Feature

Reaching Out in Retirement

Veteran superintendents find fulfillment in counseling and consoling newbies to the profession in mentoring programs by Patti Ghezzi

Jo Swain retired from her superintendent’s post in Montana in 2003 and slid comfortably into higher education, as a teacher and graduate student.

Then while visiting her parents in California, she read in the local newspaper about a school district leader confronting a teachers’ strike. The story sounded all too familiar. In 2002, Swain weathered what she calls a “pretty traumatic” 21-day total walkout while head of the 15,000-student Billings district, the largest in Montana.

Swain reached for the phone and called the California superintendent.

“It’s kind of an unwritten rule,” says Swain, “that once you’ve been in that position, you reach out. It’s a lonely job. I remember her saying, ‘This is a phone call from God.’ “

In addition to her spontaneous offer of support, Swain has formally mentored two superintendents since she retired. She received training through the National Association of Elementary School Principals in partnership with Nova Southeastern University in south Florida. The goal was to create a formal process for mentoring novice administrators, akin to programs where veteran teachers work with classroom newcomers.

Mentoring programs for superintendents have operated in some places, but it’s been more of a “call [us] if you need us” approach, says Swain, who continues to live in Billings after her three years in the superintendency there. She wanted to help school leaders move beyond the crisis of the day.

“In the superintendent world, there is no magic answer,” she says. “My role as a mentor was to allow them to hone their skills as a leader.”

Both the superintendents Swain has mentored still lead school systems. Swain is focusing this year on finishing her doctorate in educational leadership, but she remains interested in training retired and veteran superintendents to mentor new school district leaders.

“When you have a defined process, you can help that superintendent even more,” she says.

A Fulfilling Pursuit

Across the country, retired superintendents are finding fulfillment as mentors, either formally or informally, spontaneously or planned. Some are paid, but most are volunteers who remember their first year running a school district and want to ease the transition for others. Some, like Swain, want to focus on leadership development. Others are willing to chew over the latest media frenzy, personnel problem or board member dispute.

It’s a delicate role. No one wants a retired leader trying to regain the reins of a school district or influencing the sitting superintendent to the point that the mentor is making decisions.

Retired superintendents say the last thing they want to do is take charge of a situation. If they wanted to lead a system, they would fill in as an interim leader or seek a permanent position. They just want to help.

“These people have a lot to offer,” says Glen W. Thomas, retired executive director of the California County Superintendents Education Services Association. “The newer crop of retired superintendents, they want to stay active, they want to give back.”

A Pro’s Pro

Bill Breck served 20 years as superintendent in Connecticut, leading small and large school systems. When he retired in 2004, he wanted to relax and spend more time hiking. But he wasn’t ready to disappear from the K-12 public education scene.

The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents runs a job- coaching program for retirees, and Breck thought it looked like a perfect fit. The program is modeled after executive coaching programs in the business world. Coaches in the Connecticut program receive $1,000 stipends, which distinguishes the coaching program from a separate mentoring program where sitting superintendents provide support to new district leaders.

Last year, Breck coached three new superintendents, helping them with everything from the fine art of delegating to working more effectively with difficult people. He spent at least five full days in face-to-face meetings, which sometimes lasted three hours, and also spent hours responding to e-mails and talking on the phone. He says it was time well spent.

“I see a coach as a facilitator of problem solving,” he says. “The ownership is on [the superintendent]. They own the problem. I ask them a series of questions. Half the problem is trying to define the problem accurately.”

Sometimes Breck fields frantic phone calls minutes before a board of education meeting, seeking help on a specific problem. He doesn’t mind. “I’m available 24-7,” he says.

Breck is also a literacy volunteer, and he has found plenty of time for hiking. “When you retire, you have to find meaning,” he adds. “When you help others, you’re helping yourself. I’ll do it as long as they want me to.”

The superintendents Breck has worked with hope he doesn’t retire from mentoring anytime soon. “I was so grateful,” says Joe Onofrio, superintendent of the 1,600-student Old Saybrook district in southeastern Connecticut. He was matched with Breck as his coach when he was promoted from the central office last year.

Onofrio succeeded a popular superintendent who resigned abruptly to take a job in a larger school district. Onofrio was happy to accept help from Breck, whom he had worked with years earlier in a different system.

“I absolutely welcomed it,” he says. “He’s a superintendent’s superintendent.”

Onofrio’s principal challenge was to convince the community that the school district could continue to improve even with the abrupt change in leadership. The savvy veteran helped the untested rookie hone his strategy for what Onofrio calls “keeping the best of the past” while moving forward.

“He is very skilled at getting to the heart of the matter,” Onofrio says. “He’s a renowned strategic planner.”

Even when transitions are smoother, newcomers to the superintendent seem to welcome the hand-holding and counsel of colleagues who’ve seen it all. David Larson, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, says of all the new superintendents who took charge last year, only two declined the organization’s offer of a retiree as a coach. Today, neither remains on the job, he adds.

Matchmaker Matchmaker

Jim Causby served 26 years as a superintendent in North Carolina before retiring in 2003. He led systems ranging from 1,500 to 30,000 students. He now works as executive director of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association and directs staff development for superintendents. From his home in scenic Asheville, he also works as a consultant.

His unofficial role is mentor to new superintendents, especially those coming to North Carolina from other states. Causby serves as a matchmaker for those desiring a formal mentor. “The new superintendents, they bond with me,” he says. “They have a sense of confidence in me. I survived a lot of stuff.”

While he misses the full-time job, Causby is reminded through his current role of aspects of the profession he was happy to leave behind. “You don’t miss the knot in the back of your neck, the constant stress,” he says.

Causby finds new superintendents overwhelmed by the job’s complexities. They tell him, “We knew it would be tough, but we had no idea it would be this tough.”

To Causby, the mentor serves as a confidential source to whom a stressed-out newcomer can come to unload all frustrations. “You have to get it off your chest,” he says. “It’s not good to carry it around.”

When he assigns formal mentors, he looks to active superintendents, not retirees. “I wouldn’t rule anybody out, but the job is changing so drastically,” he says, adding he often calls upon retired superintendents to make presentations on key topics.

Katie McGee, superintendent of North Carolina’s 12,000-student Brunswick County district, says she wouldn’t have survived her first year without Causby as a lifeline. “He is the king of superintendents,” says McGee, now in her fourth year.

Though she had worked in Brunswick County for many years, McGee was unexpectedly named interim superintendent. She faced problems, such as teacher turnover and lack of support for principals. She didn’t have to call Causby. Within 24 hours, “he had already called,” McGee says. She has called him countless times since, seeking guidance on student discipline, property disputes and personnel issues.

“The thing that a superintendent needs is good, strong judgment,” McGee says. “It’s wonderful to have a person to call. He has the keen judgment.”

Superintendents have several phone numbers to reach Causby, and McGee has used them all. She also has left messages with his wife, knowing her mentor will get back to her as soon as he can. She often finds herself talking over a problem with Causby while driving one of her three daughters to a doctor’s appointment.

“We have many resources and hotlines available to us,” McGee says. “To be able to call somebody who has lived it makes all the difference.”

Board Reluctance

Superintendents sometimes are unwilling to seek help from retired colleagues. They may view them as too far removed from the day-to-day struggles of running a school system. More likely, superintendents say, some feel uncomfortable acknowledging they need help.

The New York State Council of School Superintendents created a mentoring program modeled after Connecticut’s successful coaching program. The New York program differs in that school boards are expected to pay the $2,000 fee, a distinction that could be the reason for lower participation.

“We have a lot of retired superintendents who want to do it, and not a lot of sitting superintendents utilizing it,” says Kelly Masline, senior associate director.

The decision to charge a modest fee for the mentoring service, Masline says, assumes school boards would be willing to pay because they have an essential stake in wanting their superintendent to succeed. The fee allows the council to offer the retired superintendent a stipend, usually just enough to cover gas and phone expenses.

Masline thinks the stipend to the volunteer is important so superintendents do not feel guilty about calling on their mentors regularly. NYCOSS also wants to expand its marketing of the service and to differentiate levels of support, ranging from a confidential conversation with a retiree to a more intensive, higher-cost program with workshops and training on specific issues.

Bob McClure, the council’s superintendent-in-residence, notes that CEOs in corporate America commonly take advantage of executive coaches, an expertise boards of directors are willing to pay for because they want their leader to succeed.

“In education, there is a hesitation for boards to pay,” McClure says. “We need to develop a mentality like business and industry where it’s an expectation to have a mentor.”

School board members tend to expect their superintendent to arrive already seasoned enough, McClure says. The reality is many new superintendents are promoted from a high school principal position or a central-office post — jobs that differ sharply in scope and responsibility from leading a school district.

With so many superintendents of the baby boom generation retiring, McClure sees the mentoring program as invaluable.

To better tailor the program to provide services school boards and superintendents will take advantage of, the New York council is working with an existing retiree group, Educorps, overseen by veteran superintendent Charlotte Gregory. Founded in 1993 by retired superintendents on Long Island, the organization is expanding in all directions, including mentoring, buoyed by the retirement boom. New York State counted 62 retirements from the superintendency in 2006.

“I still want to share and give back,” says Gregory, who retired a decade ago but is serving as an interim superintendent in the rural upstate New York district of Berlin.

With 31 years of superintendent experience, Gregory has mentored many new superintendents over the years, including one who was promoted to the superintendent position as a curriculum expert but lacked understanding of finance. “I told him, ‘You don’t have to just look after the education, you’re the general architect of the budget,’” she recalls. She spent hours on the phone reviewing the previous year’s expenditures and explaining the importance of reserves.

People Problems

 

Many new superintendents are afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to be perceived as poor leaders, Gregory says. “They tell me they are afraid to ask for help, that it’s a sign of weakness. I tell them ‘Do you think I got here without asking any questions?’”

The newcomers are unprepared for the loneliness of the job. “This is an island we’re on,” she tells her charges. “You’ve got board members who are not on your island. You’ve still got to address their concerns.”

Gregory hears the criticism that retired superintendents are too far removed from the battlefront to be of use. She doesn’t buy it. “Most problems are about people,” she says. “Retirees are a rich resource for how to handle people.”

Jody Manning, superintendent in the 1,800-student Solvay Union Free School District near Syracuse, took advantage of the New York State Council of School Superintendents’ mentoring program when he arrived in the job three years ago. He was matched with a superintendent who was in his final year before retirement.

“I’m one of those people who’s first to say, ‘I don’t know,’” says Manning, who met twice a month with his formal mentor and had several unofficial mentors on speed-dial as he worked his way through anxious personnel matters and an anti-drinking campaign among students that drew news media attention.

“Priceless” is how he describes the mentoring program, which his board paid for. “I would have paid for it myself,” Manning contends.

Retirees should not be overlooked as warehouses of knowledge. “A retired superintendent has credibility,” he says. “They lived a lot of what you’re going through”

A Sticky Spot

David Barnett, a retired superintendent in Kentucky, took a familiar path after leaving K-12 administration: He went into academia. Now an associate professor at Morehead State University, Barnett has another role as informal mentor to the superintendents he once taught.

Barnett, who spent 13 years as an assistant superintendent and superintendent, can field questions on board politics, angry parents and legal issues. But he’s not afraid to wade into murkier waters such as the need for district leaders to protect their integrity.

In one sticky situation, Barnett heard a superintendent he once taught was having an extramarital affair. He urged his former student to make his marriage top priority. “I tried to be nonjudgmental, I think that’s key in mentoring,” he says. “This person thanked me.”

Barnett tries to help district leaders avoid common pitfalls. “Sometimes superintendents, especially beginning superintendents, have tunnel vision,” he says. “They hear a small minority of people fussing about the football coach ... and they think they’ve got to do something.”

Retirees must resist the temptation to endlessly reminisce about their experiences. “The best mentors are probably better listeners than talkers,” Barnett says. “I often talk in the form of questions. ‘Hmmmm ... really? Are there other parents upset about this or just the one? If you could replay the conversation, what would you do differently?’”

And often the most important question he asks is: “Do you want me to say what you want to hear or just tell you my advice?”

Most acknowledge they want honest feedback.

Another difficult issue mentors may have to handle is helping a superintendent who is on the verge of being fired. “Losing a job is not the worst thing,” said Barnett, noting that Kentucky school boards have just five members. “I remind them, you can be doing all the right things but three board members disagree.”

Still Savvy

 

Many retired superintendents serving as mentors are just a few years removed from the hot seat. Not Luther Rogers. He hasn’t sat in the superintendent’s chair since the 1970s, but at age 73 he is still a mentor to new superintendents in Florida.

“I have stayed in superintendent training over the years,” he says, noting he had a “musical chairs of experiences” from classroom teacher to administrator to superintendent and state department of education official. He now works for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

As part of his job, he organizes a mentoring program for new superintendents. He recruits mostly sitting superintendents as mentors, but he also taps retirees who have remained active in K-12 education. Of 23 mentors in the program, five are retired.

He sees mentoring as an option for retired superintendents who still have a passion for public education. “It keeps the mentoring superintendent abreast of what’s going on on the firing lines,” Rogers says.

One advantage to pairing a rookie leader with a retiree rather than a sitting superintendent is the retiree likely has more time to listen without the myriad of distractions. “It’s a safe sounding board,” Rogers says. “It’s comforting for the new superintendent to have someone who is walking with them.”

Over the years, Rogers has helped superintendents work through problems related to collective bargaining, budgets and staff communication.

Through his work with the superintendent’s association, he keeps up with current issues in education such as No Child Left Behind.

“I’ve had to stay relevant to keep active as a mentor,” he says. “The work that I’ve done has kept me on the cutting edge. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be in a position to be a mentor.”

Patti Ghezzi is a free-lance education writer in Atlanta. E-mail:pattighezzi@hotmail.com