The Forgotten Partner: The Superintendent's Husband


When a husband opened his invitation to the partners' program for a superintendents' conference recently, he reviewed the main features of the program: a fashion show, an afternoon tea, a tour of a local mansion and a cooking demonstration. The brochure also asked each participant to bring along a favorite recipe to share.

"I guess I can't go," he said to his wife, the new school superintendent. "I just can't decide which recipe to take."

Thus began a journey of discovery into the world of partnering in a field where female superintendents are a distinct minority. According to AASA's just-released 10-year study of the American school superintendency, women today fill slightly more than 13 percent of the superintendent positions nationwide with about 77 percent of them being married.

On the job, the roles, duties and expectations of male and female superintendents are usually similar. At home, they can differ--and often do dramatically.

Different Strokes
Superintendents put in long hours on the job with obligations to attend meetings and events several nights a week. When male superintendents return home from such activities, the majority of them will have a spouse at home attending to the many family responsibilities. For the female superintendent, this is less commonly so. They tend to shoulder the extra duties of household chores and social scheduling.

The husband, meanwhile, faces the additional pressures of adjusting to the demands of her highly visible and demanding position.

The female superintendent probably spends less time at home today than perhaps had been the case when she served in other administrative positions. Finding time for privacy as a couple becomes a rarity. Her husband often is expected to be actively involved in the community, and her needs for emotional support frequently are placed on the husband when the pressures of her job fall heavily on her shoulders. It helps to have a spouse who is emotionally secure and supportive, willingly assists in household chores and can adjust to the frequent changes that occur in their lives as a couple.

Reversing Roles
Depending on the professional stages of their lives, a role reversal sometimes occurs when the wife becomes a superintendent. The husband's image may be altered in the community. This occurred when a man retired from his highly public position as a building principal about the time his wife accepted the superintendency. Instantly, the news headlines were about his wife instead of his own career.

In another instance, the husband had lived in the community his entire life and had served on numerous local boards and leadership positions when suddenly his wife was appointed superintendent of the local school district. She took center stage in the media, and he all but disappeared.

Changes in the wife's career may affect the husband's own professional path, especially if a geographical move is involved. Or the husband's privacy may be lost to her public notoriety. Family time is limited due to the heavy demands on the superintendent. Stress may fill the conversations that do exist in those infrequent moments when the couple is together.

The attitude of the husband makes a huge difference in the superintendent's ability to devote her attention to the position and to assume the professional risks needed for her career to grow. If he is encouraging and supportive, she can feel the freedom to make her own decisions without worrying about the relationship. If he is not, much of her time and energy may be consumed with worrying about how to balance the stressful workload with her marriage.

Striking a Balance
The wise superintendent and her husband will attempt to maintain a balance between the marriage and her career by following these strategies, which have worked well for us:


  • Communicate priorities. Talking about each other's concerns on a regular basis keeps the problems in perspective and the relationship alive.



  • Get away together periodically. One female superintendent and her husband own a second residence in another state that is completely furnished with canned goods, household items and clothing. When they schedule a getaway, they forget the baggage, hop on a plane with a good book and spend the time relaxing with each other.



  • Keep healthy. A planned program of healthy eating, regular exercise and an attitude of wellness will help maintain balance in the lives of both partners. It even adds to the relationship if some of the time is spent in such endeavors as walking or another activity that gives the couple more time together.



  • Maintain an attitude of flexibility. The superintendent's life provides many opportunities to practice flexibility. If both partners roll with the punches, the marriage will have a greater chance of providing the foundation of support each of them needs.



  • Avoid guilt. Any sense of blaming or guilt is destructive and ought to be avoided. The couple should save their energy for strengthening a positive partnership.



  • Establish family rituals. Just knowing that certain experiences will take place adds a sense of stability to the relationship. Holidays, anniversaries and even daily or weekly routines outside the job will strengthen the couple's bond and provide fond memories in the future.



  • Stay in frequent contact. Notes left around the house, quick phone calls, even voice mail messages help stay in touch with what's happening and remind the partner that one cares for the other.



  • Respect each other's roles. Female superintendents find themselves in a job shaped and dominated by men. Their husbands often feel the need to protect them when negative comments arise. It takes an exceptional man to be able to support his wife without stepping in to "save her."



  • Don't aim for perfect balance. Things will get out of balance on occasion, maybe even frequently. Agree that it's acceptable for things to be out of balance. The commitment to working it out together is the cement that holds the relationship together in the rough times.


    The husband who received the invitation to attend a fashion show and an afternoon tea declined the opportunity, not surprisingly.

  • A Rap Session
    Perhaps statewide superintendent conferences and AASA's national conference would do well to add a cracker barrel session to their partners' programs just for husbands to discuss their supporting role in the life of a female superintendent. It likely would start as a small group that would grow in the coming years.

    Of course, that shouldn't prevent the husbands from exchanging a recipe or two. Many good meals have been prepared by the forgotten partner and enjoyed by the female superintendent!

    Judith Staples is superintendent of the Medina Central School District, 1016 Gwinn St., Medina, NY 14103. E-mail: Christine Neal is superintendent of the Lockport, N.Y., City Schools.