What’s more important than accountability? Join Dr. Janet Pilcher as she interviews Superintendent Bradley Roberson from the Oxford School District, who emphasizes the importance of focusing on daily actions that truly make a difference. Listen as he highlights the significance of creating a workplace culture that celebrates innovation, recognizes small wins, and promotes trust.

This episode addresses questions such as:

  • What does it mean to shift from a lens of accountability to a lens of continuous improvement?
  • How does focusing on actions rather than just goals help in achieving better outcomes?
  • What are some ways building administrators use rounding to identify and solve school-wide problems?

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Episode Transcript

Bradley Roberson: Use the strengths of your people. Be user-centered in the work. They are the closest to the work, and they have the best ideas in how to solve the problems that we’re all facing.

[Intro music plays in background]


Janet Pilcher: Hello everyone. Welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning in this week as we continue our conversation about the great work in the Oxford School District in Mississippi.

On last week’s episode, you heard from Principal Patches Calhoun and teacher Ms. LaTonya Smith from the Oxford School District. If you missed that conversation, please check out the link in our show resources. You don’t want to miss that one.

Today we’ll build on that interview because we’ve invited their superintendent, who they referred to, Bradley Roberson. We’ve invited him back to our show to hear more about what it takes to create great schools with great leaders.

Bradley’s been superintendent of Oxford School District since 2021, and 22 of his 24 years in education have been spent there. He’s a strong believer in continuous improvement and has partnered with Studer Education for the last three years to bring that improvement mindset to his district.

He’s won several awards and presented at multiple conferences, but if you ask him what the greatest asset in his district is, he’ll say it’s his people. It’s the people of Oxford School District. That seems to be a recurring theme in Oxford, and I can’t wait to hear more. So let’s jump right in.


Janet Pilcher: It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Bradley Roberson to our show today. It’s so great to have you with us.

Bradley Roberson: So glad to be here, Janet. Thanks for the invite.

Janet Pilcher: Absolutely. So let’s start. Let’s go back in time just a bit, Bradley. You started as a new superintendent three years ago, and your goal was to really shift from the concept of accountability to continuous improvement and look at it from that lens.

Can you talk about where you are now, three years out, what it means to you, what you’ve achieved, and how do you know where you’ve achieved and where you are?

Bradley Roberson: You know, Janet, that was a major shift in our mindset in the Oxford School District. You know, we, like most systems, are really conditioned to think about accountability constantly. You know, but again, the mindset that’s only focused on accountability, as we’ve seen, creates this undue stress on a lot of people inside of the organization, none more than our classroom teachers. And when you really think about that idea of accountability, it really can hinder improvement.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Bradley Roberson: And that’s kind of what we were seeing inside of the Oxford School District. We were really stagnant in our results because we were so focused on this idea of accountability, and it was hindering our ways of getting better inside of our schools.

So we had to condition ourselves to really just start thinking differently about that. We set goals just like every other school district across the state and country, but we really don’t focus on those goals. And that sounds counterintuitive, but we set the goals, but we really, the mind shift was really beginning to focus on our actions that would help us achieve those goals. So I think that really is the understated difference and really focused on accountability versus improvement.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Bradley Roberson: We had to get to a place where we were focusing on the actions that were going to make the difference for us as an organization and then celebrate those actions. You know, we get so caught up in these goals for accountability that we forget to celebrate those small wins that we have every day that help get to those results.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. You know, I find myself saying, Bradley, as we just do our work and look at the improvement aspect of the work and the execution of the actions and looking at how we assess ourselves and our progress and make those adjustments. You know, what I tend to find myself saying is that accountability takes, it takes care of itself if you do that, right? I mean, I think that’s exactly what you’re saying. You’re not focusing on that. It’s going to happen.

We’re going to be accountable and we’re not shying away from accountability, but we’re not letting it dictate us. We’re not letting it drive us every day. We’re basically looking at how we can be the best that we can be and making those adjustments, looking at evidence that helps us do that.

Bradley Roberson: That is exactly it, Janet. You know, it kind of makes me think about James Clear in the Atomic Habits book, that I’m sure that you’ve read. It’s one of my favorite quotes that an organization doesn’t rise to the level of its goals. It falls to the level of its systems. So we’ve really shifted this idea of improving our systems instead of focusing on the goals. And as you said, it will take care of itself.

And I’ll tell you, one of the great outcomes that we’ve gotten from that is our staff is so much more engaged in the work.

Janet Pilcher: Yes.

Bradley Roberson: Now that we’re focusing daily on our actions and our systems instead of those goals that we won’t know the outcome of those goals until, you know, 12 months later.

Janet Pilcher: Absolutely. And it was so evident in the episode that we did with the principal at Della Davidson and a teacher, Patches Calhoun as the principal, LaTonya Smith as the second grade teacher. It was so natural and evident in terms of the conversation that they were focused on how they could be the best that they could. And what I loved about what they said, especially Ms. Smith, is, you know, I even go beyond what I think is possible and what I can do. Right. I’m like, you know, “Ms. Calhoun, you know, pushes me even more.”

And so they were talking about how it connects not only with what they do, but how what they do connects to helping the district. And just a natural part of that conversation that, you know, so you have to be so proud because that’s evidence of what you’re just talking about taking shape.

So, you know, let’s talk about, you know them, you know, so well and you have to feel lucky to have people in your district and leaders and teachers in your district. You know, so what are you and the executive leadership doing in particular that’s making them feel connected to their work?

Bradley Roberson: Yeah. Great question, Janet. You know, I think a lot of times we often overthink the ways that we celebrate our people or we make them feel valued. We used to have these extravagant celebrations once a year when we were recognized as an A district and things like that. And I’m not saying those things are bad. But if those are isolated events to make your, in an attempt to celebrate or to make your people feel valued, sometimes I think that can be counterproductive.

And what we’ve seen since we’ve started this work with you all at Studer is it’s really those small ways of celebrating our people and making them feel valued that really make a sustainable difference. For example, the idea of rounding, making sure that all your staff members are heard and listened to. That’s where we’ve seen significant growth in making our people feel more connected to their work and also more value. And I just alluded to it a few seconds ago. Celebrating those small wins.

Janet Pilcher: Yes.

Bradley Roberson: You know, one of those things like you mentioned patches and Della Davidson. I remember one of the change ideas they implemented in third grade this last year in third grade math was number talks because they felt like number talks would have a significant impact on helping them achieve their long-term goal of third grade math proficiency. So they were constantly celebrating the idea of 100% of students participated in number talks today. Right?

That was the focus. Not that 100% of the kids were proficient, but 100% of the kids are participating in number talks today. And it gives them something excited to go home that they can hang their hat on and say the day was a great day. That’s just been really impactful for us. It’s really, I don’t know, Janet, it sounds so insignificant, but it’s this idea of really just taking the work day by day, minute by minute, not getting ahead of ourselves and sharing and celebrating one another.

Janet Pilcher: Absolutely. And the, you know, and the significance is real because the interview and the episode with Patches and LaTonya Smith, I mean, just I was blown away because I’m like, “oh my gosh, this is really what the work is all about” because they’re just deeply connected to what they’re doing and helping students each and every day. Like you talked about just one step at a time in terms of looking at what we’re going to achieve and move forward.

You know, Bradley, I’m interested. So they have really owned, and I’m sure they’re not the only school that you have. Others have as well. And you know, owned that looking at the evidence, having conversations about it, one goal at a time, as you’ve been talking about, I mean, how did you get that to scale? I mean, what did you, what did you all do to get that in motion?

Bradley Roberson: Yeah. And look, being completely transparent, that was a very difficult part of our work. And really, Janet, it’s because of all of these of the ways that we’ve been conditioned in the past. Right?

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

So I think step one, you know, and I’ve, I think I’ve shared this definition about improvement with you before is improvement starts with facing the hard facts, right? But then it also has to be followed by trust and then discipline. The middle part of that improvement equation, trust, was huge. I had to convince them that they could trust me in taking the eyes off of the goals, right? And trust me in improving the process. And then it was okay if we did not see immediate success or if it was okay if we took missteps along the way. Because again, accountability has conditioned us, if this doesn’t go right the first time, then I failed.

And that is completely opposite of what we know as an improvement mindset. So building trust with each of our administrators, each of our building administrators, principals, assistant principals, all the way down to our teachers and our classrooms was critical.

And then again, how did we go about that? It was making sure that we were very intentional about rounding with our employees, not just about outcomes, but with them as people so that they could know that we trusted them in leading and doing the work.

So if you’re asking me, one place to start with doing this work is trust. You have to have an organization that is at a place to improve, and creating that culture is critical first.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. And that doesn’t, that’s work, too. I mean, I love what you’re saying right now because it’s like people say, “oh, we yet build the trust.” Well, there’s a whole lot of hard work and a lot of lifting and intentional actions that we take to build that trust. It’s not the fairy dust that kind of sprinkles down to say, “oh, tomorrow we’re going to go in, we’re going to trust each other.”

So I think let’s talk a little bit about rounding. I know there are two things that you really focused on more than that, but I’m going to focus on two of those. One is rounding and the impact that rounding has had and just maybe some examples that you can provide.

And then then we’ll go to your interest in developing leaders. So let’s start with rounding. You know, talk a little bit about some examples of how that’s played out for you all.

Bradley Roberson: There are numerous examples across our district where rounding has impacted our systems as a whole. You know, you got some things like at OIS, they’ve been able to implement and change the different duty schedules around their building to keep students safe and secure, develop different ways to recognize positive behaviors to students that maybe we weren’t doing well early on in our system. We have improved our grading processes at Della Davidson Elementary.

I don’t know if Patches shared that with you, but this idea of teachers are having a hard time in our standards-based learning practices of a standard that was really, they had all year long to develop the standard is how we track that progression of the standard throughout the year. Teachers are having a difficult time doing that, and that came out in a rounding meeting. It was a theme in having conversations, rounding conversations with different teachers and now we have a system in place to do that.

You know, and again, we’ve improved our PLC process. We’ve tweaked our communication plans based on different rounding outcomes all throughout our system, you know, and being able to pick out these things are things would never—

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Bradley Roberson: Would have never come to light had we not ben intentional about having these rounding conversations. And I know some think well, “why would that not come out right?”

Janet Pilcher: [laughs]

Bradley Roberson: Why would staff members not just say these things? I wish I had an answer to that. I’m just telling you from being in education for 24 years it does not happen that way.

Janet Pilcher: No.

Bradley Roberson: So that intentionality has been critical for us in improving.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and you know what I hear you say, Bradley, too, is you know rounding, it builds the relationships. and you’re really rounding on, when you create an action, you’re really rounding to determine how that action is working and getting that intel and just feeding that intel probably into your leadership team and making those adjustments or learning or trying to learn more. Like okay, this is something that we didn’t know, let’s figure out how, how we learn more about that.

It’s almost to me you know, that’s, that’s when rounding really gets legs. That’s why it has legs, I think in, in your district, Bradley, because you want to do it because you want to know, right? You’re not doing it because it’s, I always say when we do rounding out of compliance, we might start with compliance just to get it going, but if we keep in the compliance mode, then it’s not, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. You’re rounding because you’re like, “I want to round because I want to know because knowing is going to help me do something different that’s going to help us be the best we can or get better.”

Bradley Roberson: You know, what’s interesting, Janet, we’ve seen this rounding evolve Bramlett Elementary School. They now have a, what they call a rounding suggestion box.

Janet Pilcher: [laughs] I love it.

Bradley Roberson: You know, we’ve heard of suggestion boxes, but it’s really about how you gather the data. What you’re gathering and what you do with it, so it is a link that Ms. Presley at Bramlett Elementary School has created that goes out weekly in her staff memo. I think she calls it charger chat. And it is an opportunity, and it’s just a Google form, that she’s created for staff members to share what’s working well, what are the barriers that you’re facing, who would you like to recognize, you know, those rounding questions.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, yeah.

Bradley Roberson: And she gets that feedback weekly when people just submit something

Janet Pilcher: Oh my gosh.

Bradley Roberson: And then she turns that right around and creates a stoplight report of themes that she’s hearing and then sends that back out to the staff, “hey I got this rounding suggestion. Here’s what we’re gonna do about it, implement, so on and so forth.” And it’s really helped create a culture of continuous improvement because nothing is ever stagnant, right?

Janet Pilcher: Right

Bradley Roberson: When you’re, when you’re really rounding inside of your organization, there is no stag, that’s not stagnant, there is no status quo it’s like this idea of literally getting better all of the time

Janet Pilcher: Yeah

Bradley Roberson: But her staff has really appreciated the opportunity to do that

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s, what a great example and the creativity that comes in. But that’s another example of “I want to know the information, so I’m gonna figure out a way where I can continuously gather that information,” and I love what you said, too, what’s important is she does something with it in the stoplight report that just doesn’t go to her, but people can transparently see the actions that occur from the information that they’re providing.

So let’s talk as we close today you know, I know that you’ve spent a lot of time and focus on, and it’s an emphasis of yours in developing leaders to develop people, right, and really focusing on the people, and I’ve heard people say, Bradley, you know, that’s one of you know your biggest assets in terms of the type of leader that you, that you are. Can you talk about a leader who, you know, invested that, invested in or lesson that you learned from them, you know, somebody that comes to mind in terms of a story about how this has played out for you.

Bradley Roberson: Now Janet this was an easy one for me.

Janet Pilcher: [laughs]

Bradley Roberson: Brian Harvey who is actually the superintendent before I took the job would be the person that really stands out in my mind. You know when I became an educator in 2000, Brian was the head baseball coach at Oxford High School which is where I started my career at Oxford High School. He knew I wanted to coach, so he took me under his wing, he invited me to be a volunteer coach, and really, Janet, the rest is history.

He moved up into administration. I followed in administration. He hired me to be the high school principal at Oxford High School when he became the superintendent of Oxford High School or Oxford School District, he hired me to be his Assistant Superintendent and Director of Curriculum. And then when he retired from the Superintendent of Oxford School District, I became the Superintendent. And through that 20, at the time I guess it was 21 years, that we were together, I learned an incredible, incredible amount from him, and I’ll just give you three really quickly that’s helped, that’s really helped me throughout my time and most specifically as a Superintendent.

One is to stay true to who you are. Man, that sounds so simple, but as you move up the hierarchy of leadership it becomes so much more complicated and difficult to do, but what he taught me was if you’re not true to yourself. the organization will recognize it, and the organization will not be true to its values either.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Bradley Roberson: And that really starts with the person at the top of the organization so that’s, that’s important thing number one that he taught me. The second one, I love this one, is use a soft brick. We actually have a brick that has been a part of the Superintendent’s office for I don’t know how many superintendents now, and this brick is covered in velvet cloth.

Janet Pilcher: Oh my gosh.

Bradley Roberson: And it’s a reminder to us as those that are leaders that we do have to have difficult conversations but to remind us that our people are most important, that even when we have the difficult conversation, it, we need to use a soft brick, right? There’s no mean, there’s no reason to humiliate people. There’s no reason to disregard their feelings or anything like that when you’re being a leader, that even in the difficult times you can use a soft brick when you have conversations with your people.

And then the last one, and this has really been most important to me as a Superintendent, Janet, I’ll tell you. Again I was in the Oxford School District for 22 out of my 24 years in education. I thought when I got this Superintendent’s position three years ago that I would know what I was doing.

Janet Pilcher: [laughs]

Bradley Roberson: Because I’d been here for so long, and that was just not true, Janet. [laughs] The position is different regardless of how long you’ve been in the system. I worked really, really hard those first couple of years, but I would not say that I did just a great job of being a Superintendent.

One piece of advice that gave me that I’m really beginning to grasp now is this idea of asking questions. He said it’s one of your top responsibilities as the leader of the organization is to ask questions, the really good questions, and the really hard questions of your people. He said because if you as a leader are not, or find yourself not inquisitive about the work, those inside of your organization will not be inquisitive about the work, either. And if people inside of your system stop asking questions that you should be fearful that status quo has set in

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Bradley Roberson: Oh man that has been so powerful for me as a leader, and I challenge not just myself but all of the leaders, all of our teachers, our staff members, our parents, let’s ask questions of one another to make sure that we are providing the best opportunity for our kids that we can.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, what great advice. I mean what, in those, that, you can tell those three pieces of advice stick with you, like, day in and day out. What a great leader and somebody that you could, could learn from. We all have those individuals in our lives, but you know, as I think about what you’re, what you’re saying, too, in that last piece, you know, Bradley, as, in that executive leadership role, you know, I’m speaking for myself here.

You, and when you get experience, you think you have it, and you’re like, “oh you know, I have it, right, I have it, I have it,” and then there’s something that comes in that really kind of throws it into a whole different direction and then you’re in that place sometimes and you think, “I should know how to do this. I should know how to handle this. I should know how to work in a way that gets us through this,” and you know you will as a leader, but the last piece of advice is, I think, so critical, and I’m gonna just take that to heart as well, is just remember one way to get through that is to ask questions, to be curious, to understand, to dig deeper, right, instead of having, I don’t know, I think in education we’re always wanting to think that we have to provide the solution right now because people want that, but they, they don’t, they’re really forgiving in terms of us they don’t really want the solution right now. They just want to know that we’re moving forward in a way that we’re gonna find the right solution

Bradley Roberson: Right.

Janet Pilcher: What great advice. Anyway that just kind of triggered in my mind is we’re not, we’ve never arrived right, as a leader? There’s always something that’s gonna pull and pull and tug on us and help us navigate in different directions. But that last piece of advice of asking questions, staying curious, being inquisitive, always wanting to know more is really, really significant.

So as we leave today, you know, from your perspective as a Superintendent, you’ve received that advice, but as we leave today, you know, you think about where you are in your leadership, and you were talking to a colleague and providing some advice to them on what does it really take to build trust in an organization to focus on improvement and to move to the next level, you know, what would you tell them?

Bradley Roberson: Oh, it’s a great question, and Janet, again, being vulnerable, I wasn’t very good at what I’m about to say. When I first became the superintendent, and honestly going through the strategic planning process and getting the feedback from the focus groups and things has really opened my eyes to this, is being problem focused and user centered.

Problem focused, we’re pretty good at doing a lot of times, but user centered as a type A leader, right, that has moved up in the organization, we all tend to think we have the best solutions and the best answers to all the problems that we face, and we try to solve the problems for our people instead of allowing them to be a part of the solution. So this idea, any young leader, use the strengths of your people. Be user centered in the work. They are the closest to the work, and they have the best ideas in how to solve the problems that we’re all facing

Don’t be the guy that wants to, don’t be the superhero, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. Don’t be the superhero. Be user centered and use the strengths of your people. They have superpowers.

Janet Pilcher: Yes they do, and such great advice, and you, again, should feel very proud because what you’re doing in terms of your leadership today is evidence by Patches Calhoun and LaTonya Smith. Yeah, I know you couldn’t be more proud. One of the best conversations I’ve had, and I just really, really appreciate the work that you all are doing in Oxford, Bradley, and the leadership that you’re providing to your district and to your community. Thank you very much.

Bradley Roberson: Janet, y’all. It’s been great to see the progress that we’ve made, but again, we wouldn’t be here without you guys at Studer Education as well. You know, we’ve been partners ever since I became Superintendent, and it’s given us a new renewed focus to the work and helping us shift this idea from accountability to improvement and we’ve seen gains because of the partnership as well, so we’re thankful for Studer, and Janet, thank you for leading.

Janet Pilcher: Thank you.


[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: There are so many great things, as you can see, happening in Oxford. I hope hearing from a principal and teacher last week and Superintendent Bradley Roberson this week inspires you to be intentional as you’re making your plans for the upcoming year.

You can see the great work that Bradley has been doing in his district as he talks about first to build the trust and then to really think in terms of not necessarily accountability but continuous improvement and how we look at goals in a way of knowing what we want to accomplish, but we’re looking at our actions and working to see how we’re doing with those actions with the evidence that comes forward. And asking ourselves what’s working, what’s not working, and how do we build those conversations throughout our school district?

And you could see in the conversation last week with Patches and LaTonya that they recognize that in their school and also connected the conversations that they had in their school to their district. That’s a phenomenal thing that’s going on. That’s the way that we hardwire that alignment and really begin to build great leaders that help our school districts become some of the best in the country.

On the next episode, you’re gonna hear from Dr. Chris Hartley from the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence. He’s had great experience throughout his career and really works across the state in California to help really build leadership and the essentials of what leaders need in order to connect with their teams just as we heard today. You’ll enjoy hearing from Dr. Hartley. I always enjoy the depth of the conversations that we have, so please make sure you’re connecting with us next week.

And we always thank you for tuning into this episode and any episode of Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on our Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week, everyone.

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If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

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