The push to succeed: a conversation with Clemson alumna and South Carolina superintendent of the year Joanne Avery
The South Carolina Association of School Administrators recently announced that Joanne Avery, superintendent of Anderson School District 4 and a Clemson University graduate, was selected as the state superintendent of the year. The district is among one of the highest achieving districts in the state, and Avery has played a key role in defining and fulfilling its vision for success.
We got the chance to catch up with Avery recently to talk about her recognition as superintendent of the year, how she feels she’s made the most impact in the role and how a “push” from Clemson years ago prepared her for it.
Michael Staton: What was your response to news of being named superintendent of the year?
Joanne Avery: I was humbled and honored by this award. At a monthly roundtable meeting with other superintendents, I told them that anyone in the room could have received this award as great things are happening in school districts across the state. The award is reflective of the hard work and dedication of the team in Anderson 4; you don’t earn these distinctions on your own, and I have been blessed to work with a very talented, high performing team in Anderson 4.
MS: Tell me about Anderson 4. What are the challenges specific to it and why is it special?
JA: In 2015, our “team” work began with defining our vision of being one team and the leadership principles that would serve to guide all team decisions. These 10 guiding leadership principles are posted in all team meetings spaces and reviewed each year. Team members evaluate our effectiveness in abiding by these principles every June. This important work provides the foundation for our system’s culture and team’s decision-making process. I think this is one of the unique and special aspects of Anderson 4; we value collaboration and believe that thinking, planning, decisions and actions are better when done cooperatively. The team is comprised of teachers, support staff, leadership, board members, parents and students. I truly value the input of people who make up our system.
MS: What do you think you’ve done to have the biggest impact in the role?
JA: I have built a high performing team that truly understands how to work, problem solve and move the system as a team. I believe I have also leveraged the advantages of a small school district by making time daily for being visible in all schools; leading parent, staff and community meetings; participating in field trips with students; attending evening school events and communicating through various channels: social media, personal notes, weekly updates and face-to-face meetings. I think the school shooting at Townville Elementary in 2016 was a real test for me. It was a tragic situation, but I believe that I was able to make as positive an impact as possible during a truly difficult time for our teachers, staff, students, their families, and our community.
MS: How did you approach a situation such as that one that every person in your position dreads?
JA: Since I had never experienced a school shooting before and it was only the second one in South Carolina that resulted in a loss of life, navigating many firsts was extremely challenging. There was so much to do, including handling the media, providing emotional support to students, staff, parents and other schools in the midst of reopening the school. The school board was pleased with how things were handled and cited the district’s ability to calm nerves, take immediate action and develop a plan of action. Now we see it as a learned experience. We have implemented plans to make our schools even safer and continue to build trust within the communities on school safety.
MS: What do you find has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?
JA: I love engaging with students whether it is during class meetings, having lunch together, joining them on field trips or handing them their diplomas on graduation day. I find it important to lead with a personal touch so that students know that my most important work is really about them.
MS: What do you remember most fondly about your time at Clemson?
JA: I enjoyed my time working on my doctorate at Clemson. I got to know the students in my class very well and enjoyed my professors. Many of them were instrumental in the leader I have become. My professors and doctoral committee taught me how to handle failure and work harder for better outcomes. They helped me see that I could accomplish anything, including a role such as the one in which I serve now.
My chair, Dr. Jack Flanigan, encouraged me in 1996 to go ahead and get my endorsement for the superintendency. At the time, I was early on in my educational career and couldn’t even envision this happening. Today, four years into the position, I am grateful for the push I received from Dr. Flanigan and others to go for it and, more importantly, for them planting the seed that I had the skills to be effective in this role.
MS: Do you still make it to games or maintain a connection to the University in other ways?
JA: My husband and I are big supporters of the Tigers! As IPTAY members, we attend football and basketball games regularly with our daughter and her husband who are also Clemson graduates. Professionally, Anderson 4 has a very strong relationship/partnership with the College of Education at Clemson. Their teacher education programs are some of the finest programs around and consistently produce outstanding, highly effective candidates, many of whom are a part of the Anderson 4 team.