Guest Column

Resilient Superintendents Find Rewards


Literature about school superintendents often explores the negative side, but rarely documents the qualities of those leaders who have found their careers satisfying.

My own research involved interviews with 18 superintendents. Their resilient lives began to unfold through their storytelling. I discovered these superintendents possess a broad view of society and their critical role in it. They like being a linchpin on which society depends. One expressed it this way: “To me, public education is the cornerstone of American democracy. We are the institution that makes it come together and makes it work.”

These superintendents take pride in the direct link their work has on students, staff and community members. One individual said: “I like looking back three to five years to see where we were and where we are now. The tremendous leap forward is gratifying.” Commented another: “The greatest thing about this job is the positive influence on the lives of children. Even though I am not working with them directly … putting policies and processes in place that filter down makes a difference. You can see it played out in the community as the kids go on to the next part of their lives.”

“I like the fact my decisions can force issues that allow me to do what is best for kids,” said one superintendent about the self-rewards. “I feel fulfillment when I make a difference in a community and in the schools,” said another.

Personal Dealings
Resilient superintendents like bringing people together and organizing efforts to address issues. One told me: “I enjoy building coalitions and putting projects together. I am chairing a group of superintendents studying the sleep cycles of adolescent students. We are looking at medical research and the experiences of other districts that delayed the morning start times. Getting all of us thinking about this issue is fun.”

Another superintendent expressed the rewards in developing the skills of colleagues: “I like talking with people and helping people grow. No. 1 on my list is the business of developing people.”

A hardy superintendent talked about his role as a catalyst and change agent. He said, “I get excited when I see something happen as a result of planning and goal setting. ... I get the most satisfaction out of seeing other people find success.”

These superintendents cherish a work environment where they can continue developing quality programs for students: “I derive a great deal of satisfaction from seeing kids and staff members succeed. The willingness to change, to improve and to take risks has kept me here and kept me motivated.”

Authoritative Role
On a personal level, the influence associated with being the superintendent of a school district is important to their self-worth and can be esteem building. This was exemplified when one leader candidly admitted, “I like being the boss even though I’m quite shy. I like to be the playmaker. Many school educators have a lot to say about an issue yet nothing may happen. But if you’re the superintendent, you’re in a spot that makes things happen.”

These individuals like learning new things. One person told me: “Every day is different from the last day. Sometimes the unknown, the stuff that you fear, makes it most exciting. It’s challenging, and I like it challenging. Sometimes you have to think creatively.” Another suggested, “I think stress can bring the best out of you and that is OK with me.”

The rewards resilient superintendents experience are directly related to the long-term impact they see they have on society in general and lives of the students, staff members and community members in particular. They are learning and facilitating the development of others. These leaders like being in charge. They take pride in their roles as change agents, facilitators and catalysts for change.

These men and women have faced their share of problems throughout their careers but have found passion and purpose in their work. If they had it to do over, all but one of the 18 I interviewed would choose to be a superintendent. The one exception would rather become a college president.

Dan Wertz is superintendent of the Okemos Public Schools, 4406 Okemos Road, Okemos, MI 48864.