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The Ultimate Stress

Five superintendents' stories of coping with the most severe sets of circumstances by Ruth E. Sternberg

Few superintendents define their jobs as pure pleasure or pure pain.

Many say they like the creative tension-the energy ignited when community and government demands collide.

"I just thrive on it,'' says Harold Dodge, superintendent of the Mobile, Ala., schools. He recently faced severe budget problems that divided the community and forced him to literally go door to door garnering support for a tax issue.

"I think I do have a high stress tolerance,'' says Lane Plugge, superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District, who lost his superintendency in the summer of 1999 in Grand Island, Neb., over school board politics. "I'd be less than honest if I didn't say some days I ask, 'Is there something else?' But you go back to why you entered the profession. I truly believe we're about serving children and our communities.''

In Jefferson County, Colo., Jane Hammond returns to her office every morning-now 2½ years after the tragic shootings that turned Columbine High School into a worldwide icon-determined to do a job she has learned to love and to push for positive change in young people's lives.

But that doesn't mean the school CEO doesn't need a little help now and then coping with intense pressure.

A Mounting Toll

Consultants who deal with stress management in the corporate setting say they are getting more calls than ever to run sessions giving school chiefs advice about getting through the tough times.

Those who stick around, says Larry Coble, an ex-superintendent who now consults in the field of leadership training, "have a passion for leading and they are able to muster up huge amounts of energy and just keep plowing through it year after year. They say, 'Give me that next challenge.'''

Many, however, have a long way to go to be that self-confident and self-assured, according to Walter Gmelch, dean of the College of Education at Iowa State University and a former business executive. He conducted research over several years that examined how school administrators handle work-related stress. Superintendents often worry about their own well-being last, he adds.

He lists "physical and psychological effects, burnout, flat-out emotional exhaustion'' among the manifestations he has seen. "And the other one is scary-depersonalization. You're so inundated with people you suffer 'encounter stress.' People become numbers. It's sad. It happens a lot in the service industry. To me, it's devastating,'' Gmelch says.

Some have chosen to move on. Andrena Ray, former superintendent in Sumter, S.C., retired to the college setting four years ago after discovering her school district's long-time business manager had stolen more than $3 million over more than a decade. Some in the coastal community where she had spent her entire 35-year career thought she was involved, and others simply couldn't believe the allegations, even though several employees were convicted following the investigation.

Ray was devastated by the implications and the lack of support and developed physical side effects. "I am still taking blood-pressure medicine,'' she says.

The pressure on superintendents is growing sharply, brought on by heightened accountability at the state level, among other factors. According to AASA's Study of the American School Superintendency 2000, stress levels perceived by superintendents show a disturbing but largely predictable trend (see related story).

Coble, who directs the Collegium for the Advancement of Schools at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says he sees mirrored in his clients the stresses he endured for 14 years as a superintendent.

"You're consumed with the job. I was in Winston-Salem (Forsythe County, N.C., Schools) for five years and it was like an instant. You're so consumed, it becomes your whole life,'' he said.

Nancy Nestor-Baker, a long-time school board member in the suburban Columbus, Ohio, district of Westerville, has heard the same refrain over and over again. She recently completed a doctorate in education and is working on a book about the tacit knowledge gained by superintendents as they grow in their jobs.

"You're just going, going, going,'' she says. "One superintendent I talked to told me, 'If I can just hang on for five years.' Within eight months of my interview, he was gone. He left the superintendency. It was killing him.''

How do today's school superintendents cope with the most severe forms of stress-a mass shooting inside a school building, a highly public confrontation with Jesse Jackson, an unexpected ouster from the job? Five superintendents facing these and other harrowing circumstances agreed to share the stories of their survival.

Bouncing Back from Victim Status

Paula Butterfield has a lot to be thankful for. Her health, for one. Her dog, for another.

Part black Labrador, part German shepherd, her canine friend who came to her in a moment of crisis has served as perhaps her wisest example.

"I'm now doing the leadership secrets of Avalon (her pet). One of them is about stress. Eat moderately, sleep a lot and breathe. The other is, if a stick is thrown into a river and it gets away from you, get out of the river, shake off and wait enthusiastically for the next one. There's no shame in not catching every stick.''

Butterfield, 53, has spent the last year getting back into the rough waters of educational administration after coping with stress-induced Lupus and dodging bullets-literal and figurative-during her nine-year tenure as superintendent in Bozeman, Mont., in the 1990s.

Butterfield commanded wide respect among her peers. In 1998, she was selected Montana Superintendent of the Year. She also served as chair of AASA's federal policy committee and in that role brought compelling evidence before Congress that linked the impact of underfunding of special education on school district budgets.

Her personal woes started when a Bozeman administrator she had passed over to fill a principalship sued her. Butterfield ultimately beat the case of alleged discrimination. But the conflict turned into a nightmare that transcended the courtroom.

First came the hostile letters to the editor-friends of the plaintiff accusing her of racial discrimination. Board meetings turned into opportunities for diatribes aimed at Butterfield's reputation.

"And when all of this was going on, my house was vandalized,'' she says. "One of the things taken from my home was my calendar book. I came back from a meeting on youth violence. A rock had been thrown through the window and stuff was stolen.''

Then she was shot at by an unknown assailant while sitting one evening on the deck behind her log home. "The bullet kind of went right by me,'' she says.

Work was difficult, but the off-hours were even worse. "I was living alone and having a hard time sleeping,'' Butterfield says.

The local sheriff suggested she buy a dog, which she did. It made her feel safer, but she was exhausted. In 1999, she ended up at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she underwent lymph node surgery for lupus-a skin disease marked by chronic inflammations-which she believes was brought on by her fatigue.

"By the time it was diagnosed, I had no natural adrenaline left,'' she said.

How She Coped

Butterfield admits she needed to learn how to find outlets for her stress and distance herself from the job.

"I should have got into exercise or something. I was a workaholic,'' she says.

So Butterfield took a leave of absence for several months. While she was resting, she began to carry out her desire to rebuild her life. She created a studio inside her home and sculpted with clay. Gradually, she got involved with education again, teaching art to children. She began doing some education consulting work.

She accepted another superintendency-in upper-middle-class Mercer Island, Wash. The fit was awkward, and Butterfield left in less than a year. Ultimately, she was invited in August 2000 to Pittsburgh, Pa., by Superintendent John Thompson to serve in a new role, chief academic officer, to govern all instructional and curricular matters.

Butterfield packed all her belongings and made the cross-country trip, using Avalon, her dog, as a sounding board along the way.

"I thought, 'You know, I'm really not done in education,''' she says. "I just knew it was unfinished business. I also knew I'm not a quitter.''

Thrust Into the Network Limelight

Ken Arndt was a man seeking sanctuary.

At 3 p.m. on a November afternoon in 1999, the superintendent of the Decatur, Ill., Public Schools sat in a pew at the First Christian Church, face to face with his pastor, Wayne Kent, asking the clergyman to pray with him.

"When you have to go to a school and you see 150-plus armed officers, that's an extremely stress-filled situation,'' says Arndt, 46. "After a while, you know you are going to lose it.''

He credits simple measures like his church visit-along with the devotion of his wife-for helping him keep his mind focused and his temperament relatively pleasant during a two-month crisis that brought national media attention and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to the 11,200-student school district.

Jackson and members of his PUSH coalition arrived in Decatur on Nov. 7, about a month after Arndt expelled seven black students from Eisenhower High School for two years for fighting after a football game and harming bystanders. Arndt believed the activity had been gang-related. He responded to the incident touting established school policy on violence.

But nothing in that handbook could have prepared him for what followed.

Almost before Arndt and school personnel could react, the police officers were on the roof, and the throngs of protesters-many bused in by Jackson to boost his clout-were outside the high school. The camera crews soon followed.

The news media attention and counter-demonstrations by white supremacist groups forced Arndt to close all three of the district's high schools for two days, reopening them only after he had arranged for a heavy police presence.

"We had 175 armed and uniformed officers circling the perimeter,'' Arndt says. "We had the white extremists and black extremists, both opposed to Rev. Jackson's beliefs.''

Arndt's primary focus suddenly switched from how to deal with the district's declining enrollment to daily national news feeds, phone calls from anxious parents and sleepless nights.

"The adrenaline was at a maximum. There was no question,'' says Arndt, recalling the daily police briefings and the constant fear that violence could erupt. Parents called in a panic.

"Our poor secretaries,'' he says. "We were receiving so many incoming phone calls that literally the phone lines were jammed.''

Sleep did not come easily, even when he managed to drag himself home. His unlisted home phone rang several times at 3 a.m.-news crews from out of state who were lost on the highway and needed directions.

How He Coped

To deal with the frenzy, Arndt delegated.

"We had one person who was watching the front door to make sure the press or other persons would not try to come into the building without our knowledge. We had another person who took care of all the building concerns.''

He organized how he would speak to the press, arranging his statements in short sound bytes.

He relied on people around him as much as possible for emotional support as well as for technical help.

''We all helped each other out. You do what needs to get done,'' he says. "I had a number of people who said, 'You are shutting down. Go home. You're getting too exhausted.' Usually that happened around 6 p.m. Once you get too tired, you make irrational decisions, which makes things worse.''

He also kept his sense of humor, appearing on camera early one morning in a bright red sweater instead of a suit. Arndt, now serving as superintendent in Carpentersville, Ill., smiles as he recalls his own image on network news shows, casually holding his morning mug of coffee.

"I did that because I wanted to show how ludicrous this whole thing was. To this day everyone calls me 'Mr. Rogers.'''

Finding Perspective in a Dark Moment

The images didn't seem real.

Teen-agers scrambling out of windows. The sound of gunfire. Blood trickling down hallways and gurneys carrying the wounded and the dead to waiting ambulances.

Yet as Jane Hammond stood in her office in the Jefferson County, Colo., school district, she had to connect herself quickly with the sounds of newscasters on TV and madly ringing telephones and respond to the anxiety and tears she and others shed.

Two of the students at Columbine High School had gone on a shooting rampage, killing 13 people, including a teacher, and sending 26 others to the hospital.

"I remember standing there in front of that TV and having the most amazing sense of emptiness,'' says Hammond, 52, who was finishing her second year as the system's chief administrator at the time.

"Most of us feel best when we feel like we have some control over the situation. Even if we're listening to parents who are angry, we feel like we have some control and we know we can talk to that person and maybe work things out. But I remember feeling so powerless.''

The incident was a kind of wakeup call for Hammond, a workaholic accustomed to dealing with every conceivable matter as a veteran superintendent. She continues to log 100-hour work weeks. But before the shootings, she had not given much thought to how she might stay focused on academics after a crisis like the shootings.

"When I first came to the district, $23 million had been cut out of the central office,'' she says. "There was no common direction. I was hired to set a direction and establish a strategic plan. We started that work and were almost a year and three-quarters into it.''

Then, shortly before noon on April 29, 1999, as she was sitting in her office to plan some Junior Achievement events with community members, an office employee thrust open her door to interrupt.

Suddenly, Hammond was swept up in a sleepless, ceaseless routine. She closed her eyes for a mere hour on the first night. She swam in a sea of grief, navigating constant demands for information. She conducted hundreds of television, radio and print interviews.

"I finished and walked over to the side and there were hundreds of cameras,'' she said. "And this staff member said, 'We need your strength.' I remember thinking, 'They need my strength,' and it was like my role got cast.''

How She Coped

Hammond was fortunate to have assembled a vast support network to help her cope.

"I have worked and lived in five or six different states, and this invisible network of people all of a sudden materialized, along with every colleague I know,'' she says.

Within a day of the shootings, reinforcements began to arrive, including communications specialists from neighboring school districts. "I went from this sense of emptiness to feeling like I was standing shoulder to shoulder with an army of people who all cared and were willing to do whatever they had to do,'' she says.

Hammond's husband also threw her a lifeline. He was on his way from a business engagement in Seattle to one in New York, and his plane happened to stop in Denver, when someone from the school district reached him on his cell phone. He immediately went to his wife's side.

Hammond says her life with her husband, a business executive, has been her refuge since she began working. Time with family is one of her most important pieces of advice for her peers in school administration.

The Hammond schedule includes regular summer vacations away from Colorado. It also includes as much weekend time off as possible.

"From about Friday evening to Sunday evening we relax,'' she says. "When I'm relaxing, I do some of my best reflection."

But the most important coping skill, she believes, is the ability to put things into perspective.

Last year, a staff member suddenly entered her office.

"I could feel the adrenaline rush. I looked at her. She said, 'We're having a big blowup with the union and the media knows about it.' I looked up and said, 'Is that all?'''

Dodging a Curveball

Harold Dodge might as well have announced he was about to jump off a cliff.

That's how he felt-and that's probably what some of his Mobile, Ala., constituents would have preferred-after the superintendent announced earlier this year that high school sports would be cut if voters in the state's largest school district did not approve a request to raise taxes and balance the district's $430 million budget.

But Dodge, 55, in his fourth year leading the 66,000-student system, was desperate. The district, comparable in size to Rhode Island, is largely funded by state sales tax, which had declined by some $338 million by the end of the first quarter of 2001 with a downturn in the economy.

"It had been 56 years since we passed a tax issue,'' he says. "The school district right next to us spent $1,800 per pupil. We were at $780.''

Not only did Dodge put varsity football-the region's most popular sport, sometimes drawing up to 25,000 for a game between arch-rivals-on the chopping block, he also put up 65 teachers and 23 assistant principals and pledged to close a wooded reserve owned by the district, an environmental study area used by students and the community.

Any trust that might have developed between the superintendent and the taxpayers began to twist into a tight, tense knot.

There were the packed school board meetings. There were threatening phone calls. Security officers patrolled in front of his house. But there was no public relations support. Dodge and the school board had literally wiped out most of the central office as a show to the community that administrators were going to suffer cutbacks like everyone else.

Dodge had no alternative but to find relief in the streets, campaigning personally for the tax issue. He attended as many community functions as he could. "More and more days and nights and afternoons,'' he says. "We worked every civic group.''

He had hoped to scare the residents into action while persuading them of the importance of providing more funds for the schools.

His goal was to get the faith and civic communities on board, to communicate the message that a loss in school support would harm everyone in Mobile.

"Literally for six weeks I had no idea about anything,'' he says of his home life. "I was exhausted.''

How He Coped

Fortunately, Dodge's wife, Jean Arnold, a lawyer who used to head the national Council of School Attorneys, sized up the situation and was ready.

"She just made an announcement,'' Dodge says. "She said, 'OK. Well, I guess I'll see you in five weeks.'" Then she took the reins at home.

"I would keep my calendar open so she could look at it from home,'' he says. "She would write on it on certain days, 'Hold for Jean.' The days in the last three weeks of the campaign I was out the door by 6:30 in the morning, but I wasn't coming home until between 9 and 10 p.m.''

Arnold would ensure her husband didn't go hungry, handing him a bagel as he left each day and showing up quietly at the central office with a more complete meal later on.

"Within my neighborhood there's a support mechanism,'' he says. "Two of our best friends live behind us. They own a bed-and-breakfast. We could sit down any night of the week with them, have a drink together and shoot the bull, and it wasn't about work. They were good at changing the subject.''

Dodge's efforts paid off. In May the community rallied and approved a tax measure to raise about $28 million. He earned a well-deserved nap the day after the election-and ended up going home to sleep for nearly a whole day.

But the hard work isn't over. Revenues won't be coming until the January tax collection. The Mobile district will need a $10 million cash infusion, borrowed from the county, to get it through.

Despite the tax increase Dodge and the school board have had to make some unpopular decisions-a series of layoffs, transfers and non-renewal of contracts to ensure short-term budgetary health.

But Dodge is prepared mentally. "There are personalities that do better in stress,'' he says.

'Rejection Is Hard for Anyone'
The day Lane Plugge found out his job as superintendent of the Grand Island, Neb., schools was ending was a day he will always link to another significant life event.

His 25th wedding anniversary.

After midnight on June 2, 1998, he came walking through the door of his home.

"She asked how did it go?'' Plugge says of his wife, Debbie. "I said, 'They would like a change.' She was probably as shocked as I was."

Plugge, 48, had spent 12 years in Grand Island, seven as the district's top administrator. He always thought his place in the community was firmly established. He had led a successful campaign to pass two bond issues, the most recent for a new middle school.

But board composition had changed drastically with a recent election. Members disagreed on goals for the 7,200-student school district. At issue was the size of the budget and how it was being managed to sustain growth.

Plugge was the last to know that board members wanted him out. Today, he still is not sure what happened.

"You had a sense that something could have been going on,'' he says. "There were a couple of closed sessions I was not allowed to attend. I had also not yet received an evaluation.''

The announcement came with two years remaining in Plugge's contract He had hoped he could find another job and be gone quickly.

"Rejection is hard for anyone,'' he says.

But the stress was compounded because the school board made a clean break difficult. Members asked him to stick around for the 1998-99 school year, extending his contract so that he could aid in the search for his successor and help with the transition. The arrangement also made it difficult for the public to understand.

"It became a real mess,'' he says. "You had articles in the paper every day. Your work life became played out on the newspaper pages. There wasn't a lot I was willing to say or that the board was willing to say. It became a summer of 'Will Plugge stay? Will he be going?' They hired an attorney. I got an attorney.''

How He Coped

To deal with the stress, he exercised. But he also relied on a strong network of family and friends, personal and professional.

"I find great refuge in my spouse,'' he says. "It's important to have someone you can share everything with. I grew up in Nebraska. It's not a very large state so the community is fairly small. There were many people that reached out to me. That network of other administrators. The professional organization was a big help.''

He also decided the best way to keep himself focused was to remind himself of why he became an educator in the first place. So he took a walk down the street to raise his spirits.

"There's nothing more magical than what goes on in a classroom. That's what you're working to make happen. In Grand Island there was an elementary school. Two blocks away. If you felt down, you could walk to a school. There was one special teacher-she was a superb teacher. She doesn't know it, but just coming into contact with her helped.''

Ruth Sternberg is an education reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. E-mail: rstern@dispatch.com