DOVER – You might expect the secretary of the Department of Education to be the teacher of teachers, but Susan Bunting finds that being open to still learning is key to the top job.
[caption id="attachment_214578" align="alignright" width="390"] Susan Bunting | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION[/caption]
“I’ve never been one to say ‘I’m going to do this for two years,’ almost like a stepping stone to what’s next,” she said. “I always wanted to teach, and at heart, I still enjoy any opportunity to teach. But as a teacher, I’ve always been a lifelong learner.”That need for more knowledge took Bunting down a long path to where she is today. After graduating from American University, she started teaching language arts in the Indian River School District in 1977. But soon after, she led the classroom as a gifted education teacher for grades first through sixth.“That probably allowed me to do some unique things and interact with other school districts in the state because we had one of the first gifted students programs in the state,” she noted.Bunting then got her master’s degree from the now Salisbury University as the next progression of her career, and later became the supervisor of elementary instruction.“That was a great introduction to the whole field of what was happening in elementary schools in gifted learning,” she said. When her predecessor left, Bunting filled those shoes to keep the momentum going.By 2006, Bunting became superintendent of Indian River School District, which had 10,000 students. In her time since, the district demographics have changed dramatically, with the population growing year over year. The Latinx population grew from 1% to 30% in roughly 20 years, pushing a need to address English as a second language instruction as well.Come 2017, Gov. John Carney had seen enough of Bunting’s work to tap her as the Secretary of Education in his Cabinet. Looking back, Bunting believes in keeping to her roots and steering the department to be a support agency rather than a regulatory body.“As a servant leader, you want to encourage people who are running these districts. I had built up these relationships with them, so it’s about finding that sweet spot between what has to happen and understanding the unique challenges each district faces,” she said.Another key to that strategy is pushing the customer service mentality to the forefront in the Department of Education. For example, if a school is out of compliance, offer solutions to help correct the issue or offer to make connections across districts to find best practices.Bunting also believes in getting out in the community as often as she can and talking to teachers and sitting in classrooms, averaging about 100 schools a year.“It was a little difficult last year, but I managed to squeeze them in,” she said with a laugh. “But it is a growing experience for me to see the schools, from preschools to adult education programs. I know enough about education to ask the right questions and learn more.”The COVID-19 pandemic has been an exercise in leading through a crisis, as each district struggled with changing regulations and new information coming within days. Bunting formed an informal committee with district officials, the Delaware Charter Network and top officials from the Delaware Delaware State Education Association and the Delaware School Boards Association that meets at least once a week.“We take it step by step, because you have to. To be successful, you have to constantly communicate with each other, and it’s a pretty amazing accomplishment when you can have the head of the teacher’s union and the head of Office of Management and Budget on the same playing field,” she said.On the horizon, Bunting foresees that Delaware educators will have to contend with returning students to the classroom, however that may look. The statewide testing results also took a hit in the 2020-2021 school year due to disruptions, especially among Black and Latino students.But with stimulus funds that should last until 2024, it may also be time to think about staffing to meet educational and emotional needs, as well as refreshing the curriculum.“There’s been a social impact on our children, because some may not have been around other children. Some may not have been at school to help that development,” she said. “We’re going to have to rethink how we do things and how we are going to maximize the potential we know students have during the school year.”Looking back on a lengthy career in education, Bunting said there was no real defining moment that crystalized why she wanted to press on. Instead, she finds it when she’s logging miles on her car and visiting classrooms. Once she visited a class where the students were eager to show off a custom metalworking project that was made-to-order by customers.“I saw their spirits rekindled; that high school is worth it, that they are going to graduate with marketable skills,” she said. “I love seeing that end result, that renewed passion and enthusiasm about school and the direction it gives them.”In addition to the Delaware students, possibly Bunting’s biggest reward is also meeting some of the educators she taught or worked alongside throughout the years.“When I see the people I worked with, they’re now leaders all over the state. It’s a dawning realization that somehow you made a difference, not just for our students, but our leaders in maximizing their ability to give back to the community,” she said.