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A Conversation with Kermit Ward on Finding Inspirations Through Education

Kermit Ward was born on January 12th in Waco, Texas. Although his father was just a phone call away, he never met his father in person until he was at the age of 13. He was raised in a large project housing complex yet his single parent mom cleverly circumvented the attendance boundaries of the […]

Kermit Ward
Kermit Ward

Kermit Ward was born on January 12th in Waco, Texas. Although his father was just a phone call away, he never met his father in person until he was at the age of 13. He was raised in a large project housing complex yet his single parent mom cleverly circumvented the attendance boundaries of the local education system and Kermit was enrolled in highly-middle classes elementary school. Kermit’s childhood interests were immediate and still exist today as he loved to go fishing and play and watch sports. Although he loved sports at the time he was not exceptionally great at anything yet progressively got better each year.

Certainly, God-given Kermit became, seemingly overnight, one of the better athletes in his school as a sophomore and kept getting better each year until he became a prized dual sport recruit in track and football. Due to the limited resources of his mom Kermit well knew this was the only opportunity available for higher-ed attainment. He ultimately chose Baylor University over LSU and experienced a setback due to a mistake of his counselor that forced him to enroll in a Junior College. Kermit did fight his way back to Baylor University and graduated with a degree in Accounting in 1992. He competed in both track and field and football and was named an All-American both his junior and senior years.

He soon learned that Accounting was not his first love and he curiously tried substitute teaching and loved it. He worked over the summer to attain full certification and taught Math for 5 years before moving into administration. After completing his Master’s Degree he knew that there was yet one more degree to attain. He applied for University of Texas at Austin’s prestigious Cooperative Superintendency Program (CSP) and was initially denied yet was conditionally admitted after arranging a meeting with the Dean of the School of Education. Kermit has completed all his course work in the program and finished with a 3.95 GPA.

Kermit is currently serving as the superintendent of Clarksville ISD for the 2nd year.

Step # 2: Choose and answer any 8-10 of the questions below and answer in much detail as possible.

1. Why did you decide to create your own business? I must say that I am a little caught off-guard with that question as I have never considered school a business but I guess in many respects it is. My first thought is that there is some degree of validity to this statement with the number of vendors who crave your time and attention as a superintendent of a school district.  Nonetheless I did not choose to be a superintendent years ago when I got into this profession. I simply wanted to be a good teacher and a coach that could effectively make a difference with the youth who were consistently struggling in my city. I started out as a math teacher but well knew my impact on kids should move beyond the walls of a single classroom so I pursued becoming a principal. Secondarily I felt that a few of the assistant principals and principals that I worked under missed opportunities to build a stronger platform for teachers to successfully teach students from poor families. Most of those schools lacked appropriate over-arching systems that we all know students from adverse environments need. That same thought existed in my pursuit of the superintedency as well. I have learned that the larger the role you play in this profession, the greater impact you are able to have with kids.

2. What do you love most about the industry you are in?

This is a question that really is on my mind today as I am fresh off of attending a parent night at one of the schools in my district where the activity was for parents to learn how to read a book to our young elementary students. The reader demonstrated this really well to our kids and for that reason the kids’ reactions had a profound impact on me and it was just so much fun to watch. I realized that not many people get to do this in life and that my role is awfully significant and special. I love most the impact that this job has on this world’s next generation and the significance and relevance that this fact represents. For sure, not everyone can walk into an adverse environment and thrive. I constantly focus on positively altering the life trajectories of young adults.

3. What does a typical day consist of for you?

My day starts with me typically meeting with my administrative assistant to review my calendar/agenda for the day and ensuring, from her, that I have all the critical things covered for the approaching day. A typical day will always consist of me visiting with some or several campus leaders and hoping to see a teacher or two be at their best. I have always considered visibility in the campuses and at community level a significant part of my job. It helps me access and understand the needs at the most important level—the teachers. If the teachers are in the trenches than I need to be right there alongside them. As one of my Baylor University football coaches once said to me, “I am not capable of coaching you from the press box”.

4. What keeps you motivated?

Winning. I know that may seem a little too simplistic for some but the accountability in schools now has made this about winning and losing. Modern-day accountability provides me with an easy way to determine my level of success and serves as my compass in leading me to areas where missed opportunities of improvement exist.

5. How do you motivate others?

I motivate others by treating individuals the way that I would want to be treated, valuing their thoughts and opinions and giving all impacted a voice, and leading by example. I once worked in an organization where this was not so. My boss and the boss above that boss consistently reminded you of the pecking order and treated you that way. It was a good lesson to learn of what not to do once I got to a certain level. Needless to say that particular organization has massive turnover from year to year.  As I leader I am interested in establishing partnerships with all the individuals I lead. A good leader should have all of those traits in his/her repertoire.  

6. How has your company grown from its early days to now?

 Texas has started evaluating schools by reducing its accountability rating and primary public perception of a school to a single letter grade. I am not too sure how I feel about this as I think it is so very unfair to reduce all the good traits of a school or school district to a single letter grade yet I recognize the value of this being a simplistic way to provide parents with needed information about their local school system. The school district that I inherited was rated as a 67 or a D district when I started here. In just one short year we are 1-point shy of a B with a healthy 79. We are not patting ourselves on the back just yet because we still have 21 points to find for a 100.  We had only two career pathways when I landed here of which neither was leading to a program certification. We have created 6 now and all of them lead to a career pathway for our kids. Last, we have increased the flow of revenue in my district by passing a tax rate increase with an astonishing 85% passing rate. Our plan is to provide more academic support for our kids by adding specialized people to support teachers and students.

7. Where do you get your inspiration from?

I have children and my inspiration primarily comes from and for them. I feel that it is very important to set a good example and create a standard for them to follow. For the kids I serve in my district, these are the very kids that I need to feel that I have done a good job turning this world over to once I hang my cleats up.

8. Who has been a role model to you and why?

The first person that comes to my mind is my mom due to the level of hard love and attention she gave me, the purity of her thoughts and deeds for others and the degree of sacrifice that she frequently made exclusively for me is something I think about in some way everyday. The person she was is really hard to match. I can think of 2 teachers who had a profound impact on my life as well. I don’t necessarily recall them being super great at being a teacher but what they were outstanding at was quite simply caring. They both approached me as if I were the only kid in the school or that my life outcome really mattered to them. I feel that any teacher, administrator, custodian, etc can give a student that. I was elated to return to my high school last spring and be the guest speaker at the sports banquet. Fortunately for me God has shown much favor to those two teachers and I asked for them to be my guest. My speech was primarily a big celebration and thank you to them.

9. How do you maintain a solid work life balance?

I really have to laugh at this question due to the fact that I have often been told that I don’t have great balance in my life. I recognize how important my job is and I tend to focus much of my time and attention to it. I do vacation however I am that odd fellow sitting by the pool with a laptop in my lap trying to provide either my staff or the students an edge. I approach my work by believing that my preparation and work is the reason that teachers and students in my district are at an advantage above others. For me, this is achieved by putting in the necessary time.

10. What traits do you possess that makes a successful leader?

I think that I have a high sense of self awareness. I well know what my deficits and my strengths are and will eagerly defer to others when having to lead through an area of one of my weaknesses. One of the more frequent things that I like to say is “I am not trying to be right…..I would rather get it right”.  Further I have always contended that I am a great evaluator of talent and I do a great job of integrating that talent onto a team and giving them the freedom, resources and flexibility to be creative within their area of strength. Simply put, I am not on a quest to be the smartest person in the room!

11. What suggestions do you have for someone starting in your industry?

Here goes that odd statement again. This would depend on the level of which you are working. Keeping it at this level I would say that a good superintendent should have been a great teacher, assistant principal, principal/counselor that has the ability to know and recall what those jobs looked like and felt like and provide resources to help staff overcome those hardships that are associated with each position. This is accomplished by being visible and most important, approachable.

12. What has been the hardest obstacle you’ve overcome?

I will tell you that there were several and I feel it is important to share with you that I would not change one thing regarding what I had to go through as it has shaped my mindset and drive today and allowed me to flex my grit:

  • Having to grow up seemingly fatherless in a large urban housing project and making it out successfully
  • Having to go the junior college route due to an error in judgement of my high school counselor yet being able to make my way back to a major university
  • Always being given the absolute worse schools that no one wants and quickly making them destination schools
  • Being denied initially in the doctoral program and forcing his way in by talking directly to the Dean of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

13. What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?

I don’t listen to music on the radio any longer. I am a talk radio guy now. I heard this on the radio once that “we should not chase a dollar when making a decision on a career job, we should instead focus more on the management characteristics above you”. This is something that I now wholeheartedly embrace. If the leadership, in my case school boards, appear fragmented it is likely not a good fit for me. Impacting a low-performing environment or just maintaining a strong educational environment is hard work and a high-performing board makes the job that much more enjoyable and a bit easier.

14. What is your biggest accomplishment?

My grandest accomplishment is months away and that is being awarded my doctoral degree. Secondarily it would be my acceptance of the superintendent job so soon after finishing the UT program.

15. What’s one piece of advice you would give to others?

I would actively tell others to pay more attention to your critics and their criticism and in fact learn to somehow embrace criticism than the nice things that come from your friends for it is that healthy criticism and our favorable reaction to it that forces growth and change within us.

16. What is the biggest life lesson you have learned?

As you can already see, I have achieved by going the longest and, at times, most difficult road traveled. There were periods of doubt and frustration yet my walk towards the finish line was constant. I always thought about the story associated with the trials and tribulations and referred to them as great pieces to the story that is to be told after the accomplishment. I feel that I am still writing the book for now.

17. Outside of work, what defines you as a person?

I would hope that those who know that side of me would say that I am a great dad, planner and leader. I am that person in my family that people will call and ask for advice frequently and often.

18. What trends in your industry excite you?

I am one of the few that actually love  where accountability has come from and is going and the value and respect that is now given to those who can thrive in the most adverse schools now. Before the accountability era parents had no sense of the quality of education that their kids were getting. I will even double down on that and say that school personnel really did not have a strong sense of that either. Accountability has brought in a strong sense of urgency in schools now that simply did not exist years ago. That high-sense of urgency is embraced and used by me to make immediate positive impact.

19. Where do you see you and your company in 5 years?

I view this process and where I am now as highly relevant and significant in answering that question. If I am able to lead this district to where I think it can be then this district and the community that it serves is a healthy and viable place to live. Is this not ultimately what we all want?

20. Explain the proudest day of your professional life.

My proudest day of my professional life was taking a school that was on the brink of school closure with an assigned TEA monitor and leading it to being named one the state’s best in just two short years with a perfect accountability report. There was strong evidence that we were going to be much better such as: significantly lowered teacher turnover, elevated commitment to PLCs, the creation of an in-school period that effectively addressed the individual academic needs of each kid in that building. I knew that we were going to get better and do it in a hurry but the swiftness and degree of improvement even caught me off guard.

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