Guest Column

Lessons Not Taught in Superintendents ’ School

by By Jack Kaufhold, associate professor, educational administration, Texas A &M University, Kingsville, Texas

Years ago, when I was a superintendent, my youngest daughter asked me, “Daddy, do superintendents have to go to school?” “Yes, honey,” I replied, “we go to school for a very long time.” “What’s superintendents’ school like?” she asked.

I don’t remember exactly how I answered that question then, but as I pondered it again recently, it occurred that several lessons were left out of my formal superintendents’ education.

No one ever told me about the physical attributes one needs to be a successful superintendent: soft hands, a thick hide, a stout heart and the patience of an oyster. In addition, every superintendent needs several accessories: various hats, a loud horn and a pair of gym shoes. Here’s how this improbable list of resources is put to use.

* Handling the school board.
This task requires soft hands. While the superintendent has the educational knowledge and experience, the school board has the power. Backing an unpopular cause or experiencing a turnabout in a board election can quickly turn a capricious school board from a 7-0 vote of support to a contentious 3-4 tally.

Of all the tasks that a superintendent does, communication and trust building with the board are the most important. One superintendent recently confided to me that he regularly spends from 65 to 75 percent of his time communicating with board members and dealing with their concerns. Relationships need to be built at weekend retreats, lunches and weekly visits. Like it or not, these people need to be the superintendent’s best friends.

* Working with micro-managers.
School boards traditionally love to micro-manage. Some people enjoy everything from redesigning bus routes to wandering into schools to “evaluate” teachers. Here the wise school leader brings to bear a stout heart (along with gritting teeth sometimes) to deal with these measures diplomatically. Policies need to be established from the outset of the new administration. Micro-management could be the subject of a retreat and, with the help of an outside consultant, resolutions could be established before trouble begins.

* Dealing with the once-a-month expert.
Every board has one: a dilettante who is convinced he or she was born to command. I once had a retired chemist on the school board who had nothing better to do than to show up at the central office each day and offer suggestions on how I could do my job better. For this person, you need a thick hide and the patience of an oyster.

Theodore Kowalski in his book The School Superintendent listed this as one of the seven toughest problems that superintendents face. Described as “intruding into administration,” Kowalski wrote: “[T]his problem … is characterized by a board member who consistently and egregiously crosses the fine line separating policy and administration.”

This problem is tricky because one does not want to run the risk of offending the person and thus creating an enemy. Legally speaking, however, no one is vested with authority for the schools outside of the boardroom. The illegality of this circumstance needs to be addressed by the board chair and the school board attorney.

* Communicating with parents.
Somewhere back in my religious training I was taught, “Never blow your own horn.” Actually, in dealing with community members and parents, the exact opposite is true. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation is often spread by word of mouth and reporting by the news media sometimes lacks accuracy. The only way to overcome this is to ensure a steady stream of positive information finds its way to the community through newsletters, speeches at local gatherings and spots on TV or columns in the newspaper.

Parents will support schools they believe are doing a good job. In this case, despite what Theodore Roosevelt said, a big horn is better than a big stick.

* Keeping fit.
Many superintendents love to brag about the number of hours they work a week. While no one doubts their dedication to the job, it is noteworthy to point out there is no virtue associated with losing your health. Proper diet and daily exercise cannot be neglected. In his prime, billionaire oil mogul John D. Rockefeller took a 20-minute nap each day and a 30-minute walk after his evening meal. His reasoning was that, by taking care of his health, he could live longer and, thus, make more money. In this instance, a pair of gym shoes and the time to use them is a good investment in the future.

Jack Kaufhold, a former superintendent in North Carolina, is an associate professor of educational administration at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, 700 University Blvd., MSC 114, Kingsville, TX 78363. E-mail: kfjak00@tamuk.edu