevator pitch for that?
Tom Burton: Yeah, just that there's a time for us to answer the call and if you don't do it, who's going to do it? And I'm going to bet on you. Right. So I think that's really important to make sure that you understand the importance of what it is that you do. But there's a whole bunch of series of activities and a variety of other things that happen around that. But it is so important for you to be able to answer the call and just utter this phrase I get to work with kids every mean who gets that? That's amazing.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's awesome. Well, Tom Burton, thank you so much for joining schoolceo conversation. Really enjoyed it.
Tom Burton: You're very welcome. And hey, for those that don't know aptig, I would say you got to make sure you check it out. I was a reluctant, reluctant seller for a long time and I was wrong for waiting so long. It's a great product, doing wonderful things and really helping us communicate the great news that's happening each and every day at Princeton.
Tyler Vawser: Awesome. That's great.