A motivational poster on the wall of Dr. Martha Liddell”s office sums up the leadership style she says has guided her throughout her 22-year career in the field of education: The image is a photograph of a bridge; the theme is teamwork.
As the new interim superintendent of the Columbus Municipal School District, Liddell replaced Dr. Del Phillips, who resigned last month in order to accept a position as director of schools for the Sumner County School District in Gallatin, Tenn. A search for a permanent superintendent is currently under way.
Tuesday afternoon, at CMSD”s Brandon Central Services, Liddell didn”t blink when asked the obvious question: “Yes, I am applying for the permanent position,” she said.
She admitted that Phillips leaves behind a “hero” reputation that has at times seemed larger than life, but she said she is undaunted.
“He came at a pivotal time when we needed him,” Liddell said. “But there”s a difference in riding in on a white horse and saving a town and riding into a town that”s healthy. The challenge now is keeping the vision alive and getting people involved.”
It is this aspect, she said, which creates the most marked difference between them.
“I am possibly more teamwork-oriented and more participatory,” she said. “I”m very open-book leadership. I”ve been a young administrator, and you start out with that ”slay the dragon” mentality. As you do it a while and really get committed, then you slay the dragon and stay there to help the people rebuild.”
Liddell, 43, said she plans to retire in five years, but before she goes, she wants to help the district meet challenges that lie ahead.
The biggest challenge she sees on the horizon is preparing Columbus” city schools for a massive, state-mandated reform as it prepares to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Training is slated to begin in June, with full implementation by 2014.
The Core Standards are designed to level the playing field for students nationwide, as well as globally, by ensuring that students — and teachers — are held to the same rigorous standards as in other states.
Once the Mississippi Department of Education changes its curriculum to the Common Core Standards, the state tests will change as well.
“It”s going to radically change the way we teach and students learn,” Liddell said. “It”s a very good thing. Expectations for achievement will be raised.”
She said the main role of a superintendent is to be the district”s advocate, serving as its voice and getting people to buy into its vision. Allocation of resources, from financial to personnel, is also critical.
“You must be courageous and an excellent communicator, and you must be a visionary who is action-oriented,” Liddell said. “See it and do it.”
Liddell received her doctorate in education from Mississippi State University in 2000. She has been part of the Columbus Municipal School District since 2000, serving as assistant superintendent from 2007 until her appointment as interim superintendent last month. She has also worked for the district as a grant coordinator, district test coordinator, director of middle schools, and principal of Sale Elementary.
Liddell grew up as the youngest of 11 children on a farm in Winston County. She said her parents quickly instilled in her the importance of hard work and higher education. Her mother dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Her father dropped out in the fifth grade.
Dropout prevention is a major focus for her and is the subject of a new initiative she has started called “Project 2020.” The project, operating under the premise that “it takes a village to raise a child,” will enlist the aid of community leaders to keep students in school by offering them guidance, mentorship, and other help outside the classroom.
In her spare time, Liddell loves writing, mentoring, leadership training, and reading mysteries.
She and her husband, Michael Liddell, have two children, Nicholas, 19, and Benjamin, 5.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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