Feature

All in the Family

When husbands and wives, siblings and fathers and sons share the same job title: school superintendent by PRISCILLA PARDINI

Over the years, as Patrick Bird was growing up in Michigan, his father Daniel assumed a number of different roles in his son's life: gym teacher, principal and superintendent. "I guess the blood in my veins always had some education in it," the younger Bird says.

Nevertheless, Daniel Bird discouraged his son from pursuing a career in education and steered him instead into business. But after a short stint working as a sales representative for what was then the Armour-Dial Co., Bird realized that what he really wanted to do was teach.

"Both my parents had instilled in us that we should do something to serve our community--something to make the world a better place," Bird says. "I never felt as a sales rep that I was making the world a better place."

Last May, Bird was appointed to his first superintendency--in the 1,800-student Richmond, Mich., Community Schools in Macomb County, east of Detroit. Ironically, his father interviewed unsuccessfully for the very same job--and his first superintendency--in the summer of 1979. "We Birds just keep coming back until they take one of us," laughs Daniel Bird, superintendent of the Fruitport, Mich., Community Schools since 1981. "I think he's proud of the fact that he kind of whipped me."

Although many families can boast of multiple members who teach or work as principals, those that include more than one superintendent are relatively rare. In most cases, the superintendents are spouses (see related story), but The School Administrator also identified 14 sets of brothers currently working as district superintendents as well as three sets of fathers and sons.

Advice or Support
Many benefits arise from such unusual arrangements, according to Catherine Chambliss, a licensed psychologist who has worked with many married couples who share the same career.

"The other person has a knowledge base so they understand your problems and are more likely to be interested in what you're going through," says Chambliss, chair of the psychology department at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. "And they're likely to have something to say about your problems."

Of course, having a family member serve in the very same public leadership position also has its downside. "You may want someone to support you and affirm what you're doing, rather than provide you with alternative suggestions, which some see as undermining," says Chambliss.

Such a scenario can pose the greatest problem for spouses in the same profession. "In a relationship where two people share the same career, there is a greater risk of lapsing into advice giving rather than support," says Chambliss, a psychologist who is married to a psychologist. She also points to the potential damage to a relationship should family members begin viewing each other as professional rivals.

On the other hand, she says sharing the same profession often has special benefits for fathers and sons. "Often, fathers and their adult sons can have trouble communicating unless they share some common ground. If they are in the same profession, it can be a boon to their relationship."

Another expert, Milton Schwebel, professor emeritus of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University, sees such relationships as overwhelmingly advantageous. "It enhances a marriage because there's much more to exchange with each other than a couple would normally have," says Schwebel, noting that he and his wife had both worked as educators.

A psychologist with a background in family issues, he agreed that sharing the same occupation also could help parents and their adult children develop closer relationships. Again, he has first-hand experience: His two sons and one grandson are also psychologists.

Schwebel believes second-generation superintendents are part of a growing phenomenon. "In the days when more people worked as semi-skilled laborers, it was common to come home at the end of the day and be finished with work," he says. "But today, professionals and executives are engrossed in their work. They take telephone calls about work at home, have conversations about work at home, take their children to work."

Schwebel said children take note. "And if they identify with their parents, they are also likely to identify with their parents' field or profession," he says.

Fatherly Counsel
Like Patrick Bird, John Hakonson grew up with a school administrator as a father. "I liked what I saw, and I guess I just kind of followed in my dad's footsteps," says Hakonson, a second-generation superintendent working in Blue Hill, Neb. Coincidentally, his sister, Ann Hakonson, became a speech therapist--just like her mother.

The younger Hakonson, in his fourth year as a superintendent, says he calls his dad about once a week. "It's really been beneficial to me to have someone I can trust, who I know has been down a certain road I'm going down for the first time. It certainly gives us something to talk about."

Bill Hakonson, superintendent since 1981of the 600-student Wisner-Pilger Public Schools in Wisner, Neb., says he enjoys the conversations, which he admits benefit him, too. "I get as much information from John as he gets from me," he says. "He's brought me many different ideas, resources and contacts when it comes to looking at problems." At times, John Hakonson says, he is mistaken for his father. "I tell them, 'You have the younger, better-looking one,'" he jokes.

The Birds echo many of the same sentiments. "He's the kind of guy I can call up any time and say, 'I have this situation, what are your thoughts?'" Patrick Bird says of his father. "He's tried very hard to allow me to make it on my own, but he offers me perspective on things."

Daniel Bird describes his son as "his own man, his own educator," adding, "Hopefully, I've been able to help." He credits his son with being a better teacher and "more technically knowledgeable than I am."

Striking Similarities
Even more unusual are families with three working superintendents.

John Hill, superintendent of the East Richland, Ill., Community School District, is married to one superintendent--Sharon Hill, superintendent in Valmeyer, Ill.--and the brother of another.

"He really has been my mentor, in many ways, even before we became professionals," says John of his older brother, Kenneth, superintendent of the Nashville Community High School District, about 60 miles away in southern Illinois. These days they talk together several times a week about their work. "We're so much alike, it's kind of scary sometimes," says Ken Hill. "But I think we both see the superintendency as the best job in education--an opportunity to make a difference."

When Doyle Scott began his career as a superintendent, in Lenox, Iowa, the first thing he did was spend half a day with his big brother, Craig. "He gave me some great ideas," Doyle says. "He showed me how he organized the work he needed to do and how he put together board meetings and advised me on what to say to the staff on the first day of school. It was absolutely helpful."

No wonder. Craig Scott was by then an experienced superintendent. "I tried to help him when he wanted help without being too much of an adviser," he says. "Now he probably helps me as much as I help him."

These days Doyle and Craig Scott both work in central Iowa--Doyle in the East Marshall Community Schools in Gilman and Craig in the Harlan Community Schools. The fact they are brothers makes them especially trusted advisers. "I know him and his quirks, and he knows me and my quirks," Doyle says.

Still, isn't there the chance that superintendents in the same family might find themselves in competition with each other, running the risk of undermining their personal relationship? Indeed, Ken Hill recollects just such a scenario. It took place about five years ago when his brother, John, was working as superintendent of the Harrisburg Unit District 3 in Harrisburg, Ill., about 70 miles from Nashville, Ken's district. The two districts were in the same athletic conference and regularly vied against each other in track and field.

"They whipped us," Ken recalls sadly. And did the experience threaten their brotherly love? "No," he says laughing. "But I did have to buy him a beer."

Priscilla Pardini is a free-lance education writer in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: pardini@execpc.com