Guest Column

You’ve Made It to the Top

by Cheryl A. Steele


Congratulations! Your preparation and networking have served you well. Your first superintendency is now official.

The celebrating is over; your family members have adjusted to their new environment, your first board meeting went reasonably well, and the high school’s football team is winning. So why the queasy feeling? Why the midnight sweats that awaken you after an 18-hour day—when even an earthquake might go unnoticed?

Mythical monsters and tummy tumblers strike a familiar chord among many newcomers to the profession. Perhaps by knowing that these unwritten "benefits" also have been bestowed upon your superintendent peers—those experienced as well as novices—you can confront the "monsters" and enjoy the cheers that certainly accompany the challenges.

Wielding Power

* Myth No. 1: You are now the most powerful educator in your community with the ability to make all of your educational dreams come true.

Cheer: You indeed have been given a 1-0 vote and veto power.

Challenge: The superintendent is in the most vulnerable position of his or her career. Your personal and professional success or failure rests not in your individual power but in your ability to focus and rally your team in support of shared goals.

* Myth No. 2: You’ll miss the kids in your ivory tower world of operational issues, business partnerships, budgets, and personnel matters.

Cheer: You do have the opportunity to serve more students and to broaden your sphere of influence.

Challenge: It’s impossible to miss the kids because some adults in your new environment act just like them—they just dress in heels and three-piece suits! Besides, whoever said a superintendent can’t teach a class or do bus duty once in a while?

* Myth No. 3: You have arrived!

Cheer: You do indeed have the honor and responsibility of one of your community’s highest paying and most visible positions.

Challenge: Whoever thought "arriving" meant at your 27th school site, giving your 304th bond issue speech, or attending your third civic luncheon of the day? You’ve arrived all right, but there’s no time to stay!

* Myth No. 4: You’ll make so much money that you can clear your debts from graduate school and finally ensure your children’s college educations.

Cheer: You will make a higher salary than ever before and you are earning every cent. That feels great!

Challenge: After deducting civic dues, political donations, PTA memberships, and a myriad of other job-related expenses (which often cannot or are not included in superintendents’ contracts), you may find that big paycheck is not much more than before. And don’t compute your hourly wage—it’s guaranteed to depress you!

A Visiting Parade

* Myth No. 5: You’ll meet lots of new people.

Cheer: That’s true! The Department of Labor, representatives from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, union leadership, compliance officers monitoring issues related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the president of a local natural beautification committee (an alumnus, of course, who opposes the construction of your new elementary school) will all drop by during the first month or so.

Challenge: Everyone you meet wants or needs something that cannot be received elsewhere in the system—resolution to a problem, a favor, a sale. You’re the end of the line for requests and complaints.

* Myth No. 6: You’ll have more spare time—with no papers to grade, schedules to decipher, or in-service programs to plan. And besides, you’ll have one (or more) secretaries!

Cheer: You do have 7 days per week to do 10 days’ worth of work.

Challenge: After the meetings, ball games, student performances, hearings, school board activities, civic events, and court appearances, you can go home—if your briefcase can contain the paperwork that must be processed before tomorrow!

* Myth No. 7: There are no rewards at the top—only headaches.

Cheer: This is not true!

Challenge: You do have to make a point to record, celebrate, and remember the victories, large or small. But when that first violin sounds in the new strings program it took three years to create, when the bond issue results show 80 percent support, when a child with a developmental disability pronounces her first words, and when a young teacher and a veteran educator sit to plan team-teaching experiences, the rewards are visible and enduring.

True to their purpose, these myths provide at least a singular explanation for natural events of the superintendency. But unlike at least some myths of old, happy endings do exist for the superintendent who believes in the African proverb, "Smooth sailing does not create skillful sailors."

Cheryl Steele is superintendent, Mid Del Schools, Midwest City, Okla.