For Better or Worse

The spouse of a former superintendent shares ways of minimizing the harmful impact of the job on his or her mate by HELEN M. SHARP

You marry the person, not the position. Yet the job of a public school leader, for better or worse, assumes a presence in your life.


My husband Bill's two superintendencies were dissimilar, yet the influence of each on me was profound, one as enriching as the other was unsettling and disturbing to this day, some 11 years since he left the post.

Not unlike most domestic relationships, school leaders tend to choose mates with similar character traits and value systems. School leaders are usually talented, intelligent, motivated and idealistic, committed to improving the lives of young people. They also are effective communicators, good listeners, givers rather than takers. Few enter the field for the money. Their spouses--many of them talented, intelligent, idealistic, committed and sensitive givers--cannot help but be affected by the school leader's job.

The examples that follow, drawn from my experience as a superintendent’s spouse, illustrate the effect of my husband’s high-level professional position on me. With each scenario or series of incidents, I offer what I believe are useful suggestions to superintendents on minimizing, though never eliminating, the harmful repercussions on their spouses.

The Public Persona
The superintendent and spouse, unequivocally, must be model citizens. When invited to myriad school functions, both must attend and try to enjoy the events, participate in neutral, cordial, optimistic conversations and act like objective yet gracious diplomats. It helps if a school leader and spouse can cover a room filled with people in the manner of fund-raisers, insurance agents or politicians running for office.

A spouse invariably senses the expectations and follows a prescribed role, acting as others expect--polite, interested and appreciative. As a newspaper photographer once reminded me, "I need you to step into the background since I want shots of your husband and the board members." The spouse is the pleasant, smiling, background person.

This expectation of a public persona always seemed unrealistic to me. Moreover, how could I feel anything but less important than my husband who handled multimillion dollar budgets and made crucial decisions about community school districts?

  • Suggestions for the superintendent. Encourage your spouse to pursue all personal and professional goals, consistent with available opportunities, though it is possible the school district's location may not provide the necessary resources for doing so.

    Also, discuss role expectations for school leaders and spouses and the importance of positive public relations in every community. In addition, remind your spouse about the need to be exquisitely discrete with "inside" information.

  • A Board That Shares
    On a crisp autumn weekend in central Indiana, the five members of the Westfield-Washington school board shared the first of many meals together with Bill and me, this one at the home of Mary and Mac Bray. The latter was the board’s president, and his wife, an envied cook, provided an occasion that unified these professionals. Sharing views, laughing and eating helped create understanding, if not a support system among all.

    An effective school board supports educational efforts as it allows the superintendent to fulfill the job’s responsibilities. Board members, aware of their strengths and limitations and respectful of their defined roles, work optimally as a unified group and prioritize sometimes hard-won compromises. They accept individual differences and viewpoints. They separate their policymaking job in the school district from what may be deeply held personal agendas.

  • Suggestions for the superintendent: Get-togethers with board members not only unite school team members but also allow your spouse to appreciate the issues and the individuals with whom you’re dealing. Encourage these social occasions so long as they do not violate a state’s open meetings law. A board's priorities and decisions, its strengths and weaknesses affect both of your lives.

  • Your Free Time
    The phone rang in our Massachusetts Bay hotel room moments after we entered. At the insistence of school board members, I had accompanied Bill on his second interview with this school district. I had toured the area, viewing potential homes with a real estate agent for four hours while my husband Bill spent the day fielding questions from the board as one of their finalists.

    We hoped for some time to relax before the dinner meeting with the board. The caller, a board member, said she "just wanted to talk" to Bill, and he did so for another half hour.

    This illustrates one harsh expectation of the superintendency--availability around the clock. Often, a superintendent leaves the office late, arrives at home exhausted and grabs a fast dinner before returning to work. Meetings, school events, forums and coffees, service group projects and committee work require the administrator's participation. School leaders are "on call" a disproportionate amount of time.

    Bill and I once were awakened at 2:30 a.m. by a call from the school district's electronic monitoring system, located in Atlanta. The alert signaled an irregular temperature in one school building. On another occasion, a board member called while Bill and I were installing a window air conditioner. I had to balance an extremely heavy unit as the caller built his case for why community members should be able to use the district’s swimming pool over the weekend even though the board had just voted to disallow all use of the facilities by groups outside the school due to pending insurance changes. The caller suggested my husband would be "insubordinate" if he did not honor the request.

    These routine intrusions usually require an immediate response to what can range from potentially serious problems to frivolous matters of concern only to the caller.

  • Suggestions for the superintendent: You owe it to your spouse and family to disengage from the job as you exit school. Anticipate routines at home. Unwind by focusing on household chores, repairs and errands. Review the highlights of each family member's day. Eat dinners together. Maintain a sports and exercise routine. Explore hobbies and interests. Schedule vacation time, including special weekends away from the district. Bill often advised his administrators to limit home hours for school-related work.

  • Frequent Relocations
    School district leaders relocate every three to five years, uprooting their families as they move. One administrator's spouse confided sorrow and guilt listening to her son's nightly prayers. For almost 18 months he ended with "Thank you, God, that we are not moving again."

    I left job opportunities with each of our moves, one a tenured teaching position, and have never recovered financial independence.

  • Suggestions for the superintendent: Before accepting a new position, appraise the vicinity of your potential new home, considering the impact of the move on each family member. Allow them to travel with you, if possible. Locate job and educational options, as well as recreational facilities, entertainment sources, stores and shopping, park programs for all age groups, libraries, museums, music and theater offerings.

  • Public Criticism
    A superintendent cannot please every member of the school community. Sometimes, a superintendent cannot please any member of that community. As my husband reminded me, a superintendent makes a few friends and enemies the first year and then just adds more enemies each year thereafter.

    School critics surface in most communities, some enraged by varsity coaches who don’t see the star quality in a particular youngster or cannot guarantee winning seasons and state rankings. Others oppose reform movements and curricular changes, equating them with values education, creationism and similar hot-button issues. Still others blame the superintendent for every problem that arises in the district. Strong feelings motivate strong reactions.

    Bill once created an accelerated academic program in one of his districts that would allow students to individualize their courses of study in special-interest areas. For this, he was lauded a "visionary." But when he offered his plan for restructuring the schools, community residents jammed into the board meeting at a school gymnasium as police stood guard at all the exits. Heated arguments surfaced among the participants. Spectators shouted down the board president and my husband.

    At one point, a menacing stranger approached me, moved too close for comfort and warned: "You're not going to get away with this. I'll see to it, I promise you." He was ready to hit me, even though I had nothing to do with the proposed changes. Fortunately, someone quickly escorted me out of the gym.

    Before another meeting, one board member seated at the table onstage commanded my attention by verbalizing, "You bitch!" when I commented to a friend nearby that this individual had been "a nice person" before the controversy. Little did I know that the board member could read lips.

    Communities do not embrace changes with equanimity. The public may view the superintendent as an outsider, a troublesome meddler with suspicious new ideas. "We've always done it our way" seems the priority.

    A protective spouse, I disliked the criticism of Bill as much as the omnipresent news media folks who eagerly fanned the flames of controversy. I resented and lost respect for members of the school community, who were carried away by emotion, refusing to look squarely at the issues. I became disillusioned with many board members. I regretted the inevitability of an adversarial relationship between the superintendent and everyone else. Second-guessing superintendents' decisions seemed to be the norm.

  • Suggestions for the superintendent: Remind your spouse that members of the school community change views rapidly and unpredictably. A superintendent becomes the scapegoat for whatever goes wrong in the district. Making unpleasant decisions is part of the job, and the superintendent is blamed for those.

    You have an obligation to your spouse and family to keep them apprised of issues that are community flash points. In my view, school boards faced with community opposition shudder and collapse. The local news media, in their quest for colorful quotes and new angles, may ask your spouse provocative questions.

    Above all, nurture close friendships that allow mutual socializing and support since good friends will remain steadfast long after you leave the district.

  • Private Agendas
    My husband had the best board possible in the Westfield-Washington school district--and quite the opposite during his next superintendency in another Midwestern state, where hidden agendas and ulterior motives surfaced all too often. In the latter district, board members spent hours discussing the style and design of the business cards they believed they needed. They summarily rejected Bill’s recommendation that they produce these economically in the school’s print shop, choosing instead an outside firm to design multicolor, embossed cards.

    The same board created a then-non-existent office of board vice president for one member who said she felt overlooked. This board member called Bill at home the next day to report that she had visited all the schools in the district and was dismayed to find that her new title had not been posted beneath her photo nor engraved on the wall plaques identifying board members.

    One of Bill's board members routinely met with union leaders for pizza, particularly during contract negotiations and following executive board sessions. Plied with drinks, he leaked information. The union folks made him feel important.

  • Suggestions for the superintendent: Members of the board of education may disappoint spouses more than anything else about the job.

    Allow your spouse to observe board members at meetings and social events. Getting to know whom you are working with, their priorities, expectations and issues, as well as how they respond when challenged, enables the two of you to predict how they will react in other situations. Neither of you needs any surprises when your future and the future of your family are at stake.

    Sadly, board members sometimes jealously turn against the highly educated, experienced expert. A spouse has no recourse but to tolerate board abuse as part of the superintendent's job.
  • : Members of the board of education may disappoint spouses more than anything else about the job.Allow your spouse to observe board members at meetings and social events. Getting to know whom you are working with, their priorities, expectations and issues, as well as how they respond when challenged, enables the two of you to predict how they will react in other situations. Neither of you needs any surprises when your future and the future of your family are at stake.Sadly, board members sometimes jealously turn against the highly educated, experienced expert. A spouse has no recourse but to tolerate board abuse as part of the superintendent's job.

    Final Reflections
    Hard evidence on superintendents’ domestic relationships is scarce if nonexistent (in fact, statisticians at the National Library of Education were unable to identify any relevant research), but anecdotal reports suggest that divorce is an occupational hazard for public school leaders. While many variables influence marital discord, the requirements of the superintendency surely challenge even strong relationships.

    A spouse absorbs the job's pressures just as school leaders do. A superintendent's pro-active stance in dealing with these pressures on the homefront can mitigate the harsh influence of the profession’s demands and sometimes-troublesome boards.

    Above all, consider this advice: Do not overlook the person you married and your family.

    Helen Sharp, whose husband spent seven years as a district superintendent, is co-author of 100 Case Studies in Educational Administration: Implementing the Standards for School Leaders and the forthcoming Educator’s Writing Handbook, to be published this fall by Allyn and Bacon. She can be reached at 9 Pinewood Place, Carbondale, Ill. 62901. E-mail: sharp@siu.edu