Michael Thomas wants to roll up his sleeves and focus on the students.

Not content with a view from the top, the new superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11 sets aside every Monday to get out into classrooms, learning what students, teachers and schools really need.

Thomas took the reins at the city’s oldest and largest school district in August, after serving as chief of schools for Minneapolis Public Schools. 

He has been a social worker, elementary and junior high principal, and coordinator of equity and integration efforts for Osseo School District. He recently completed his doctoral work at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and now he’s laying the foundations for how D-11 will meet the needs of students, their families, the workforce and the community in the years to come. 

How has your leadership style evolved?

Well, I’ve matured. I’ve always been a very spirited, passionate individual that didn’t want to wait. I always have a sense of urgency for things I deeply care about. And I learned earlier in my career — particularly when I was leading a lot of racial equity work in a state — that my readiness was not always the same as others’, and/or my urgency wasn’t always the same as others’. That’s probably one significant change in my style over the years is I’ve learned to create urgency without panic. 

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And I think an effective leader can do that in a way that inspires people to want to address whatever that urgent matter is. So that’s something that I’ve noticed that has changed, and those around me have noticed — that I can slow it down a bit. 

I think also I’ve learned to find opportunities to get back to the ground more frequently. Who I am as a person and as a leader tends to be very big-picture vision and I live in the clouds, so to speak — which is important. But I also need to get pulled in: This detail here, Michael, you need to spend a little time with. … 

It matters to me that what I’m doing actually is adding value to our staff, to our students, to our kids. 

So when I’m in schools, my sleeves are rolled up, I’m sitting reading with a student, I’m learning math online, Smarty Ants Phonics program, whatever it might be, I’m there. 

This is exactly why I need to be in the schools, because when we’re talking about budget or we’re talking about strategy, I don’t have to read it in a report, I don’t have to hear it second hand. I can say, ‘I lived it, I saw it, I experienced it — we need to do something.’

You’ve had a little time to settle in to D-11. How are things going?

The transition has been amazing and I couldn’t ask to be in a better place at a better time. I think the history and legacy of Colorado Springs District 11 has such a strong foundation and strong support from the alumni to really support the district, so I’ve got a good base to build on. I think we have opportunities to really lead from a space of equity, in a more deliberate way, so that’s something that I see moving forward, how we can be very intentional to give students what they need and reduce barriers to their learning. I think it goes the same for staff — our commitment and investment in developing high quality staff in our schools is something that we need to have a stronger focus on. 

What’s the best advice you can give young educators?

Never forget the ‘why’ that drives your ‘what.’ Your ‘why’ is your purpose. You don’t go into education to make a name for yourself and to become wealthy. That’s not what drives educators. 

So that’s what I would encourage our up-and-coming educators and leaders in education to do: Don’t lose that focus; be student centric. 

What do you love best about your work?

I get to be a learner — I get to be the lead learner of an organization. Every single day I go home just amazed about what I observed and what I experienced in the district. 

And I think my reflective nature allows me to really process that at night and then internalize those experiences, and those really inform my leadership moving forward. I think that’s a skill every great leader needs to have, is to be reflective. 

I think that helps you stay humble and grounded as well. I am a learner just as much as I am a leader. … Education is a people-oriented business. 

It’s very important to value the relationships within the organization. Our work is carried through relationships so for me it’s front and center, in a large district like D-11, to ensure that people don’t feel lost, that they feel connected, that they’re part of the D-11 family, and when things get tough you can lean in. You’re not pushed out; you actually can lean in — but that only comes when you have good healthy relationships.

Join the Colorado Springs Business Journal, iHeartRadio, UCCS and Amnet for the 2019 COS CEO Leadership Lessons with Michael Thomas, 4:30-6:30 p.m., Nov. 14, at The Warehouse, 25 W. Cimarron St. A portion of the proceeds go to the 2019 Give! Campaign. Sponsors also include the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC and Stockman Kast Ryan + Co.

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