Spotlight

Mr. Murphy’s Laws for the New Superintendent

by BRUCE C. KEFGEN

When I first became a superintendent in 1987, a colleague sent me a congratulatory note, along with a list entitled “Murphy’s Law for School Administrators.” It was meant as a joke, of course. But as with all good humor, I found there was certainly more than a kernel of truth in what Mr. Murphy had to say.

Bruce KefgenBruce Kefgen

Law 1: Your friends come and go, but your enemies accumulate. There is a reason many superintendents move every few years. Often the best board of education with which a superintendent gets to work is the one who hired him or her. This is because these are the people who hired us. They want us to succeed. After all, they picked us.

Unfortunately, school board members come and go. And often, the new members want to pick their own person. This should not be considered your fault. Your style of leadership may be wonderful — just not a mesh with your new board. Accept it and move on.

Law 2: The grass is brown on both sides of the fence. (Or, when you stand in the middle of the road, you get hit by traffic from both directions.) Some superintendents make the mistake of trying to maintain their popularity by straddling the proverbial fence. While I recognize that doing so may be necessary on occasion, making a habit of fence sitting is not really effective leadership. After all, the superintendent is employed to provide leadership.

As long as your decisions are well thought out, based on sound research and directed toward serving the best interests of students, there is no need to acquire too many splinters. Not everyone will agree with your decisions, especially if they stand against their point of view. But they will respect you, at least, if they feel their point of view has been given due consideration.

Law 3: In education, the shortest distance between two points is a downward spiral. This is to say, when it comes to improving schools and making things better for students, expediency is not your friend. There has been much talk about schools being “data-driven” and what the so-called “best practices” are for any given situation. From my perspective, data driven is really just jargon for making decisions based on sound research — a lesson we all learned in 8th-grade science. And proper research takes time to complete.

Knee-jerk solutions may sound plausible, but if they turn out badly, you are the one who will be held responsible. Take a reasonable amount of time to research the issue before heading off to tilt with your next windmill. If an idea truly has merit, it can withstand a little scrutiny.

Law 4: Every cow is sacred to its mother. A genuine desire exists on the part of all new superintendents to “hit the ground running.” In other words: “Let’s get in there and make changes that will really set this school district in a new direction.”

Remember, however, school systems, like all organizations, evolve. Things rarely just happen. They happen for a reason. Change for the sake of change rarely works. Successful change must be predicated on improving a practice or situation. If people see a change is warranted, they will be much more likely to embrace it.

The new superintendent also must be careful not to mess with a school district’s traditions. What may seem silly to you may be mighty important to others. Trample on a tradition and you will find yourself walking a dangerous path!

You are your district’s educational leader and caretaker. Most likely the district was here before you came and will be here after you leave. Be careful not to build your résumé by cutting up the fabric of your community. The successful superintendent improves quality while respecting tradition.

Law 5: You can’t lead from behind. There is a reason you are not in a classroom anymore. There is also a reason you are not just a building administrator, a business manager, a curriculum specialist or the director of personnel. You wanted to positively affect the most people you could with your ideas, your organizational skills and your drive to be the best. And the superintendency was the best place to do that. So don’t let yourself be paralyzed by fear or indecision.

You can’t sit back counting paper clips and sharpening pencils because you are afraid to be yourself. Being a superintendent can be sheer joy or sheer torture, sometimes simultaneously. But whatever it becomes for you, make sure you have given it your best effort.

Even after 22 years in the role, I know a lot of truth remains in what Mr. Murphy has to say — especially the most commonly quoted of Murphy’s laws about things going wrong. But he is not the superintendent of your school district, you are. Make the most of your opportunity. You have worked long and hard to arrive at this point. Just don’t lose your sense of humor. It may be the best weapon in your arsenal when times are tough.

Bruce Kefgen is a retired superintendent in Algonac, Mich. E-mail: bkefgen@yahoo.com