Desmond Blackburn, former superintendent of Brevard Public Schools and current CEO of the New Teacher Center, recently joined ERS as a member of the Board of Directors. We talked to Desmond about learnings from his time as a superintendent about the importance of using resources strategically; a new campaign from the New Teacher Center to support schools and districts through this difficult moment; and how he hopes his role on the ERS board will allow for resource transformations in schools. To learn more about Desmond, read his bio and check out the work of the New Teacher Center!
What did you learn about resource use in your years as superintendent? How do those learnings apply to the challenges we're seeing today with COVID?
As far as resources are concerned, what I learned as a superintendent is: there is nothing impactful that you can do in a school or system on behalf of children without adjusting the way resources are allocated, namely, time, talent, and money. I learned that first as a school leader, then as a district leader. What makes those changes so difficult is that, if not managed carefully, any one of them can result in pretty severe social and political backlash. In order to make those necessary adjustments to resources, social and political capital must be tended to, generated, curated, stored, and leveraged wisely.
If you take that political and social support for changes to time, talent, and money and roll it into what we’ve experienced over the past year — changes to the way time is spent in-person versus online or hybrid, changes to what people have to do and the skills needed to do it all — we’ve watched the community at the local, state, and national levels become unhinged. One part because of an economic threat and global pandemic, but also because of those shifts to schooling. I believe that if you take away the pandemic and economic threat, still, an abrupt change to the way children are educated would have provided far more unrest than we could have imagined.
In early March, the New Teacher Center launched The Big Leap, spotlighting transformations in schools for students and educators. Can you tell us more about this campaign? Why did you decide to launch it and what have you seen come out of it so far?
We realized that there was so much uncertainty in our community of educators. We wanted to show up as thought leaders, as conveners of thought, as people who could share resources and insight and create community in education as a service for our sector. No strings attached except to learn, contribute, and apply learnings. And not only with the pandemic and crashing economy but amidst the political divisiveness, the racial reckoning, the violence associated with all of that — we wanted to contribute and give.
Given those conditions and their collective impact on education, we were also feeling like it’s the wrong time to lean on conventional wisdom. We’ve gotten all we’re gonna get from conventional wisdom. Given the moment and the movement that needs to follow the moment, we felt like we needed to provide different pathways and bring together communities of interested parties to help drive a conversation around what can be done significantly better.
We’ve turned that “why” into online convenings, blog postings — really just trying to be a resource to the sector at a pivotal moment. Details, recordings, and content are on our website.
Why did you decide to join the board of directors at ERS?
When I learned of the essential functions of ERS — which I learned about when I was a superintendent — my understanding was that this organization helps school districts significantly alter the way they use those three primary resources. It was a no-brainer to be able to get involved with an organization doing what I feel is the most significant work in school systems.
Now, when I say “the most significant,” you may look at me and say, “Well, wait a minute, Desmond, you’re the CEO of a professional development organization. Don’t you think that’s significant?” It is — but every conversation I have with school systems around the work to develop and support and coach teachers and leaders, barriers always come back to resources. We don’t have the right amount of time, money, allocation or staffing of people. To the extent that my involvement on the board builds my IQ to be able to steer systems in the direction of ERS, to settle and solve some of those resource challenges, it will only create more opportunities for the core work of educating the adults so that they can support and educate their students.
My sincere hope is that I give to ERS as good as I get. That my contributions to the organization in this role from a strategic standpoint, a thought-partnership standpoint, make this relationship one of complete reciprocity.