Feature

Why I Left ... and Came Back

A career public educator finds renewed meaning in her administrative role after a year away by Patricia Nugent

“I will come back. I just need a year to jump start my doctoral studies,” I promised the superintendent when I requested a leave of absence.

In reality, though, I didn’t know if I would, if I could, return to my administrative job with the school district. I was tired and depressed from feeling like I was beating my head against the wall. I was confused as to my mission, had lost my passion and felt more like a bureaucrat than an educator. I needed a break. Perhaps a forever break from public education.

My request for a leave of absence was a surprise to many, but mostly to me. I had had a long successful career in the district, a 4,400-student system in upstate New York, north of Albany. Given the conditions under which administrators in many other districts labor, I had it pretty good. I respected and had the support of the superintendent and the board of education. I worked in a growing, financially solvent district with strong community support. I had a solid reputation as a student advocate and community organizer, having orchestrated three successful bond issue campaigns. My colleagues were dedicated and knowledgeable. I supervised a competent staff that supported my vision and each other.

A Lost Passion

So what was the problem? The problem was, and is, inherent in public organizations. Simply put, my job had too few tangible rewards, too many immutable deadlines and too much public scrutiny.

As a school district administrator, I attended 24 board of education meetings every year where topics such as competitive bids and leaky roofs were on the front burner due to their immediacy or financial implications. I watched with dismay as dedicated school board members and administrators were criticized unfairly in public, demonstrating a lack of respect for community servants and indifference to their personhood.

I participated in endless cabinet meetings where we managed day-to-day activities but were never able to find enough time to discuss our collective philosophy of education. I witnessed teachers losing their passion as they faced more and more pressure to get more and more troubled kids to perform well on more and more standardized tests. I calmed angry parents and other community members who had legitimate concerns and who harbored resentment toward public schools from years gone by. I read angry letters from taxpayers and listened to political candidates criticize public education and support vouchers.

On top of all this, I was painfully aware I could have made nearly the same salary had I stayed in teaching! I felt myself giving up — giving up on public education as a concept, as an institution. Giving up on believing there was anything I could do to make it better.

A Student Again

As an antidote to my discontent, I decided to pursue a doctorate in communication at a local university where I also was offered an assistantship to do research and work with undergraduates. After many sleepless nights and much angst, I asked the superintendent for a one-year unpaid leave. Although concerned about the impact of my absence, he supported my quest for an advanced degree and recommended a one-year leave to the board.

With much trepidation, I interrupted a 25-year career with the school district to study and work at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (Not coincidentally, I went off blood pressure pills one week after starting classes.) The fact I chose to pursue an advanced degree in communication instead of education spoke volumes about my discouragement with my chosen career. (I had more than 60 graduate credits in educational administration, 30 of which would not count toward a degree in communication.)

I was starting again, facing an incredibly steep learning curve. For the first time, I was studying the ancient Greek philosophers and critical theorists and drinking it in as if parched from the desert. Yet the more I studied communication theories and research, the more I realized that my “new” discipline was the very foundation of education. Communication is at the core of what educators do.

My enthusiasm for being back in college at age 47 went beyond coursework. I was in an intellectual environment, not a political powder keg. Controversial ideas were welcome, even encouraged. There was enough time to be thoughtful and thorough before reaching a conclusion. I reaped the tangible and immediate rewards that teaching offers and observed professors debating ideas and concepts, acting as learners as well as teachers. And the best part was, no one was mad at me! Not my staff, not the labor unions, not parents (other than my own for leaving “such a good job”), not my boss. I had been sprung.

I periodically lunched with my school district colleagues. They looked exhausted and told me (somewhat resentfully) that I looked great. Their stress was visible; their tales of administrative life grim. They always asked, “Are you coming back?” They expressed surprise when I responded affirmatively, as if convinced that once someone left, she or he would never return. I felt their pain and continued to wonder whether I could really re-enter or whether I was kidding myself.

A Common Good

Two defining moments helped me find my way back to public education. The first was an academic exercise. I was assigned a paper to write on any topic related to rhetorical theory. I searched and searched for something that would capture my passion enough to warrant weeks of research. Blending my interests in politics and children, I found myself drawn to the connection between democracy and public education. I researched the beginnings of public education in this country and found it to be directly linked to efforts to ensure the survival of our young nation. A strong new republic depended on building the skills, knowledge and attitudes that would lead to effective self-governance. Ordinary people had to learn how to solve complex social and political issues on their own. Education also was a way to channel individualistic ambitions and private enterprise toward the common good.

I went on in my research to find that David Matthews, a former U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare, made a compelling case that public education is still central today to maintaining a democratic form of government in America. Public education is the only institution in America whose purpose it is to provide a free and equal education to every child, regardless of income or ability.

Public education is one of our only hopes for leveling the economic playing field and for advancing social justice as we battle individual ambition and corporate greed. Public education is as central to our nation’s survival and defense as the Pentagon, yet schools face incredible odds and competition for resources. Separatist alternatives, such as vouchers and charter schools, threaten the very fabric of our envisioned egalitarian society.

This understanding of our most central mission helped refuel my passion for my work.

The second defining moment for me was less academic and more emotional. Between classes one day, I took a long walk to the edge of campus. I suddenly stopped short, startled to see Troy High School across the street. I drank in the scene. The yellow school buses, the flag, the kids with backpacks, the sign announcing a school concert. All the icons (and trappings) of public education were there. And I was overcome with feelings of pride and respect for the institution and for my profession.

The really important stuff, educating our youth, was happening in the small school that was dwarfed by the prestigious university. I felt like I was on the wrong side of the street, like I was a deserter. I knew then and there I was going back; I wasn’t done with public education yet.

I returned the following fall, after one year away. While I had rediscovered my passion for the mission, it didn’t take long for reality to set in. The politics remained challenging due to so many diverse and competing stakeholders. (People were soon mad at me again. And I was soon back on blood pressure meds!) But such is the nature of public service. It is also the beauty of public engagement. Aren’t we lucky that so many care about what we do and how we do it? There is so much at stake, and we all own a piece of it.

Stimulation Avenues

Nationwide, we are facing unprecedented shortages of public school administrators. I think we can all understand why. Based on my experience in and out of the field, I offer the following recommendations for ensuring we attract, retain and stimulate solid and passionate educational leaders:

 

  • Encourage continued education for administrators, preferably outside the discipline of education. Cross training is highly recognized for its value in the business community. It is equally important for school leaders. As educators, we must encourage and model the importance of lifelong learning.

 

  • Whether paid or unpaid, offer long-term administrators the opportunity to take leaves. The view from outside the organization is quite different from perceptions inside. It broadens our horizons considerably, and the short-term inconvenience is worth the long-term gain. If more educators took a leave, fewer might leave the profession for good or, worse yet, hang on after they have lost their passion for their work.

 

  • Organize opportunities for administrators to step back and reflect on their role and attitude toward public education. In addition, help administrators feel supported and support each other. It is lonely at the top. Administrators have few confidantes, due to the sensitivity of the work that we do with employees, families and children. Few employee recognition programs include administrators. Worse yet, being redressed in public depletes the pool of future applicants considerably.

 

  • Despite the inherent politics, allow and expect administrators to put children first. Competing interests of stakeholders derail us all too often. If done right, public education is worth any amount of money to ensure that every child has a fair shot. With 80 percent of criminals being high school dropouts, we cannot afford to leave one child behind. Encourage frequent student contact to remind us why we are in this line of work. It eases burnout to see the fruits of our labor.

 

  • Find ways to get administrators out from under administrivia. Properly trained support staff can ease the bureaucratic burdens that derail us from ensuring top-notch instruction. It can mean the difference between being a manager and being an educational leader. We must have the time and energy to foster vision and to inspire teachers and students alike.

 

  • Be vigilant in opposition to proposals that would drain resources from public education and consequently work against our egalitarian mission. Separatist alternatives are very attractive, and we all believe that competition is generally good. But separate is never equal. Charter and private schools, vouchers and home schooling represent efforts to siphon off resources and students, leaving lower-income students in underfunded schools. It is a challenge to recruit and retain administrators in communities where this is happening.

Renewed Vigor

As troubled and beleaguered as public education is today, it must not only survive but also flourish. And those of us who are called to serve must ensure its success.

Our mission is noble and central to a democracy. It is bigger than our day-to-day frustrations. We have to make this work — for our kids and for the future of a free democratic society that still strives for equity and fairness.

I’m glad I left, and I’m glad I returned to public education.

Patricia Nugent is the director of human resources for the Ballston Spa Central Schools, 70 Malta Ave., Ballston Spa, NY 12020. E-mail pnugent@bscsd.org