My Life as a Leader-for-Hire

How one superintendent found a fascinating and fulfilling second career as an interim superintendent by HANK BOER

When I retired at age 52 after 21 years as a local superintendent, I said to my family and friends, "I’m totally walking away from education. … I will never need to make an educational administrative decision again!" In addition, my wife Sharon made me chisel in granite this promise: "Hank shall never serve as an interim superintendent!"

I had left my chosen profession on the best terms possible. I was young, reasonably successful, healthy and ready for new yet-undefined challenges. I had done everything I had wanted in education, including the last five years as superintendent of the Streator Township High School District, which is located in Streator, Ill., 100 miles west of Chicago.

About 11 months into retirement, my rock-solid commitment began to crumble. It started the day a superintendent friend in a nearby community called me at home to tell me about an exciting new superintendency she had just accepted. She said the board of her current school district asked her to contact me about serving as an interim superintendent until the search process for her successor could be completed. It would be for a very short time, she promised, and, oh yes, the board was not planning to ask anyone to serve in this capacity except me.

Her entreaty was easy to answer because, as I dutifully practiced this line with my wife, "Hank shall never serve as an interim superintendent!" I quickly said no.

My friend and her board weren't willing to accept that as my final answer. A few conversations followed, including an apparently convincing chat between my friend on the move and my wife. My friend gave a complete briefing to Sharon. This included the fact that interim superintendents are paid a per-diem salary for their services. My wife then issued a waiver from my earlier commitment. I agreed to serve in the position because it was for just a limited time.

This short period lasted approximately three months, and it represented, without a doubt, the most positive administrative experience of my professional career. I was able to develop very comfortable relations with teachers, board members and significant members of the community without the pressure to make the "correct" impression that historically has caused stress for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the entirety of my first interim superintendency.

Since then, I have accepted four other interim opportunities and recently assumed a fifth, which will continue through June. I have turned down several other offers because retirees in Illinois are limited to working 100 days per school year to collect their pensions.

My unanticipated second career has been professionally rewarding, financially attractive and just plain fun.

An Unthreatening Presence
One of the key things I quickly learned as an interim superintendent is that generally no one considers the interim to be a threat. Staff members, citizens, students and board of education members treat the interim with respect. Even individuals and organizations inclined to see the superintendent as an adversary play a different tune.

It's easy for the interim superintendent to say, "I'm scheduled to serve for a very short period of time and I'll try to quickly develop a positive working relationship with you and your organization." An officer of the teachers' union walked into my office after I had been on the job for only a few days in one of my interim positions and demanded to know if the rumor was true that I was scheduled to work for only a few days. I was able to respond honestly and in a humorous manner by saying, "I don't know. I'm a temporary worker here and just work day-to-day." That launched a genuinely positive relationship that had a significant impact on the daily operations of the school district. As an interim, I found myself able to communicate more easily with various constituencies and in a more positive manner than I had experienced as a permanent superintendent.

An interim superintendent has a rare opportunity to affect all components of a school district--something not always possible for a permanent office-holder. An interim leader has a unique opportunity to reduce general stress and tension that may have been associated--rightly or wrongly--with the previous superintendent.

I recall my first board of education meeting in a school district where I began serving as an interim superintendent. The board members were so tense that no one looked at each other or anyone in the audience. I smiled and said something dumb such as "I am excited to be here. Are we having fun yet?" That loosened them up.

Boards of education, staff and parents often need time to allow for a mental healing period when an interim superintendent comes aboard. A sense of humor and sincere words of reassurance that we will manage the current school concerns are often much needed. I listen a great deal to persons who have been hurt personally by fellow board members and fellow staff members. Sharing personal experiences of how similar situations were resolved during my career has had a powerful effect.

Interim superintendents easily can make routine improvements to the organization because stakeholders in a school district simply want conditions to settle down. I've overseen several routine fiscal improvements, including an analysis of annual audits at board of education meetings and have established a system of collateral pledges for investments over $100,000. Other fiscal improvements that seem rather mundane--such as preventing staff members from purchasing school supplies before completing purchase order forms--can make a difference in office environment and efficiency.

I've tried introducing other subtle changes. I've suggested that school board votes begin with the member who made the motion, then the member who seconded the motion. The last person to vote should be the board president, who would vote to break a deadlock. For some reason, I have become involved in sorting out all the historic school district central-office files that no one has taken time to maintain. Most have long outlived their value to anyone. In one school district it appeared that nothing had been reviewed in 35 years!

I have had to remind myself to remain objective as the superintendent search process develops because I frequently have enjoyed a positive professional relationship with many of the candidates. It has been especially gratifying to me to supervise all aspects of the search process because of the respect that is given to me by the board of education owing to my administrative experience and judgment.

A Second Career
The conditions of my retirement may explain why my interim superintendent experiences have been so appealing. My professional career, like many superintendents, wasn't always filled with professionally positive experiences. I've had to shoulder heavy burdens for 10 major financial referenda, a teachers' strike, significant budget reductions and way too many negative personnel matters. When the Illinois General Assembly approved a "5+5" early retirement option, allowing me to leave the field on my own terms, I seized the chance.

Because I retired at the comparatively early age of 52, my second career as an interim superintendent is perhaps more realistic than it would be for someone who retires much older. My total of retirement credit was 29 years, which included five years as a high school principal and 21 as a district superintendent.

My retirement has coincided with the growing need for interim administrators, which is due to the mobility of administrators and the increasing trend of administrators transferring to new positions during the school term. Superintendent search organizations, especially those run by state school boards associations, typically maintain a list of potential interim candidates for boards of education to use when they have temporary leadership needs. The Illinois Association of School Administrators, like other state-level administrator groups, also recommends interim superintendents to boards of education.

One practice that works well for me when I interview with a board for an interim position is to interject some humor when we discuss compensation terms. (An interim superintendent often is paid a per-diem rate equal to the daily rate of salary and benefits of the permanent superintendent.)

In my interview, I begin to plant seeds of how I can assist in the mental healing process by discussing normally sensitive contractual terms in a light-hearted manner. I tell board members that I do not want or expect a contact renewal, a raise in pay or a job performance evaluation, and I am definitely not a candidate for the full-time superintendent position. Up front, I inform the board that if any member does not want me to continue to serve, he or she should inform me that day because my wife and I have an understanding that I will not have even one "bad" working day.

Seven Suggestions
I believe the following guiding principles have allowed me to enjoy each interim experience. I believe these guidelines are fair expectations for the board of education and for me.

  • Maintain a daily log.

    I typically keep a record of 10 completed tasks by noting the time I began the working day and when I ended my day at the office. I share these logs with each board of education member on a monthly basis because I think it leads to a better understanding of the superintendent's routine responsibilities, of which they may be unaware.

  • Get out to greet.

    I take advantage of whatever opportunities exist in the district to personally meet with staff and students and begin to develop a trust relationship. I have attended Future Farmers of America animal exhibits and made introductory remarks at a home economics conference for a student who was elected to a statewide office. I have attended high school Spanish class puppet shows, art fair exhibits and numerous student athletic events.

  • Share what you know.

    Maintain a constant flow of information to the board president of the board of education, the superintendent search team and appropriate state-level organizations. I have discovered that often communications systems have deteriorated and the board of education has been appreciative of an honest and complete flow of information.

  • Set a good example.

    I try to strengthen the administrative team by personally modeling a strong work ethic and by demonstrating instructional leadership risk-taking skills, which is enhanced by the fact that I am not a permanent superintendent. If I make a serious error, the worst that can happen is that I am fired and I need to go home and work in my garage on my woodworking projects.

  • Be enthusiastic.

    Enter the position with the same personal excitement you felt when you accepted your first superintendent's position.

  • Never say farewell.

    Extend a sincere offer to continue your positive relationship and interest with central-office staff members and the new superintendent after you have completed your interim responsibilities. I have found that the new superintendent quickly gets up to speed and your professional leadership and involvement is quickly reduced. I make it a practice to make a telephone call every few months to the new superintendent to offer my support.

  • Have some fun.

    Try to find opportunities to demonstrate your sense of humor and encourage your colleagues to enjoy their experiences with you. Accept social invitations to appropriate school building faculty events, family holiday parties and extracurricular sponsorship parties. I've even attended the wedding of a board member's daughter.

    Hank Boer is serving as interim superintendent at the Sherrard Community Unit School District 200 in Viola, Ill., during the spring semester. He can be reached at 6 Marilla Park Road, Streator, IL 61364. E-mail: boer@crtelco.com