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2015 National Superintendent of the Year teaches for a day. Here’s what he learned.

Philip D. Lanoue is the superintendent of the 13,000-student Clarke County School District in Georgia, the most impoverished county in the state — and he is the 2015 American Association of School Administrators National Superintendent of the Year. As Clarke superintendent since 2009, he is credited with making more gains to close the achievement between economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students than any other district in the state. How did he do it?

In a recent interview, Lanoue said that when he first took the job in Clarke, student performance and public confidence in the system was low — and while there were some good things happening, there was no consistency. He said he created a new structure — not a script — for teachers that includes “non-negotiable practices” for student achievement centering around four questions:

*What do you want kids to know?
*How do you know?
*What do you do when they don’t know?
*Do you know then?

He instituted common planning in every grade level, and the consistent use of student performance data from teacher-created assessments to inform instructions. He also doesn’t subscribe to the idea of teaching things simply because they are on a test. A frequent visitor to classrooms, he remembers being in a math class and coming away with this for the teacher: “Why was it so important that you spend two days teaching covalent bonds? If the answer is it is on the test, that’s the wrong answer. We have to have good reasons for teaching what we do.”

Lanoue said he is a firm believer in the principle that “if you come to our schools, we can get it done,” but he knows that kids who aren’t healthy or who are hungry can’t learn. In Clarke County public schools, 82 percent of students are low-income, up to 25 percent transient and nearly 300 are in foster care. Lanoue worked with various organizations to help feed students — not only in school but at home — and to provide mentors for students. “We really try to maximize resources,” he said. “Is it enough? No. But we keep working at it.”

“You can’t solve social inequities on a test,” he said, speaking about the standardized test-based reform efforts that have taken root around the country. “It’s ludicrious.”

He also instituted the International Baccalaureate program in the county and helped revitalize something called the Athens Community Career Academy, which is a partnership between the Clarke district, the University of Georgia, Athens Technical College and the OneAthens community group, which allows high school students to take college classes for free. Another initiative sends University of Georgia professors into the district to help with teaching and evaluation.

Georgia adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010 — though in February the name was changed to the Georgia Standards of Excellence. Lanoue said the standards have been useful in Clarke County, but he is concerned with how the Core-aligned standardized tests are used. In Georgia, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student test scores. He said these tests “should inform teachers and students” rather than be used as evaluation tools for teachers.

Lanoue has a broad range of experience as a teacher and administrator  that includes time in rural, suburban and urban schools. He was a science teacher for years and then principal for 18 years in four high schools in Massachusetts (including Weston High when it was ranked the leading high school in the state) and Vermont, his home state.

Lanoue recently spent a day as a teacher and related the lessons he learned in a piece for the Athens Banner-Herald. Teachers in Clarke schools who had perfect or near-perfect attendance,  depending on the school, were given off the Friday before the end of the school year, and Lanoue, along with district staff, served as substitute teachers.

The superintendent taught seventh-grade life science as a substitute at Hilsman Middle School in Athens, but quickly found himself teaching a lesson out of his “comfort zone,” — on contrasting text and video interpretations of Theseus and the Minotaur using a concept map, which was related to the school’s Field Day. He also realized that keeping the attention of the kids, who had only a few days left before summer break, was going to be a feat.

He had planned a lesson on osmosis and diffusion using a gaming activity that he thought would engage the students — and used it for four periods. His assessment of his substitute experience:

I made it through the day, exhausted, and having developed an even deeper understanding and appreciation for our teachers. I tried to make my teaching interesting, interactive and relevant, but I could see that there was something that only the regular classroom teacher could offer: the foundation of strong relationships.

Teachers connect with students in many ways and are so familiar with their strengths and areas of growth. They know the struggles they are facing, what gets them excited and how to say just what a student needs to hear — and when they need to hear it. They know when to push and when to hold back. Knowing that our students walk into our classrooms and are met by such caring individuals is everything — our teachers go the distance to ensure that students receive what they need — academically, social/emotionally and more.