Caring for Ourselves

As a superintendent, you hold the power to control your own wellness by GEORGE BESCULIDES

Every year as school draws to a close, the superintendents of the southeast quadrant of Nassau County, N.Y., come together for a year-end luncheon. Before the event winds down someone invariably asks who is going to take the longest summer vacation.

Some superintendents struggle to raise their hands at two weeks. The prevailing norm seems to be for superintendent to take from one to two weeks, often broken into smaller segments of time. The one or two people who acknowledge taking a break of three weeks receive the cheers and jeers of the rest. The admission comes almost as a badge of dishonor to be the one taking the longest block of time for summer vacation.

Some years back, while attending a conference of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, I sat in on a session on wellness in the superintendency. A recently retired superintendent presented some data he had compiled about the role of the superintendent. Essentially he found that we superintendents, for the most part, fail to take very good care of ourselves and really don’t know how to relax.

We apparently are good at nurturing others and giving advice to them about how to care properly for themselves, but when it comes time to apply the advice to ourselves we are too busy to do that. We fail to find the time to exercise. We fail to discipline ourselves to eat properly. We don’t find adequate time to sleep given the demands of late night meetings followed by early morning commitments.

Above all, we don’t take all of our vacation time because doing so would show us to be something other than the rugged, sturdy Rocks of Gibraltar we all see ourselves as having to be. The Rock of Gibraltar doesn’t come in from the rain. It stands proudly through all kinds of weather conditions, repeatedly beaten by the ocean waves, yet it continues to stand unshaken.

Of course, if we pursue this image of ourselves we will experience the same fate as the Colossus of Rhodes.

Personality Influences
What are we doing wrong? I know certain personality variables drive the vast majority of us into the superintendency. When I was working on my doctoral dissertation I administered the "paragraph completion test" to all of the department chairs, principals and superintendents who were willing to participate in my study. The paragraph completion test measured six personality variables. One of the six, achievement drive, was the most significant in terms of differentiating the respective administrative roles.

People high in achievement drive tend to want to be perfectionists achieving at the highest levels in all that they do. My dissertation proved to the .01 level that principals as a group were significantly higher in their drive to achieve than were those serving as department chairs. I found that people in the superintendency as a group were significantly higher in their drive to achieve than were those working as principals. Is it any wonder that when it comes to taking vacation that so many of us hesitate to take the time accorded to us?

What should we be doing? Given that change at any age is difficult, we must come to grips with our true personalities. We should recognize that perhaps the things that drive us, while desirable for our career advancement, may not be the best medicine for our health and well being. Some 30 years ago, while still a classroom teacher, I departed for a two-week vacation with my wife in Massachusetts. We checked into a hotel in Boston in the early evening on our first day and had a leisurely dinner nearby. The next morning we rushed to walk the Freedom Trail and visit the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston Harbor. By noon of the first full day we had moved on to Salem. We visited the Customs House, the homes of some would-be witches and The House of the Seven Gables. We then jumped in our car and headed south towards Plymouth to see the famous rock. We checked into a motel before nightfall and had our second leisurely dinner.

The next morning we visited Plymouth Plantation and the site of the infamous Plymouth Rock. As we were driving along the highway, we stopped by one of the visitors centers and a helpful employee booked us a room at a nice bed and breakfast. When we arrived it was still relatively light out so we decided to go relax on one of the famous Cape Cod beaches. We spread out a blanket on the sand and my wife and I reclined to read our respective books.

Not more than a half hour went by when I jumped up and declared that I could stay here no longer. I had read long enough trying to lie on the sand. I could not linger this long in what I deemed to be inactivity. My wife, who as a teen-ager had spent countless hours on sandy beaches, tried to coax me into relaxing but to no avail. Needless to say, we packed everything away and walked the streets of Yarmouth and Hyannis. I was OK as long as I kept moving.

The next morning we were at the dock to take the first ferry boat available to go visit Nantucket. Once on the island we took an organized bus tour, spent a little time visiting a couple of shops near the ferry area and promptly boarded a ferry back to the mainland while it was still mid-afternoon. When we got back to the mainland I took my wife’s hand while disembarking the ferry. As my feet hit the ground coming off of the boat, I ran to our car pulling my reluctant wife behind. We got into the car and I promptly drove my car back to our home in Westchester County, N.Y. Thus our scheduled two-week vacation of rest and relaxation ended after three "fun-filled" and "active" days.

Recognizing that a problem exists is the first step in repairing the problem. Unfortunately, it has taken me many years to recognize that this is not a good way to take a vacation.

I don’t know that this kind of behavior is solely as a result of my achievement drive. Without trying to infringe on the field of psychology I would venture to say that it has a lot to do with a number of personality characteristics that have come together. But again, these characteristics, while perhaps desirable in the workplace, are neither desirable nor conducive to one’s well-being on vacation.

If my situation sounds at all familiar to you, take heart that change is possible. Indeed change is necessary.

Modifying Your Behavior
To change your behavior, you must take some steps that may be difficult. If you think you will have difficulty with them, I suggest you get over it. As the old story goes, no one lying on his death bed ever decried they did not put enough time in at the office.

Years ago I remember a member of the board of education calling me at home on a Sunday to discuss a call she had just received from a member of the community. I listened patiently and when she was finished I asked if the resolution to the problem could wait until tomorrow as I was spending my time with my family. She apologized and never called me at home again. Fortunately for me she was a sensitive and bright individual and understood my message.

Some years later I had another board member call me at home one evening. Unfortunately, he was not as sensitive as the earlier board member. I politely explained that I work somewhere between 50 to 70 hours per week, depending upon the demands of the week. I felt that afforded him ample opportunity to access me at work. Therefore, I added, I would appreciate it if he would not call me at home again. He never did.

This may be difficult for a superintendent to say to a board member, but I firmly believe that a job is something you work at, not something that owns you.

No One's Indispensable
One year, the board of education sought to shorten the number of vacation days that I had access to. I explained to the board members that on a daily basis I gave them every ounce of commitment that I could muster. Indeed, during the many years that my four children were active in sports and other after-school activities in junior high and high school, I managed to attend just three of their games. Given that miniscule number, some might consider me a negligent parent. I always felt guilty if I left the district office any time before the normally allotted time. Perhaps this would not have been as much of a dilemma if I lived and worked in the same district, but unfortunately for the past 25 years this has not been the case.

I explained to the board that I was spending 60 to 70 hours on the job in a typical week. I wanted them to realize that when I attended evening meetings three or four times a week, I did not make it home until late at night, well after my children had gone to sleep. I explained that the only quality time I had with my family was my vacation time. Being parents themselves, they could relate to my situation, I suppose, and they never again asked to limit my vacation.

However, accumulating vacation time and using it are two different things. There were years when I had new assistants in the central office so I broke up my vacation time to ensure I would be present for important matters needing my attention or just to be present with them for guidance during a break-in period. However once I knew the assistants I hired were in fact quite capable, what was holding me back?

I have come to recognize that I am not indispensable to this or any organization. Change is inevitable. If I were to die tomorrow the organization and my assistants would go on without me. Besides, I owe it to my colleagues to help groom them for the opportunities I have had, and what better way can this happen than by leaving them in charge from time to time? By doing so, I help them grow and preserve my own well-being.

This, of course, presupposes you are self-confident enough that you won’t feel threatened by their success. Face it, if your assistants are successful in running the operation for a time without you, which they should be, take the credit for training them properly. Take the credit for establishing a working organization and operations that don’t need you every day. If they don’t succeed in your absence, then maybe instead of feeling needed, you should be embarrassed that you have not adequately trained your assistants to be independent.

Steps You Can Take
So what do I do to relax?

First, I take my vacation time. Some years back I started buying two weeks of time sharing over the Christmas holiday, and I remain devoted to taking the time. When my children were younger and living at home we always spent this time together in Florida. It meant not seeing other relatives over the holiday, but you don’t have to buy a Christmas week. You don’t even have to buy a time share. The one good thing about it is that it psychologically forces you to take the time. Now that our children are older and more geographically scattered, I am pleased to note that on their own, they have sought to take off time from their respective work environments to join us in Florida.

Second, I never call the office. I believe that every time you call in, you interrupt your vacation and have to start again. Who has ever called in and not lingered for a time after the phone call ended, mulling over the issues involved in the call? Don’t call, and you won’t be bothered. I always leave my number so that people can reach me if there is an emergency. Over the past 13 years I have been called three times. One was to let me know that another of our schools had won national recognition as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. The other two were not emergencies but there was a timeliness to them.

When I was a high school assistant principal I worked with a principal who said to me that I should not be afraid to make a decision when the occasion demanded my doing so. He explained that he would not always be around and circumstances would arise sometimes that required immediate action. He urged me to make the decision and reassured me he would back it.

Give the same authority to others. Sometimes a colleague may make a bad decision, but most things can be undone or fixed. The adjustments are not difficult. In the end you will be far better off than feeling you must make every decision and not take your vacation time because of this concern.

Third, I take all of the time allotted to me. As already mentioned, I give every ounce of my energy to the organization when I am at work. Thus I feel no guilt for attempting to enjoy every minute of my allotted vacation time.

Fourth, I have learned to relax, to some extent. I still need to be actively engaged, but I have allowed more things on the unwritten list of items that can engage me. In the past, a half-hour of sustained reading was all my head would allow. Now I take a book or two with me so I may recline on a beach chair and just read.

You Hold the Power
Often I read self-help books and especially enjoy the writings of Anthony Robbins, among others. I discovered from him that "nothing in life has any meaning except the meaning you give it." From reading these types of books I discovered that much of how we see the world is how we choose to interpret things. This realization also ties back to some of the things I discovered in my dissertation.

Given the same set of facts, educators in different roles often perceived the facts differently. This means that as many stimuli are presented to us on a daily basis, we usually have the option of interpreting and reacting to them in a variety of fashions.

For example, if a community member calls about something I can often interpret the call as:

1. An intrusion and get aggravated;

2. An attempt to be helpful and be appreciative;

3. A misguided perception and attempt to educate someone; or

4. Just a phone call and look at it as an opportunity to let another person know I am on the job and concerned about their views on things.

By understanding that I have the power to interpret events and place a value on them, I can look at a traffic jam as a point of stress or as an opportunity to hear more of the world news or more music. Now I am no Pollyanna. There are times I become really aggravated, but the number of those times has significantly diminished and I, as well as those around me, am better off as a result.

The power of interpretation rests with me, and the power to attach significance to the event or statement also rests with me. This leaves me not only with a sense of more control in my life, which diminishes stress, but it also leaves me happier because my interpretations of events can be positive instead of negative.

George Besculides is in his 14th year as superintendent of the Wantagh Union Free School District, 3301 Beltagh Ave., Wantagh, NY 11793. E-mail: dannon1945@aol.com.