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Why short superintendent tenure is killing our schools

Last week, the Massachusetts Board of Education assumed control of Southbridge Public Schools citing persistent low performance. The state blamed a “parade of discontinuity” for the trouble, including a revolving door at the highest levels of school system leadership (seven superintendents in five years).

While that rate of turnover is rare, recent research suggests school district leaders continue to lose or leave their jobs at an alarming rate. The Council of the Great City Schools says that superintendent tenure in large urban districts averages three years. While up slightly compared with previous years, the number remains alarmingly low, especially when you consider how long it takes a leader to forge productive inroads in the school community.

The bottom line: Short superintendent tenure destabilizes our whole education system. An unstable system finds teacher morale as a luxury, rather than a norm. And low teacher morale guarantees substandard teaching and learning.

While there is plenty of uncertainty about the impact that district leaders have on student achievement – one report from the Brookings Institution found no direct correlation between the length of a superintendent’s stay and academic performance – it’s impossible to debate the influence that these leaders have on other areas of school administration, such as community relations, partnerships, and teacher and employee satisfaction.

Veteran academic researcher Shelby McIntosh, Ph.D., outlined the benefits of consistent district leadership when she met with educators at the TASA Midwinter Conference in Austin last month.

Engaged teachers, better teachers
In a session entitled, “No Place Like Home: The Link Between Superintendent Tenure and Employee Satisfaction,” McIntosh used her own work with school districts in Texas and elsewhere to establish a link between superintendent tenure and teacher engagement.

Said McIntosh: Every time a new superintendent takes over, teachers have to adjust to new policies, goals, and training initiatives. If you work in a school district where leadership is constantly changing, it’s hard to stay engaged.

McIntosh says it it takes a new superintendent a year just to get the lay of the land in their district. And, it takes two to three years for a school district superintendent to effectively earn the trust of staff. If it takes that long to build productive relationships, why are so many superintendents headed for the door in the same timeframe?

McIntosh says superintendent and teacher relations can be traced back to a simple, often undervalued, skill set: listening.

Teachers who feel empowered to actively contribute to the vision articulated by district leadership are more engaged in their work. School leaders who listen to staff and make a concerted effort to put the recommendations of teachers and other community members into practice usually report happier teachers, McIntosh says.

And happier teachers usually translate into better results.

So given all of this, what can you do? McIntosh boils her advice to school leaders down to three simple words: Listen. Learn. Lead.

  1. Listen: Create a structure for ongoing listening whether it be through meetings, surveys, or other communications tools.
  2. Learn: Use what you hear to gain an emotional understanding of teachers’ needs.
  3. Lead: Share what you learn and what you plan to do about it, and put that plan into action.

Is staff and teacher engagement a priority in your district? Next time you start to question your job security, or hear from a colleague or friend whose board has decided to part ways, ask yourself this question: Are you listening to the people who matter most?

Want to learn more about the benefits of staff and teacher engagement in schools? Try engaging your school community in an honest conversation about what matters most to them.