Guest Column

The Best Advice I Ever Received

by James A. Sandfort


While preparing for my first superintendency, I had the good fortune to attend an AASA seminar led by long-time superintendent and now mentor to many Richard (Dick) Foster.

He spoke that day to many issues facing new superintendents and offered his insights on an array of issues he knew we would confront. Looking back six years later, I now realize that his was the best advice I ever received.

As a tribute to Foster, I’d like to share some of his wisdom from that session in spring 1991 with others who aspire to the superintendency. His advice is as valuable today as it was then.

On confidentiality: There is no such thing as keeping a bad thing quiet.

On the bell curve: No research says that just because you are an administrator you are brighter than your teachers. Likewise, no research indicates that teachers are brighter than those they teach.

On elections: Don’t get involved with elections. However, it may be important to encourage candidates.

On favoritism: To the question, "How do I get to be one of your favorites?" there is just one response, "Teach well."

Rehiring Yourself

On contracts: You never get paid what you are worth; you only get paid what you negotiate.

On assistant superintendents: Don’t rehire yourself. Instead, select persons with different skills from which you can build a team.

On principals: They are teachers on special assignment.

On what gets done: What you ask questions about is what people will attend to.

On renewal: Network, attend a conference, and read the summary page of Education Week.

On tenure: If you change too much in your first two years, you will be among the missing. If you persist long enough, the system will attack you.

On transformation: Only replace a current practice with a better one, not just a different one.

On colleagues: Above all else, you need to know if you can count on their loyalty.

On organizational dynamics: People will try to keep you tied up with "stuff" so that you will never have time to change the organization. You must personalize the system. In the age of technology, people need to connect personally more than electronically.

On popularity: There will be pain. People will not like you. Never confuse your dog’s admiration with the notion that you are universally loved.

On accepting gifts: Don’t.

On goals: Never have more than three—that is as high as most people care to count.

The Real Agenda

On daily schedule: Because many superintendents come out of second-line positions that require daily schedules, they may feel guilty about taking time to think and reflect. Take time for other non-school interests at least two evenings a week.

On appointments: People don’t come to see you out of love, only self-interest. Listen with a third ear for the real agenda.

On values: Values drive vision.

On vision: Vision drives behavior. See with your third eye—intuition.

On veto: The business office has veto power.

On entering a district: Do a financial audit. Once you are hired, any financial problem becomes yours.

On decision-making: There are very few right answers, only possibilities. Brainstorm options; choose the best. Get consensus and not just what people can live with.

On committees: Never put a 10 percenter on a committee unless you want to kill any action.

On secretaries: Within six months, train a secretary who can handle all routine matters.

On calendars: Never carry one. Make your secretary responsible for your appointments.

Board Authority

On communication: Never invest in an answering machine. It only means you have to call back.

On termination: Go out gracefully. Watch for smoke signals. Don’t vomit back the bad stuff. It not only smells bad, but it could choke you.

On punishment: We could afford to send a student to Stanford for what it costs society to incarcerate him or her. We have been taught to sort students, not support them.

On boards of education: Never make a decision they should make. The superintendent advises, recommends, and gives options but does not decide. Do not be annoyed if your recommendation is not accepted. Instead, ask, "What in my recommendation caused you trouble?"

On self-importance: You are significantly insignificant to most of the people in your community. If you don’t believe this, ask the attendant at the service station who the superintendent of schools is in your district. If he doesn’t know, you are significantly insignificant.

On giving advice: No "You oughtas."

James Sandfort, Superintendent, Lindbergh School District, St. Louis, Missouri