On average, seven-year-olds don’t know what a Superintendent of schools is, let alone know his or her name. However, when I was seven-years-old, I knew of John Burke and his name brought a sense appreciation as my parents, both teachers at the time, worked under his leadership.
Thirty-two years later, I ran into John again and instantly recognized a forerunner in education. A colleague of John’s expresses, “I often tell him he’s ruined me to work for others simply because of the culture and environment he creates.”
John is a trailblazer, a listener, encourager, and supporter, and a Level 5 Leader –making him a sage and expert in leadership.
RT: Who is John Burke?
JB: I used to be one of the youngest superintendents as I began at age 33 and now I am one of the oldest at age 65. I love leading my school district and helping others to learn and grow.
RT: What brought you to education?
JB: I am the product of a long line of educators. My father was a high school history teacher/coach. His parents had Ph.D. degrees in social work. I have continuously sought to make a difference in educational settings. Helping people learn and grow continues to motivate me.
RT: How would you describe yourself as a leader?
JB: As far as my description of myself as a leader – two words: catalyst (I empower those around me to be the best they can be) and situational (not every situation calls for the same leadership style).
RT: How do you stay on the cutting edge of leadership?
JB: We spend lots of time with book studies for administrators, board members and all staff. Over the past 14 years we have read Good to Great, First Break All the Rules, Leadership and Self-Deception, The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, The Winners Manual, Above the Line, Help the Helper, Energy Leadership, An INspired Evolution, and Grit. This is just a partial list.
RT: What are some challenges you’ve faced?
JB: Most of the most recent challenge are connected to the lack of adequate funding for public schools in our state. Prior to block grants we were able to increase our revenue by marketing our schools to parents who live outside the district. I am very proud of the fact that we did not layoff a single employee during and after the Great Recession.
RT: What expertise would you share with other leaders?
- When in doubt, build the relationship…and it’s always in doubt.
- Leave nothing to chance.
- That may explain it, but it doesn’t excuse it.
- Learning is not an inoculation.
- Generally speaking it is not a good idea to generalize.
- It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.
- It’s almost like we planned it.
- We lead in an era of collaboration. If you are leading like the Lone Ranger, you are doing it wrong.
- As the leader you don’t need to know everything. It is important to know when to use a lifeline (call a colleague, call an attorney, call DCF, call your superior, check board policy, check the negotiated agreement, etc.)
- Everyone wants to be appreciated. Demonstrate appreciation for everyone.
RT: Who, or what has been your greatest source of inspiration?
JB: My greatest source of inspiration is helping people over-achieve and become more than they dreamed possible whether that be students or employees.
As a first year superintendent I was complaining to my board president because teachers were resisting my efforts to change their behavior. I told him that as the boss I would make them change. He stopped and pulled a thread off the cuff of his shirt. He straightened the thread out on the table in front of me. He asked me to put my finger on the end of the thread nearest me and told me to gently push the thread. He asked me what happened and I said that it bunched up. He then straightened the thread out again and asked me to pull the thread toward me. I did it and he asked me what happened. I said that the thread followed along in alignment. He said to me, “Leadership is not pushing people around, it’s about pulling people along.”
RT: What’s the future for you?
JB: I have a reverse bucket list of musical groups I want to see before THEY die. I have seen quite a few and waited a little too long for some. I do plan to write a book on leadership once I retire. I love what I do and don’t plan on retiring any time soon.
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Some of John’s successes: He’s been married for the past 29 years to his wife, Shari. They have four adult children. He has a bachelor’s degree from DePauw University, a master’s degree from the University of Arizona and a Ph.D. from Kansas State University.
When I asked him what he considered to be his greatest success as a Supt, he said:
JB: This is really a difficult answer for me to narrow to one item. Establishing elementary foreign language programs, service learning programs, student apprenticeship programs, building trades program, a student-run movie theater, a student-run teen center; creating leadership academies for aspiring administrators, teacher-leaders, classified staff, athletic coaches, math teachers, and a behavior academy, starting an International Baccalaureate program, having two schools in my district recognized as National Blue Ribbon Schools, having teachers recognized as Horizon Award winners and in the Kansas Teacher of the Year Program, having four schools recognized as Capturing Kids Hearts model schools, and passing three bond issues.