Today we’d like to introduce you to Jill Siler.
Jill, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in upstate New York and was awarded a swimming scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. I planned to begin graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin but prior to making my way to the Lone Star State, I worked a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) swimming camp and absolutely fell in love with teaching and coaching young people. I still made my way to Texas for grad school but within my first year, I knew that I was being called to the incredible field of teaching.
I taught high school freshmen for six years and coached swimming and loved it! I loved the relationships that I could build with my students and how I could support, encourage and challenge them not only in the curriculum but also in life. I loved that I was the leader in my classroom and could teach in any way I wanted – from scavenger hunts to debates to deep conversations about some of our world’s greatest problems. I loved that I could inspire kids to think bigger about their own futures than they thought possible. At the same time, I felt that moving into leadership could broaden my impact on the entire school community. I have served the last 17 years as a campus administrator, central office leader and currently as the Superintendent of Gunter ISD.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
As I think about my journey, I’m so thankful for every step, including my childhood years. Neither my mom or dad had the opportunity to go to college yet they were extremely talented and successful in their own ways – my mom in the field of graphic design (and in raising two awesome kids) and my dad who started on the assembly line and worked all the way up to CEO for several corporations. My mom’s impact on me was in the heart and can be seen, especially in how I interact with people. I learned from her to make sure that people feel valued and ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. My dad taught me how to take an extremely complex issue and clearly paint a picture of how to get to point A to point B.
As I came into this superintendent role in Gunter ISD, those two gifts were instrumental. The district was facing multiple financial challenges – from declining property values to decreasing enrollment to reductions in state funding. With only a nominal fund balance, when the neighboring school district decided to open a High School, for which we had been the receiving school district of their students, what ended up as a tremendous asset for that community turned into financial devastation for us.
I think every superintendent dreams about what their first Convocation will be like – welcoming their teachers and staff in August to kick off the new school year. My first Convocation included introducing myself to the district and sharing my hopes and dreams for the district and then sharing that we were facing a devastating financial crisis. Leadership isn’t just about “what” you do… Quite honestly, anyone could have figured out and fixed the financial issues we were having. Leadership is about “how” and “why” you do things and this was an opportunity to lead in a way that valued people, ensured everyone’s voice was heard and clearly painted a picture of where we were and how we were going to get to the other side.
Those first few years were difficult as we not only had to make difficult decisions but then learn how to live with those decisions (with new staffing structures, limited resources, etc.). But I am so proud that we not only survived those years, but that our students and staff THRIVED! The true testament to success is not just how we do on our best days; it is how we do in our worst.
Gunter ISD – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Gunter ISD is a small school district about 25 minutes north of Frisco. We are only 1,000 students right now but given the unprecedented growth of Frisco, Prosper and Celina, we will become a fast-growth school district in the next couple of years. We are known for being exceptional! From our Elementary Campus being named a 2017 National Blue Ribbon School to winning the State Championship in football in 2016 to winning the National Championship in FFA in 2018, our students exceed every expectation placed upon them. Our programs are constantly competing at the state level – from incredible fine arts programs in choir, band, and art; to unbelievable athletic programs in everything from volleyball to swimming to golf; to opportunities for our students to compete in Bass Fishing, Robotics and Academic UIL! We believe that learning goes beyond our state standards and includes things like teaching integrity, critical thinking, and collaboration. We are committed to making GISD the best school district in the state! Most of all, we are known for pouring into to our students in a place where they know us and they are known and loved.
The average tenure of a superintendent in Texas is less than four years. As I begin my 8th year in Gunter ISD, I’m definitely breaking that mold – partly by being relentless in moving our district forward and growing professionally myself. A few years ago, I started teaching as an Adjunct Professor for the University of North Texas and have loved being able to teach and mold aspiring leaders. I also chair the Future-Ready Superintendent Leadership Network through Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), a superintendent-led group that designs their own professional learning for the 60 school districts involved, learning from stellar models in the business world and educators who are creating engaging classrooms, personalizing learning and inspiring curiosity. I have also have had the opportunity to work with our first-year superintendents and am an annual speaker at the Aspiring Superintendent Academy.
This past year I felt the call to step out of my comfort zone a little more and begin to write and speak about leadership. I was able to do my first TedTalk-style talk at a women’s leadership conference and recently was the keynote speaker at a regional superintendent conference. I also started a blog to share my writing with my networks on social media. What sets me apart from others is the heart from which I lead this work and the vulnerability I share with others along the way. This work is hard. But when we are bold; when we choose action in the midst of fear; when we lead anyways – that courage is the birth of greatness!
If you had to start over, what would you have done differently?
As a female superintendent, who started this journey when my kids were 3 and 7, there were, and are, definitely challenges. Balancing being a mom and an executive leader is challenging. I worry about disappointing my kids and/or disappointing my district. But the truth is, if I didn’t care so deeply enough to worry, I wouldn’t be good at either. My greatest hope is that when I get to the end, that I will look back and regret nothing. There are 5.4 million students in Texas Public Schools and I am thankful to be a small part of the incredible things we’re doing for kids!
Shots by Ari (for the TCWSE photo)