Guest Column

We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Us

by PAUL M. HEWITT

In 1971, cartoonist Walt Kelly, author of the classic comic strip “Pogo,” drew a cartoon that has endured the test of time. In two panels, the lead character Pogo and his friend Porky are in a trash-filled swamp. Pogo looks at Porky and says, “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”

The cartoon was created by Kelly to highlight the abusive way in which people had treated the environment. Yet since that comic strip first appeared, it has come to illustrate how we often become our own worst enemies, no matter what the circumstance. When it pertains to the superintendency, those of us who serve or have served in this pressure-packed position often become our own most formidable foe.

The dwindling supply of applicants for the superintendency is well-documented. According to the “2007 State of the Superintendency Mini-Survey” conducted by AASA, 85 percent of superintendents believe the pipeline contains an inadequate number of superintendents.

If you were to ask a group of superintendents why principals and central-office administrators don’t want to become superintendents, you’d likely be met with a look of surprise or even laughter. The first comment would probably be, “Are you kidding?”

Fingering Stress
The AASA survey highlights the major reasons as lack of adequate funding, family sacrifices and school board relations/challenges. When superintendents were given an opportunity to offer comments relating to their responses, they made it clear: Feelings of stress and pressure from any number of sources — whether finances, a demanding public, labor relations or a divisive school board — were the primary factors.

In another recent study, “The Status of School Leadership in Arkansas,” the No. 1 reason teachers said they don’t want to become school administrators is the excessive stress they see their administrators experiencing. The same factor has diminished the attraction of the superintendency as a career pursuit. School-site and district-level administrators aren’t blind. They can see the stress on their superintendents, and they are voting not to take the job. Here’s where superintendents become their own worst enemies.

In an informal survey of search consultants from across the United States, I found it common for superintendents to have a clause in their contract that allows them to be paid off for unused vacation time when they leave their post. The practice varies, with some contracts requiring the superintendent to cash out the unused vacation time at the end of each year. Other contracts, especially those with an unlimited accrual of vacation days, mandate this at the time of departure. This can result in a healthy-sized check at the end of each year or a huge (and politically volatile) payout at the time of departure.

Here’s how the average superintendent looks at this contract term: “Let’s see. If I take a day off and go skiing I will lose $600 (more or less) for taking that day off. Do I really want to go skiing or do I want $600?” Maybe the whole thing should be rephrased: “Let’s see. I have this incredibly stressful job. I have high blood pressure and high cholesterol and I really need some time away from the job. I need to relax and recharge my batteries to deal with stress and pressure, so I can live long enough after retirement to enjoy what I’ve earned. But I’ll just stay here and work instead of taking time off so I can earn a few hundred or thousand dollars.”

Requisite Time Off
As a superintendent, one of the best things I ever did was limit my vacation-buyout provision. I met with my school board members to discuss the importance of taking vacation and how their employees would be more productive and effective if they weren’t overstressed and overworked. I forced my administrative staff to take time off, and I forced myself to do the same.

I believe productivity greatly increased and stress declined as a result. It didn’t go away; it just declined. As a search consultant, I also discouraged vacation-buyout provisions when boards hired new superintendents. I would give each board a persuasive lecture about the importance of superintendents taking time off and how it would ultimately benefit the district. When I would take the proposed contract to a candidate, he or she often was surprised by the provision. But when I explained the school board wanted the incoming superintendent to take vacation for his or her own well-being and health, the response was always amazingly positive.

Try this experiment with superintendents you know. Ask them, “What do you really love to do?” You will hear things such as golf, hike, ride bikes, read, sail, ski and spend quiet time with family. Then ask them, “When was the last time you did the things you love?” This question will often be met by a remorseful stare and a nervous chuckle.

I found it difficult as a superintendent to get away from my office and the constant problems that cried out to me. I found I felt rejuvenated by taking a lot of three-day weekends and mini-vacations. A weeklong getaway cruise was ideal. Think about it. No matter how big the problem might be, you can’t run back to the district when you’re 500 miles out at sea. It was the only way I could truly put the stress behind me.

Is this the answer for addressing the shortage of candidates for the superintendency? Maybe not. But maybe it’s time to stop being our own worst enemy by treating ourselves to some time off.

Paul Hewitt, a retired superintendent from California, is assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark. E-mail: phewitt@uark.edu