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Striking a Balance: Short Superintendent Tenures Beyond Politics

It used to be that school improvement efforts hinged primarily on whether a district kept or dismissed the superintendent. Hopefully, those days are behind us.

While I fully embrace the critical role of effective superintendents, the distractions created by a revolving door of school leaders continue to stifle promising school systems across this country.

Dynamic and stable school districts put the district’s vision and mission at the center of their work–not the personal vision and beliefs of the superintendent. In practice though, different superintendent leadership styles and beliefs directly impact the capacity for school districts to achieve their missions.

The need to create stability in the superintendent position mirrors, in many ways, the current teacher retention crisis.

A recent study by Freedberg and Collier on the revolving door of California K-12 superintendents found that in the state’s 30 largest districts, only two superintendents have been in their positions for 10 or more years, while 17 superintendents have been in their positions three years or less. Similarly, a study of 122 school districts in the Hudson Valley Region of New York found that 75 percent of superintendents have been in their current positions five years or less, while nearly 20 percent have been in their current posts for nine months or less.

Experience shows us that consistent and effective top-down school leadership is often the difference between success and failure. In an interview with Freedberg and Collier, Becca Bracy Knight, executive director for the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, contends:

Not nearly enough superintendents have the time to make both dramatic and lasting improvements in their districts. We have to ask ourselves what is keeping people from staying in their jobs longer? If you want big change, and big improvements for your students, and you want it to be sustainable, that simply takes time.

While the reason for superintendents leaving is often attributed to shifting relationships with local school boards, a more in-depth, personal look into the daily work of the average district superintendent highlights the personal complexities and challenges that often come with the job.

In our research on the emerging work of superintendents, Dr Sally Zepeda and I examined the personal challenges superintendents face in attempting to balance the public nature of their professional life, their beliefs in the profession, and the demands of family life.

In our conversations with school leaders from across the country, we identified several themes that have significant impact on superintendents’ career decisions.

Living in the public’s eye

  • The superintendent’s role and work can potentially overshadow their personal lives.
  • The superintendent’s role with the public originates from a personal orientation shaped by the person’s beliefs and experiences.
  • The superintendent must be intentional with personal time.

The neverending nature of the work

  • Superintendents understand the value of hiring staff with a high level of expertise so they can effectively delegate responsibilities.
  • Superintendents know they must first understand what is most important in the district and make it a priority.
  • Superintendents communicate priorities and then intentionally plan their time.

The personal side of the work

  • Superintendents see their work shaped by their own experiences growing up.
  • Superintendents understand that every interaction and decision in a school has an impact on children and their families.
  • Superintendents understand how education can change the life of a student.

Balancing work and family

  • Superintendents struggle to maintain balance as they seek personal solutions.
  • Superintendents experience tension between finding time for their work and family, but family needs must come first.
  • Superintendents cannot share the space at work and home at the same time—you are either with your family or doing your work, but can’t effectively do both at the same time.  

Sleeping at night

  • Superintendents need to find an inner peace with how they make decisions.
  • Superintendents do not carry it all on their shoulders when they have talented teams to make good decisions along the way.
  • Superintendents make many difficult decisions. Losing sleep over one decision could lead to an unhealthy pattern, as another important decision will be coming right behind it.

Our suggestions for superintendents to consider:

  1. Talking with your school board about your needs for balancing work and personal needs to ensure all understand this important dynamic.
  2. Establishing a time to put away your business cell phone when at home for a period of time to ensure your are “present” with your family.
  3. Setting a cutoff time in the evening where you will not engage in school business.
  4. Creating a calendar for attending public events and set limits.
  5. Finding and maintaining a life outside of school to stay active, work out, join an organization associated with a hobby or interest–anything that feeds your soul.
  6. Developing a system for receiving and responding to community requests and inquiries, and delegating to those who can best respond.

The meta message here is that school boards and communities need to examine how they see their district leader and to support them in balancing their personal and work lives. Districts create balance in the system when superintendents are able to successfully maintain a level of balance in their professional work and personal lives.

For more insight into the emerging role of leaders, read The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate All Children. Dr. Philip D. Lanoue and Dr. Sally J. Zepeda’s goal in writing this book published by Rowman & Littlefield, and as a joint publication with AASA, was to engage superintendents and leaders by asking different questions about their roles in leading schools and communities.