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JOSEPH L. WOOD: A ‘Tough-Love Professional’ With Plenty To Share

by Jay P. Goldman

Angelo Vespe was three weeks shy last summer of his first day as a superintendent, a role he had eagerly been seeking but one he was facing with its share of uncertainty. He took a phone call from another Connecticut educator whose name he recognized but didn’t personally know.

“Welcome,” said the caller, Joseph Wood. “Let me know how I can help.”

It was the start of a professional relationship that Vespe has come to treasure in the ensuing months as he discovered just how many demands an assistant superintendent doesn’t deal with that a superintendent faces continuously. In Wood, he has tapped into one of the state’s most respected superintendents and his three-decade wellspring of sound advice and reassurance as he’s coped with vexing personnel matters and required state paperwork that hadn’t been addressed in any graduate school preparation.

“What I really appreciate is that he provides options. That’s a real strength,” says Vespe, who is now midway through his first year as superintendent in Somers, Conn. “He’ll give me two or three different scenarios that I could apply to my situation.

“He’s a calming agent, very knowledgeable and a tough-love professional,” he adds of his mentor.

Wood’s been all that and more for the dozen young superintendents he has shepherded over the years as part of formal mentoring matches arranged by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and the New England School Development Council. He’s in his 20th year as superintendent in South Windsor, Conn., after eight years as superintendent in the Berkshire Hills, Mass., district.

While he has plenty of knowledge to impart on almost anything a newcomer is likely to encounter, Wood, a native of south Boston, says his greatest contribution comes in assuring a younger colleague that it’s OK to base a decision on one’s instincts about what’s right. “I can get at that by asking questions of the person,” he says.

In South Windsor, Wood has presided effectively over what had been a rural school district of 3,000 students when he started in 1986 to one that’s now an affluent suburb east of Hartford with slightly more than 5,000. His longevity is a testament to his ability to work forthrightly with changing constituencies—a nine-member school board whose composition changes with each election as well as a new generation of demanding parents who often aren’t ready to defer to the judgment of educators.

“A favorite saying of mine is ‘We all participate in creating one another.’ If I have a touchstone that has guided my entire leadership career, it has been that,” says Wood, who is about to complete his 40th year in education—and his last. He was appointed to a high school principalship at 26.

“I’m proud of the fact I spent all of my years in (district) leadership in only two school systems,” he says. “To bring about the substantive change in a system as complex as a school system, a leader must be committed to spend a great deal of time to make those changes stick.”

When he bows out this summer at age 62, he can take great satisfaction in his timing. This fall, South Windsor was named by America’s Promise as one of America's 100 best communities for young people. A panel of 17 experts spent six weeks judging towns and cities on key criteria that largely stemmed from the schools: caring adults actively involved in children’s lives; safe places in which to learn and grow; a healthy start toward adulthood; an effective education that builds marketable skills; and opportunities to help others.

When Wood told his board he planned to retire, he quoted poet Robert Frost as saying, “Education is hanging around until you’ve caught on.”

“I think,” he added, “I’ve hung around long enough to catch on.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org


BIO STATS: Joe Wood

Current: superintendent, South Windsor, Conn.

Previous: superintendent, Berkshire Hills Regional Schools, Stockbridge, Mass.

Age: 62

Greatest influence on professional career: My high school principal, Brother Joseph G. McKenna, a member of the Christian Brothers of Ireland. As a student at Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury, Mass., I observed the incredible positive influence he had on faculty and students. I frankly didn't realize how much of an influence he was until I had to answer this question.

Best professional day: 7/7/77. That was the date of the first school committee meeting at which I officiated as superintendent. I was excited and a little overwhelmed, but there was also a great feeling of having achieved one of my major professional goals.

Books at bedside: 1776 by David McCullough; The Master by Colm Toibin; What’s the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank

Biggest blooper: Officiating at my first graduation as a high school principal, it was my privilege to introduce the distinguished guests. As I went down the row seated at the dais, I began to panic as I couldn't remember the names of the next three school board members, one of whom was the chair. I hardly was a stellar role model.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: The position of superintendent is demanding and, at times, isolating. As an AASA member, I can stay up-to-date through various publications and conferences. The membership has also given me the opportunity to network, swap ideas, seek counsel and get support when confronting some difficult situations or complex problems.