The Primitive Podcast: Dr. Michelle McCord

Posted by The Prim Pack | October 12, 2020


Sometimes the journey ahead isn’t quite as linear as one would hope. 

From licensed professional counselor to the superintendent of Frenship ISD, Dr. Michelle McCord explains when she realized that having a “straightforward” life is closer to the exception than the norm, and how if you want to breed success, you have to surround yourself with a thriving culture.

Hear more from Dr. Michelle McCord in this episode of The Primitive Podcast.


Kade Wilcox (00:00):

Hey guys, Kade here. Host of the primitive podcast. Thanks for tuning in. On today's episode, we have Michelle McCord. She's the superintendent at Frenship ISD. Really glad to have her on the podcast. With the pandemic going on and all the things associated, it's a really challenging time for public schools. And so I'm certain you'll appreciate and enjoy my conversation with Michelle as she talks about leadership and things that she's learned along the way.

Kade Wilcox (00:40):

Michelle, thank you for joining our podcast today. For those who don't know who you are, where you are from and how long you have been at Frenship and tell us about your background.

Michelle McCord (00:49):

Well, first thank you for having me. So Michelle McCord is from a small town outside of Wichita Falls, Texas. Iowa Park. So if you say that under your breath, people think you're saying Highland Park in Dallas. And then when you say, no, Iowa Park. They say, oh. It's not the same, but a great place. And so I've been in Lubbock for 10 years. Came here by way of Allen, Texas, and my husband and I moved out here. His job pretty much if we were near a gas station or an airport we're good. So it gave me the flexibility to come out and work for Frenship. Spent the first five years as an assistant superintendent over administrative services, which is a code for all bad things, all complaints all the time. And then after five years my friend and mentor, the former superintendent, Dr. David Vroonland left to become the superintendent Mesquite ISD. And the board of trustees at Frenship took a chance on this girl from Iowa Park who had never been a superintendent before. And so I've been in the role officially since November of 2015.

Kade Wilcox (02:23):

Okay, cool. That's awesome. So had you always dreamed about being a superintendent? When you thought of your vocation and your career, was that always what you aimed for?

Michelle McCord (02:33):

Is it wrong to say never? Never thought about being a superintendent. I did not aspire to the superintendency. In fact, education is a second career for me. I am a licensed professional counselor and my license is inactive right now because I have a full time gig going on right now. And the continuing education hours are totally different. In my role as a counselor in private practice because I was new to the place where I was working and I wasn't part of very many of the insurance panels, which were hard to become providers on. So most of my clients were women living in poverty or child protective services where children had been removed from the home. I was the counselor of the parents. And what I discovered is that many of these women were repeating the cycle of poverty and abuse to their children.

Michelle McCord (03:52):

Maybe the abuse didn't happen at their own hand, but they were involving themselves in unhealthy relationships. And a family member or a boyfriend was abusing the children. And I don't know how I got to be in my early thirties and not realize that my upbringing was not the norm. I was raised by godly parents and two older sisters. Had to throw the two older sisters in there. And all of my life, all they ever did is support and encourage me and tell me that with hard work, you can become whatever you want to be. And I don't know how I got all through a master's degree and all of that in counseling and not realize that that was the exception, not the norm. And I saw with these women, I might as well have said, to get a degree or some job skill and might as well have said, let's go to Mars and let's hang out there and you can do it. It was so foreign to them and they just didn't think they could. And so I would say that God called me into public education. I just felt like I wanted to intervene with young boys and girls before they got to the stage where they were already repeating the cycle of poverty.

Kade Wilcox (05:31):

It's really good. So can you do that? Are you able to? You made that transition because you wanted to intervene. That's a really powerful statement and you're the superintendent of a very large school. And I don't know anything about public education, so this could just be total perception, but you're dealing with bureaucracy, you're dealing with state stuff, there's just gotta be multiple levels to that onion. So five years into being superintendent certainly longer within the school system itself, have you found yourself able to intervene and what challenges have you come across that you're willing and capable of sharing that have impacted your ability to intervene? Like what does that look like now boots on the ground, so to speak?

Michelle McCord (06:19):

Well, you know, I've been in public education for 20 plus years now, so don't be trying to do the math on that. This is my second career and I've been doing it for over 20 years. As a school counselor, yes, you can intervene. And so firsthand proof of that is as a high school counselor. I don't know if you've ever filled out a FAFSA.

Kade Wilcox (06:49):

It's been a long time.

Michelle McCord (06:51):

Well, you need a PhD in something that I don't have to know how to do that. Even really to register for the ACT or SAT you don't just hit the button. It's involved. So I was able to remove some obstacles. But now in my role as a superintendent, it looks different. Obviously more indirectly impacting lives. But despite the bureaucracy and just all the madness of this thing we call planet earth and public education is that the most salient or significant predictor of the educational outcomes of a student is the effectiveness of the teacher. Outside, of course, the influence of the parent. But if you have an effective teacher, if you can get an effective teacher instructing children, then those kids are going to have great outcomes.

Michelle McCord (07:57):

And when I say great outcomes, I'm not talking necessarily about a four year degree, but some sort of postsecondary training so that you can be a welder or you can contribute to society, be a responsible citizen. And so in my role, it's more indirect. So there's not a direct correlation between the effectiveness of the superintendent and the educational outcomes of kids. But I have tremendous influence over the hiring of teachers and who we hire. Another thing is too, that I think that teaching is a calling. Why else would you do it because you don't get paid very well. Kind of like a pastor doesn't get paid very well. Sometimes your own children sacrifice, your own family sacrifices because of your calling, but it's important. Teaching is a calling and I haven't met a teacher who wouldn't do anything if she knew how to do it. So the equipping of people, the onboarding of teachers, is very important. Teaching has changed a lot over the years. You used to shut the door and did your teaching in the classroom in a silo. That just doesn't work.

Kade Wilcox (09:15):

Yeah. My first question is how do you see your role as a leader? In your role in your school, you started touching on it a little bit in terms of influencing teachers, but when you think of your role as a leader and your responsibility in your organization, what kinds of things do you think of in terms of those things?

Michelle McCord (09:39):

The endless tasks of the major operating systems of this organization which has 1,250 employees. My primary responsibility is to ensure that every single one of those souls that walks through the door of Frenship schools, those children, that we create an environment where they feel safe, where they feel valued, and where we push them to achieve beyond what their wildest dreams are, and to equip them for the endless opportunities that no doubt the future holds for them. That's the primary role. And then I would say the secondary role right behind that, is the only way that the kids are going to be successful is if the adults around them are equipped to do the job. And so my job is to work, alongside our board of trustees of course, to make sure we're allocating time and resources so that we're investing in the people so that the children can be who they aspire to be. The future's at stake, really eternity.

Kade Wilcox (10:57):

Yeah. Right. That's really good. Thinking of this in the context of an organization, what you're really talking about is culture. Creating a culture and an environment where the students thrive. You're setting them up for success. Then I love how you answered the second thing you said was really equipping the adults. Equipping the teachers and all the staff and the coaches with the necessary skills and tools to allow the students to succeed. And in that way, it's very much like a regular organization. Where you have healthy cultures you have healthy leaders and where you have healthy leaders, you usually have healthy cultures and it all starts to work together. It's really good. How do you approach failure? When you think about your own leadership journey is there a way that you even pragmatically approach failure or what comes to your mind when you think of failure?

Michelle McCord (11:54):

What comes to mind is failure is a great teacher. Failure is a great teacher. It's painful. Failure is painful. I think that probably most of us as we look back on our lives is that I know particularly in mine, it has been through my greatest failures in which I was able to find purpose in that pain. But failure is important to the success of an organization because if you're not failing, that means that you're probably stagnant, that you're not trying new things. You have to create an environment where it's okay to fail. As an organization, the bigger we get and as important as the stakes are, fail fast, fail forward, all those cliches that you hear, they're true. They're true. None of us like to fail, but really you have to fail if you're going to progress.

Kade Wilcox (13:00):

Right. I've never thought of a school your size having so many employees. That's a lot of employees and a lot of layers of leadership. Clearly you're distant from some of those levels just because of the necessity and size, just like in any organization. Is there a way that you like thinking about communication? How do you approach communication within your organization, your school to ensure that everyone's on the same page to the greatest degree possible? What does that even practically look like?

Michelle McCord (13:33):

Yes. Well, it's complicated.

Kade Wilcox (13:35):

Really hard.

Michelle McCord (13:37):

I would say for any large organization that's one of their biggest challenges is the communication across all the levels. And so for us, what that looks like is the different traditional mediums of trying to communicate with people, keeping people informed. But I think how you accomplish that is first of all, we need to make sure that for our organization, we're a taxing entity, we're using other people's money and we have other people's children. And so we need to make sure that first of all, that we're clear on our beliefs. So that's the foundation. And they're not our beliefs, they're our stakeholders beliefs. And so that we can coalesce around shared beliefs that these are what the people whom we serve. And then once you know what your beliefs are, that's the foundation upon which we build everything that we do.

Michelle McCord (14:36):

And then how do we communicate that? Well, people have to know what the beliefs are. So it's very important in the onboarding of new employees reminding existing employees that we may get bigger and the faces may change and there may be four more faces to look at, but our beliefs don't change. And the other thing about that is for me to ensure that we're pushing the organization forward and that we're on the same page, if you will. I am spending my time ensuring that with my closest advisors that I'm making sure that our beliefs are the basis of what we talk about. And I even have them on my wall. Every principal meeting that we have. So I brought up the importance of a teacher. Behind the teacher, the most significant predictor of educational outcomes of kiddos is the effectiveness of the campus principal.

Michelle McCord (15:44):

And so making sure that you hire the right person. We use those beliefs as a foundation to build what we call a learner profile. So for our learners, these are the attributes that we want to see in our learners, same thing as a leader, this leader profile that we created based on the foundation of our beliefs. And it helps me when we're hiring people to ask questions around these leadership qualities. There are tons of frameworks through which to view leadership and make sure that what does excellence in leadership look like in Frenship.

Kade Wilcox (16:28):

That's really good. Coming with all that responsibility of leading 1200 people in the communication and in the belief systems and the principles and understanding stakeholders, there's a lot of moving parts, not to mention that the government and state and policies and tests and all this stuff, how do you pursue your own personal growth? How do you work your way through all that stuff, which is important, and focus on your own growth, your own soul, how do you do that?

Michelle McCord (17:01):

Well, one of the ways I do that is just through my faith, that is very important to me. And what does that look like for me? Well, it's different for every person, but for me, that is setting aside some time of quiet. And so I have to set aside each morning some time of quietness to silence the voices so that I can hear the still small voice. And then also for me, it's listening to leadership podcasts, reading books, looking back at history at what great leaders did. Great book that I recently read. I think it's called Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I think. It's a great book. I think it's a Pulitzer Prize winning book and looking back at how Abraham Lincoln led.

Kade Wilcox (18:05):

Okay. Yes. Phenomenal book. And Lyndon B Johnson and FDR. It's a really good book.

Michelle McCord (18:17):

Yes. So sometimes we think that in this crazy 21st century world, we live in that crazy new. Crazy and crises and all of those things aren't new. I guess there's really nothing new under the sun. But learning from the past, helps me try to keep that in perspective and not make those mistakes and just learn from the ups and the downs that other leaders had.

Kade Wilcox (18:49):

Did you find it encouraging when you read through some of those challenges? Like I think of Lincoln particularly, cause we all think now is the most divisive and angered we've ever been, but really it doesn't scratch the surface in terms of a real civil war. So do you find comfort in that? Is it the perspective it offers you that's the most encouraging? What about learning from history particularly helps you in terms of your frame of mind? Just curious.

Michelle McCord (19:18):

I think it does provide, maybe ironically, some comfort to know that in these divisive times, people having very different opinions about things, different beliefs, that you can still have a common purpose. And I don't know what it's like for other people, but for me, it's just really clear that we're dealing with children and clearly the future is at stake. And while the parents have different ideas and we may have different ideas and the government has different ideas, we can come together and coalesce around that purpose. And to see how someone else did it now, of course, Lincoln, wasn't perfect. But certainly, those were dark days. And he had a great team around him. I have a great team around me you know, and I know that I can't do it by myself.

Michelle McCord (20:23):

Also one of the things that Lincoln did that I think set him apart is that he went to the front lines. He was in the trenches, he was with the foot soldiers, if you will. And where I find meaning when I'm just dealing with things as a superintendent that really have very little to do with educating children, whether it's you know, tax laws or looking at land purchases, all these things are important, but it's not really what lights my fire. I go to a campus and I love to do what is called a listening tour. A listening tour is just going to the teacher's lounge, listening to teachers. When I first did that, they were like, what's happening here? What is her agenda?

Kade Wilcox (21:20):

Suddenly the topics changed.

Michelle McCord (21:22):

But I think that over time they get that, it's not that I'm listening in to see, are you talking about instruction the right way? They know much more about instruction than I do, but it's fascinating what you can just learn about their experience. You can't really do that until you immerse yourself. Or just listen to kids talk. Another way that I am just energized is that I have, I get to do it today actually, I have a group of student advisors. They are called the superintendent's advisory board. And I know that they may think that, it's just something that she does to take good pictures. It's a good photo op. And then other times I think I scare the kids because I tell them, and I'm really not kidding, this is the most exciting thing that I look forward to every six weeks. This is what I most look forward to. And some of them look at me puzzled, like you need a bigger life. But I'm not kidding because kids are great. Kids are great. They get a bad rap, but kids are brilliant and innovative and creative and kind.

Kade Wilcox (22:40):

Yeah, it's really good. One other thing I like about Lincoln in that book, that was really clear and I'm sure it is other places too, is how he surrounded himself with people that were not just good leaders, but leaders that disagreed with him. It's like his entire cabinet was filled with people who, given the option, would have never elected him president ever. And that's pretty profound and challenging to leaders who just want to surround themselves with yes people. That's a really great book. I'm glad you brought that up. A few more questions for you. What are some of the biggest influences in your leadership journey? You mentioned you love to read books, but are there people that you've been around that really jump out to you as influencing your journey?

Michelle McCord (23:25):

Well, I think I've already mentioned my parents, but the older I get the more wisdom that I can see in the way they lived their lives. Both of my parents have gone on to be with the Lord. And I think the older you get the more you reach back into your past and it helps shape who you are. Clearly the previous superintendent at Frenship. Don't tell him that because he has a big head. So I'm going to ask him to listen to this. So David Vroonland, let's not take this too far. But he's a visionary leader and I don't see myself as a visionary leader. Honestly, I didn't see myself as a leader.

Michelle McCord (24:22):

I wrongly assumed years ago that you were just kind of born with these leadership traits. And I do think some people are, I don't think I was. So I study leadership as a skill, just like you would study math or you would practice basketball or your backhand as a tennis player. But so I think it's that fear of failure that drives me and I'm not really even sure I belong in this seat. Rather than holding me back, I think that pushes me. I'm very driven. Of course stories in the Bible, thank goodness for Paul. He had a murderous past and God was still able to use him. So I'm like, okay, there's a chance for me. And I have these two sisters, one is a teacher, one is a nurse. They knew from an early age that's what they wanted to do with their lives, where I didn't. And that's what they do. They are nurses and they are teachers and they're not ever going to have their name on a building or anything like that. But I see in them just that heart for service and it pushes me to be a better leader.

Kade Wilcox (25:46):

That's really good. Last question for you. I always like this one, if you could speak to your younger self, back 20 or 25 years ago, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself 20 years ago? What lessons would you try to impart?

Michelle McCord (25:59):

So as a person who had a winding journey of just not knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up, which was a great source of stress for me, even into my adult years. It's like well, this is okay, but do I really want to do this for the rest of my life? If I could look back and tell myself something, I would say, Michelle, stop worrying so much about what your career is going to be and pay attention to what kind of person you're becoming. Am I a person of integrity? Am I honest? Am I kind? And so I would tell young people, and I was the worst offender as a high school counselor, what are you going to be? I wanted them to have plans, that's what you're going to do. But if I could just back up, we put so much pressure on kids, whether we mean to or not, it's really an innocent question of what are you going to do after you graduate? And just saying, as long as you get your foundational education, what kind of person are you becoming? And the rest is going to fall into place. God's going to honor what you're trying to do and the kind of person you're trying to become. And so just relax a little bit.

Kade Wilcox (27:24):

That's so fascinating to hear you say that. I have a 10 and an eight year old and there's no pressure from us. We try really hard just to make sure they know without a shadow of a doubt they're loved. I can hardly talk about it. That they're loved and that we'd go to every length possible to help them succeed. And even in the midst of that, they're constantly thinking about what they're going to be. So it's fascinating, like even in a household where they're getting no pressure from us intentionally, they still gravitate towards, I'm going to be this. And so I've even found myself telling both of them. No, don't worry about that right now. If that's what happens then awesome. But you've got a long time to figure that out. And so I really appreciate you sharing that cause it's really true.

Michelle McCord (28:17):

My husband and I don't have any children of our own. We have 10,360 right now, but, I would also say going back to the way that I was raised in this environment of no pressure from my parents to do this or do that. It was the voices in my head. And so I will tell you that my parents and my sisters, and really all the people that I can remember in my little town growing up, all they did was encourage me that I can be whoever you want to be. But Kade I'll tell you that it was the voices in my head who said, I don't think you're enough. I don't know if you're going to be able to do fill in the blank. I'm just not sure you have it in you. And so isn't that fascinating how, even though children who are surrounded with love and affection and encouragement that you still have these voices in your head that tell you're not enough.

Kade Wilcox (29:22):

You create these narratives and stories about yourself. That's awesome. I really appreciate your time. This is really good. For those listening to the podcast, we spent about 20 minutes solving all the world's problems before we started the real podcast. So too bad, you didn't get to listen to that.

Michelle McCord (29:37):

The world's problems. Check.

Kade Wilcox (29:40):

Yeah. Just watch the news this morning or this evening, and you'll hear all of Michelle's and I's groundbreaking ideas. I really appreciate you. Just like watching from a distance you're doing a phenomenal job at Frenship. Lubbock and Frenship are really lucky to have you, and you're doing really great work. So thanks for all your time.

Michelle McCord (29:58):

Oh my gosh. It was truly my pleasure.



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