The Triumphant Superintendent

Despite greater job pressures, school system leaders can find their shining moments in the way they advocate for children and their learning by JOHN R. HOYLE

After another glorious victory in battle, triumphant emperor Julius Caesar told adoring crowds: "I came, I saw, I conquered." On Dec. 2, 1804, in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Napoleon triumphantly proclaimed himself Emperor of the French people. Joan of Arc and her army were triumphant in battle to save the city of Orleans. And dedicated teachers in urban schools experience a moment of triumph when a student smiles and proclaims, "Now I understand."

To triumph, one must be victorious and magnificent, and one must exult in success. To triumph, one must reach the pinnacle or experience an amazing accomplishment that may come only once in a lifetime.

When Tara Lipinski, the figure skater, saw the judge's final marks to win the gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics, she shrieked with pure ecstasy in her moment of triumph. Her high achievement grew from a 5-year-old's vision while standing on a makeshift podium to act out her fantasy of winning the gold. Einstein surely felt a similar moment of triumph when he discovered his theory of relativity. Marie Curie experienced hers when she uncovered the mysteries of radioactivity. Teacher Anne Sullivan surely felt triumphant when Helen Keller uttered her first word: "water."

Have you as a superintendent experienced moments of triumph? Can you recall a time when you exulted in the accomplishments of your professional life? Perhaps you are still looking for that moment. Psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that this mountain-top experience was the highest psychological state of self-actualization. Every person today needs to experience a triumphant moment--a moment when you were at your best, when you were a peak performer.

What does it take to become a triumphant superintendent? What magic puzzle of skills, attitudes, knowledge, experience, genetics and values must fit together for that one brief shining moment of triumph? What would it take to connect to the dendrites of creative thinking in your cerebral cortex and cause you to reflect on the why and how of your leadership style? If you want more triumphant moments in your life, you must realize that the only way to have them is to heed the words of Peter Drucker, author of Managing for the Future, who said, "The foundation of effective leadership is thinking through the organization's mission, defining it and establishing it, clearly and visibly ...The leader's first task is to be the trumpet that sounds a clear sound."

Getting better in the superintendency is frequently in the eye of the beholder. You may find yourself beholden to a board of education whose moment of triumph may be your resignation. It is beyond the grasp of this writer to explain the vagrant ways of some school board actions. Suffice it to say that if you have a supportive school board, your moments of triumph can come more often.

First, consider the warp-speed of change in our technical, organizational and personal lives. Second, consider the major forces driving us to frame new problems and solutions to different issues. Third, revisit the power of vision and how a shared vision can inspire others to embrace, as researchers Carl Glickman and Ed Pajak once called, "a cause beyond oneself" that gives faith, hope and love to others and a commitment to never give up in times of despair.

The New Millennium
We are caught in an age of keeping up with the Bill Gates of the world. Windows here, windows there, miniaturization and speed of light information processing.

In a few months we enter the new millennium we have been talking about for decades. Will the 21st century live up to its advanced billing in terms of medical breakthroughs, a healthy environment, information technologies, global communications and world peace, and above all, the length and quality of life?

We have fiber-optic cable spanning the globe to send a million bits of information at the speed of light, virtual reality that is too real (at least in movies and thrill rides), forms of artificial intelligence, gene cloning with the capability of creating new organs for transplants and new human beings. We have pocket-sized and wearable computers and smart cards to monitor our health, handle our banking and shopping, remind us of birthdays and anniversaries and cook our meals.

We have gone far into outer space on a seven-year trip to Saturn with the spaceship Cassini, loaded with plutonium as an alternative power source when it races out of the sun's power. We learn that quantum physics is changing its old theory base to one of connectivity and relationships to all matter and the other sciences. In this era of chaos theory we realized that systemic change is our best path. Everything is tied to something else.

Driving Forces
In this time of warp-speed change the following four forces must be met head-on if triumphant moments are to happen in your life as a superintendent. Among these forces are: (1) school governance at the local and state levels; (2) school funding for teachers and facilities; (3) accountability to the public for student performance; and (4) privatization and other forms of school choice.


  • School governance. Is it true today's school board members are more demanding and more driven by single issues or narrow agendas than board members of the past?


    School board member training by state and national school board associations has increased each year since 1980 and yet superintendents continue to rank school governance and keeping harmony with the school board as their major headache. The literature is full of philosophical essays on democratic governance of schools. Some authorities have called for the dissolution of school boards because they have become an artifact of history that no longer works.

    Democratic leadership never has been easy. Superintendents must listen to the chatter, suggestions, solutions, demands and radical views of board members and sift it all through a moral screen. They then must make a decision that will unite and inspire the board and community to support education for all children.

    Triumphant moments can happen when working with boards, and many superintendents have mastered the skills to deal with diversity of ideas, people and issues to lead others to their triumphant moments. The superintendent who can swallow anger and frustration with the radical or unreasonable board member has a much better chance of experiencing triumphant moments as a leader.

    My advice to my former students and friends in the superintendency is "to divide and conquer." I suggest to them that the board members they dislike the most are the ones who need care and nurturing. Invite those individuals to breakfast and, in spite of your feelings about them, tell them how much you appreciate their contributions to the children in your community. It is much better to face your adversaries and win them with kindness than to avoid them and allow the anger to grow into an impasse between you and the board member.

    For the sake of the students, allow good will to prevail. Forgiving the faults of others and your own is a powerful remedy for more peaceful living. Keeping the focus on the welfare of every student and redirecting board members' energies in that direction represents value-based leadership, which leads to moments of triumph.


  • School funding. U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley estimates we will need two million new teachers and 6,000 more school buildings in the next 10 years. Attaining these targets is complicated by the growing number of poor children, whose passage to a successful life is largely dependent on the public schools. The migration of families to metropolitan areas of Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and other urban centers is placing heavy burdens on school budgets and school planners.


    Demands for new learning technologies, professional development for teachers and the high expectations of communities for the schools are increasing. What implications do these profound changes carry for student demographics and learning styles for our schools, the teachers and the facilities that house them? What can you as school leaders do to advance legislation that will increase teachers' salaries, improve the training they receive at universities and enhance their professional development once you hire them?

    Keep telling cogent stories to the local taxpayers and your legislators about your outdated, overcrowded facilities and need for new schools. Don't simply rely on your state administrator association to advocate for you. As respected leaders, you must inform the corporate and business community about the future needs for teachers and facilities. The time has come to collaborate more closely with local businesses, civic, social and health agencies and higher education to build facilities for integrated services to assist all people in the community.

    If children are to have their triumphant moments in the next millennium, you must step up with a vision for better education.


  • Public accountability for higher performance. According to David Berliner, Gerald Bracey, Richard Rothstein and other "contrarian" observers of public education over the years, our students today are smarter and score higher on tests than previous generations. While it depends on which data you read, many would conclude that each ethnic group in America has increased its SAT, ACT, GRE and other test scores over the past 25 years.


    Rothstein, for example, in a recent Educational Research Service publication "What Do We Know About Declining (Or Rising) Student Achievement," reports black students in 1976 were 6.5 percent of all SAT test takers and had an average score of 686. In 1995, black students were 9.7 percent of all test takers and had an average score of 744. This is a remarkable improvement.

    Paul Houston, AASA executive director, often encourages superintendents to communicate their successes, while acknowledging the need for improvement in some areas, without appearing to be "anti-test" or unaccountable for student success. Testing is here to stay. The legislators and governors place student testing at the top of their platforms and school board members often follow their lead. If the test scores are not as high as those in other nations, the next state, district or school, you will hear about it.

    Americans are a competitive people, so align the curriculum to the assessment being used, train principals and teachers to teach to the test (not teach the test), learn the art and science of disaggregating test score data and use courage and compassion to place the resources where student achievement needs the greatest attention. Consider alternative forms of student assessment and use them to help each student learn and grow. Prepare yourself and your staff to disaggregate data for every student, provide each teacher and administrator with the tools of alignment, effective teaching practice, mediation and demonstrate lots of patience.


  • Privatization and school choice. America is full of experts on education. People from the private and public sectors and the universities all have answers on solving your schools' problems. Their first suggestion: Raise test scores so that every student is above average and kick out the kids who do not want to learn. These are the same individuals who will stand in public meetings or write on the op-ed page, "If I ran my business the way you run your schools, I'd go broke in six months."


    Competition is healthy in most enterprises, but not when the future of children is at stake. You have read about the Edison Project and other privatization efforts. One can summarize the success of all forms of alternatives to public education by saying, "There is no substantial evidence that a voucher plan, charter schools or other efforts with a corporate arrangement leads to any better outcomes than a public school with comparable funding and student populations."

    Superintendents and other school leaders want what is best for students. It is time in America for state departments of education, state legislators, governors and private profiteers to back off and support the Jeffersonian ideal of talent and virtue, not upperclass snobbery. The public schools are for all Americans, and a profit should not be sought at the expense of any one of our children.

    Superintendents must take what they have and create exciting learning communities for all. This is the best way to discourage bounty hunters in education and find triumphant moments.

  • Visionary Leadership
    Creating a vision for high-performing schools that captures the district and school culture is a vital skill for school leaders. Vision statements that are initiated by leaders like you and shared by your entire staff and community energize schools to accomplish big dreams and create thousands of triumphant moments for others.

    The "vision thing," as it's come to be known, may be timeworn or overused, but its impact cannot be ignored. Visionaries and their visions, says futurist Joel Barker, have inspired the creation of magnificent monuments that have withstood the ravages of time. The Greek temples, the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman Coliseum, the Salisbury Cathedral and EPCOT Center all had their genesis in someone's vision. Hallmark Cards, which leads its industry, has a clear vision: "When you care enough to send the very best." Ford Motor Co., behind its motto "Quality is job one," has propelled itself to the top in total car sales in America.

    In the May-June 1996 issue of The Futurist, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authoritative co-authors on leadership, said, "No matter how much involvement other people have in shaping the vision, we expect that the leaders will be able to articulate it. It's easier to put a jigsaw puzzle together if you can see the picture on the box cover." Visionary superintendents create higher team loyalty, more ideas, higher goals and shared dreams and triumphant moments for all children in the district.

    The pressures on and responsibilities of school superintendents increase each school year. However, the opportunities to be a powerful force in the lives of children and youth increase as well. Troubled youth, families and communities look to visionary superintendents who inspire hope and possess the interpersonal skills to make things happen. Funding for school facilities, teachers, learning technologies and staff development will be a problem as long as public schools exist. The recruiting of talented, courageous and visionary school leaders who will continue the fight for all students is a challenge for university preparation programs and school systems.

    School leaders of the 21st century need at least the following three attributes. They must care deeply for others, create shared visions to motivate and inspire the community and have a tenacious will to continue when personal failures occur.

    True Purposes
    Joseph Klock, author of Like klockwork: The whimsy, wit, and sometime wisdom of a Key Largo curmudgeon, tells a story that touches on the three attributes: A group of refugees was planning to flee a war zone by hiking over a most rugged mountain range. As they were leaving, a weak old man and a pale, sickly young women carrying a baby asked the group's leader if they could make the journey with the others. The leader turned to the rest of the group and after a brief discussion they agreed to let the old man and the young mother go with them, with the understanding that the men would take turns carrying the baby but the old man and the young woman were on their own.

    Several days into the difficult journey, the old man fell to the ground exhausted and pleaded with the others to leave him behind to die. Facing the harsh realities of survival, the others reluctantly agreed to leave the old man. Just as they turned to leave, the young sickly mother took her baby from the arms of one of the men and placed the baby in the arms of the old man. "It's your turn to carry the baby," she said, before turning and walking away. After several minutes up the mountain trail, the young mother looked back and saw the old man stumbling along with the baby in his arms.

    When superintendents, like the old man, realize the true purposes of life and leadership, they can never give up. The children in your arms are the future of America. Carry your students with the highest ideals, the best educational programming and a promise to continue the fight. The triumphant moments will come.

    John Hoyle is a professor of educational administration, Texas A&M University, Room 511, Harrington Education Center, College Station, TX 77843-4226. E-mail: jhoyle@tamu.edu