Guest Column

Using Bifocals on the Road to the Superintendency

by Wanda Toledo

The career path most administrators follow is to advance from classroom teaching to a building-level position to the central office—moving from a position with narrow authority to one that is more comprehensive.

So when I told my colleagues I was planning to transition from a central-office position overseeing English as a second language, bilingual and adult basic education to an elementary school principalship, they perceived I would be taking a step backward.

But that’s not how I viewed my unusual decision.

The hierarchy of administrative personnel differs among school districts. Where I work, a principal’s salary is one step higher on the proverbial career ladder than the central-office directorship. A director’s role is to support principals and coordinate programs. Having worked at the central-office level for 12 years (3½ years in my current district and 8½ years at another district), I decided a change was in order, especially because I hoped to one day serve as a superintendent.

I sought advice on my next career move. Some of those I consulted believed I ought to seek an assistant superintendency. Some cautioned that most superintendents prefer an assistant superintendent who has had building-level experience. Others warned that many school boards and search committees would perceive the move from central office to the principalship as a giant step backwards. Without fully knowing the implications of the nontraditional move yet wanting to ensure I had stepped on each rung of the ladder, I applied for a principal’s job.

Broad and Narrow

Now almost two years into my principalship, I can’t help but view the experience with bifocal lenses. First I put on my principal’s lens. I see how my patience and emotional intelligence have been tested by the occasional encounter with an irate parent, a malcontented teacher or a misbehaving youngster. I see myself comforting teachers who are disheartened because some students did not score as well as expected on state exams. I experience the anxiety of awaiting test scores that could determine my fate as an educational leader. I think about the child who gets into the breakfast line twice because he hasn’t had a decent meal since yesterday’s lunch, the youngster who lives in a homeless shelter and the one who lives with her 10 siblings and single mother.

Next I reflect upon my years in education using my central-office lens. As a director, I worked with many immigrant students who had an interruption in their literacy development when they fled war-torn countries. I made it my mission to be in the schools, to conduct monthly department meetings and to analyze test results to address the students’ linguistic and academic needs. It became clear additional funds were required to address the substantial needs of this growing population. I often noticed that those English language learners who had literate parents and who did not have to revisit the breakfast line fared better academically than those whose parents were struggling to meet their safety and physiological needs.

I also observed the way some administrators viewed the director’s role as being both broad in scope (spanning several grades) and narrow in focus (concentrating on one specialty area).

Finally I reflect upon the managerial aspects of both jobs. Operating the budget of one building is quite doable compared to managing multiple budgets for grants procured in the central office. Similarly, holding meetings with one faculty as opposed to six is also less taxing. Being able to step back from what may appear to be an immediate school crisis—say, the occasional lost prep period—in order to look at the bigger picture is a skill I have perfected. My years in the central office have helped refine my multi-tasking and prioritizing abilities.

I find myself wiping my glasses. Which lens am I using? Has my perspective shifted since I started using my principal’s lens or am I somehow using both lenses? When I describe the plight of my students, I find I am using the transitional part of my glasses—the section where both lenses meld into one.

As the lenses come together, I notice similar patterns among students who are not well educated in their native language and those who are living in poverty. I see how literacy development is key to academic success. I watch how students who have a relationship with an adult who has faith in them develop resiliency, while those who do not have that cheerleader behind them begin to wither at an early age. I look at test data and ask myself, “Did we do enough for David? Did we make sure his mother filled out the forms to receive Medicaid and food stamps? Did we give him a voucher for free eyeglasses? How about Ravon? Did we pair him up with a compatible mentor? Did his mother understand the importance of setting boundaries?” Then there’s Karen. No, she didn’t score at the acceptable level of academic proficiency, but she made tremendous progress since September, progress that cannot be measured by the state’s test. All of a sudden I realize I am not the same person I was when I began my principalship. The students I had only known as statistics were now real people with names, faces and personalities.

Dual Perspectives

My new administrative experience has taught me that changing school culture takes time. It involves having a vision. To make that vision a reality, a principal’s first and foremost responsibility is to build relationships with the entire school faculty, the students, the community and central-office staff. Without buy-in, new initiatives can be sabotaged. On the other hand, waiting for 100 percent buy-in will always lead to a standstill.

This is where the bifocal lenses have become a useful tool. I am able to use the building-level lens when dealing with students, teachers and parents, but I am able to shift to the district- level lens to examine how building-level initiatives tie in with district goals. Conversely, I am able to sit at central-office meetings and remind others of how change needs to be approached at the building level, how counseling programs may be the avenue we should explore, rather than the latest reading program on the market, when we are concerned about student test results. I have learned to use the transitional part of the glasses to consider multiple perspectives.

Now I reflect upon the advice I received about the road to the superintendency. The questions I asked my confidants were these: “Is it necessary to have building-level experience before seeking the assistant superintendency? Do you need to have central-office experience to become an effective superintendent? Should one experience precede the other?”

I realize now that I wasn’t asking the right questions. The more meaningful questions are these: “What, if any, are the different perspectives gained when you have building- and district- level experiences? How do these new insights shape decision-making abilities? How do the roles conflict and/or complement each other? Do these varied experiences help you develop into a more competent professional? More importantly, do they prepare you for the superintendency?”

After a year and a half of adjusting to my bifocal lenses, I have found them to be a powerful tool—one that prevents me from developing myopic vision by helping me see the immediate and beyond.

Wanda Toledo is principal of Drexel Avenue School, 161 Drexel Ave., Westbury, NY 11590. E-mail: wtoledo@westburyschools.org