My wife started a new job last week. Superintendent of Schools. Her first day in town and with nothing in the cupboard, she headed to the local grocery store early in the morning. Incognito in ball cap and sunglasses at 7:00 AM, surely she could slip in and out quickly. Experienced superintendents and board members know the inherent dangers of the grocery store and would never have attempted such a move, but she is new and a risk-taker. You know how this ends… “Say, aren’t you the new superintendent? There are a few things I would like to talk with you about….”
There are 58 new superintendents in Kansas this year. Over half, 35, are brand new to the job, never having served as superintendents before. These superintendents have all passed their preparation classes and taken their certification exams. They have all honed their skills as principals and/or central office administrators. They are smart men and women with good skills and a heart to make things better for kids. But they have never sat in the superintendent’s chair.
The part that is hard to learn from books is the personal side:
- You are always the superintendent. Once you put on the hat, it doesn’t come off. (Even if it’s a ball cap that you think makes you invisible in the grocery store at 7:00AM.) My dad, who has over 20 years experience in the superintendent’s chair, used to say “imagine someone is following you around with a video camera.” Today, when everyone has a smartphone, you can be assured that someone is.
- Your family will be affected. Your spouse and children will be treated differently. People with good intentions will give them special treatment, which can be even worse than treating them poorly because of a grudge against you. Then there is always the knucklehead who thinks sending you a message through a son or daughter is a good idea. “Tell your mom we don’t like the….”
- It’s lonely at the top. Any CEO will tell you that, and it is true in this job too. People make friends with their co-workers, but your co-workers know that the relationship is different even if you don’t think it is.
- You live between the rock and the hard place. Your job is to navigate that space between countervailing forces, parents and teachers, students and taxpayers, board members and staff, just to name a few. There is inherent stress in that space.
A wise old superintendent described the job with this story: Picture yourself walking through a meadow on a beautiful sunny day. In the distance you see a row of trees, swaying in the cool breeze. As you get closer, you see a little monkey out in front of the trees, jumping up and down and screeching as only a monkey can do. He is throwing things and yelling at you. But you think to yourself, it's only one monkey, I may get a little dirty, but I can deal with one little monkey. So you walk closer and as you approach the trees you notice that the breeze has died down, but the trees are still swaying, the screeching is getting louder and all manner of stuff is being thrown at you. The whole forest is filled with monkeys, and they are mad at YOU! Every superintendent has a day or two like this.
Excited about that new job? Of course you are! Because to quote War Daddy, it’s “the best job you ever had.” Every evening when you lay your head on the pillow, you do it with the knowledge that you did something to help kids today. There is nothing like it in the world.
Board members, I write this for you as well as for the new superintendents. You have a new member on your team. Help them out whenever you can. Set goals, set boundaries, set expectations and talk through them. Be supportive, insightful and help them understand there will always be monkeys.