By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – New Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden is trying to instill a culture of inviting and receiving feedback from the district’s teachers.
Loden, whose term began in June, has started an anonymous online suggestion box to gather comments from staff and has sent various surveys to Tupelo teachers. He’s also continued the existing practice of using a Teacher Advisory Council, which meets regularly to discuss issues from each of the district’s schools and to provide input.
“All schools have curriculums, assessments and about the same amount of instructional time,” Loden said. “We can focus in on these and look for opportunities. However, our greatest focus has to be on our students and employees.”
One of the public criticisms during previous Superintendent Randy Shaver’s administration was that teachers did not feel their advice was valued. Milam Elementary School challenge teacher Elise Otis said Loden has worked hard to earn teachers’ trust.
“I think he truly wants teacher input,” said Otis, who is in her 18th year in the school district and is on the teacher advisory council. “I feel like he thinks there is no way we can do what we need to do unless everyone is on board. He is really eager to have teachers’ input.
“I think as we go along, the teachers will see that, and he is earning their trust.”
Loden acknowledged doing so will be a gradual process.
“The biggest thing with me being new is just setting the tone with the culture and developing relationships,” Loden said. “Being a new superintendent, people figure you out, and you figure people out, and that takes time to build relationships.”
He and his administrative team have made it a priority to make frequent visits to school campuses and to use that time to meet staff and hear their thoughts.
“One thing I don’t know how you can quantify is the amount of time spent being out and listening and trying to learn,” he said.
Meanwhile, the new online suggestion box is designed so employees can not only mention problems, but also recommend solutions. In response to one tip it has already received, the district is working to implement the suggestion boxes at each of its school buildings.
“I like it because I can tell you something is wrong and you might address it, but it might not be the way I’d like for you to do so,” Loden said. “This allows for open dialogue.”
The district sends a weekly newsletter to staff, and Loden also tries to send handwritten cards to various employees recognizing them for work they’ve done. He’s also had breakfasts and lunches with maintenance staff and bus drivers to talk to them and hear their concerns.
“I think he definitely has a very acute understanding of the importance of building relationships to change an organization,” said TPSD Community Liaison Mary Ann Plasencia. “I have no doubt about that. I think he understands how important it is to build trust and relationships. I also think he is pragmatic enough to know he has to be patient.”
The district has also tried to strengthen benefits to its employees, such as providing staff with a membership to North Mississippi Medical Center Wellness Center and transporting teachers’ children back to their parent’s school at the end of the day.
“This year we have placed a major emphasis on offering and providing support and resources to our faculty and staff members that is second to none,” Loden said.