Guest Column

Wrought With Danger: Being a Superintendent Is Scary


Lots of good things can be said about working as a school administrator. Unfortunately, with the good comes some bad.

This symmetry makes the world of education go round. First hour and last hour. Teachers and students. Homework and lunch. Boys and girls. Tests and field trips. Math class and recess. Academics and extracurriculars. A’s and F’s. Junior high students and detentions.

Schools are a window into life. There is always a balance, at least in theory.

Surprise Attack
If this highly organized system does break down, our schools will be overtaken by mass confusion and total mayhem (at least more confusion and mayhem than we normally have).

One of the things that drew me toward education is my love for the structure of the school day. Everything happens at a certain time. You can count on it.

School starts at 8 a.m. and dismisses at 3:30 p.m. Lunch is the same time every day (if you are brave enough to eat it). The work week is Monday through Friday. No overtime or weekends (unless you count all of the extra time you work after school and on Saturday and Sunday). Pay day comes once a month whether you need it or not. Structure and lots of it.

Nothing ever changes until something goes horribly wrong, which, by my estimation, happens about 113 times a day. That is, if it has been an unusually peaceful day. I had one of those days not long ago. By late afternoon, things had almost been going too well. Teachers were busy and students were well-behaved (or maybe vice versa). As I look back, it was maybe a little too quiet.

No crises, no excitement, nothing out of the ordinary until I felt a sharp pain around my neck. I was being choked. Who could it be? So little time and so many suspects. Even as I was being attacked, I tried to keep my composure, conjuring up a list of possible attackers. An angry parent? An upset student or staff member? Someone from the community who was not happy with me? Maybe it was the home-schooling mom who constantly sent me e-mails or possibly a recent graduate I had suspended years earlier. Or could it have been one of the hundreds of other people I have upset during my years as superintendent? Many still haunt my dreams.

The guilty party could have been one of these or even worse — someone I couldn’t even remember making mad. As an administrator, I have touched the lives of many. Unfortunately, I have upset more than I can count.

At times like this, one’s mind races. I was struggling to breathe. My entire life was flashing before me. I saw the highlights and, as it turns out, a lot of boring parts. If I survived this vicious attack, it occurred to me I really should turn up the excitement meter a bit.

Public Embarrassment
My run as a school administrator was quickly coming to an end. Best case, I had about 90 seconds before “school was out.” I had to act quickly.

In times like these, I really wish I had watched more episodes of MacGyver.Then suddenly, the answer came to me. Everything became clear. It was like things were happening in slow motion. How could I not have seen this earlier?

I wasn’t being choked. I wasn’t being attacked. I had just closed the file drawer on my necktie. Sad but true. At least no one would ever know. How embarrassing would this story be if it made its way into a national magazine? I could see the headline now: “Superintendent Succumbs in Horrific Filing Accident.”

The moral of this story is I hate ties. And filing.

The good thing is I survived the attack. The bad thing is I am an idiot and still a target for about a thousand people (just a guesstimate … there could be more).

Michael Smith is superintendent of the Oakland Community Unit School District 5 in Oakland, Ill. He blogs at E-mail: