Guest Column

Rapid Change? Only the Name on Your Office Door

by PAUL HEWITT

I'm one of those people who studies life by removing myself from the picture and analyzing why things happen. Being a superintendent I have a vested interest in why the turnover among superintendents is so high.

Boards always hire a superintendent with incredibly high expectations. They look forward to a dynamic and visionary leader who will lead them out of the educational wasteland into the promised land where no child is left behind. Then, in about two years, the same board will be crucifying the latest savior on a cross. Why?

Recently a close friend and I were discussing the new superintendent who just moved to a large district not far from me. She is doing what I know she thinks the school board wants her to do. She has cleaned out the ineffective top-level administrators and brought in trusted colleagues from out of state. She has instituted new programs designed to bring about dramatic improvements in student

Academic performance. She's been there for little over a year and I predict she'll never see her three-year anniversary. Here's my hypothesis.

Most boards want, or think they want, a superintendent who will come in and shake things up. They want the superintendent to correct in one year all the ills that have developed in the school system over decades. The board wants “results” and they want them now! The new superintendent naively believes that he or she has been given a powerful mandate to move that district forward. What a ajor mistake.

Status Quo Reigns
The words of a former board member still resonate in my ears: "We wanted you to change things, but we didn't want people to be unhappy. It's not what you did that we have a problem with, it is how you did it." I thought I had carried out the wishes of the board only to find that disgruntled constituents had been calling the board not to complain about the changes, vecause the changes needed to be made, but about how terrible they felt about what I had done. The hidden message in these attacks was: "If we make him go away, the changes will go away and we can get back to the way things were before he came." Unfortunately this premise has worked with amazing consistency.

 

The reality of school districts is that they are people-driven organizations, not program- or product-driven organizations. When bringing about long-term meaningful change, relationships are much more important than are innovative and creative ideas. To be successful over the long haul, a superintendent must be seen as part of the culture. In our little "us versus them" world, a superintendent must develop roots as quickly as possible. Roots are developed by relationships.

In the district next door to mine, the superintendent of two years just went through contentious negotiations with the teachers’ union. He was attacked personally and viciously. He was an outsider whom people never knew on a human level. He had no base of support in the community or among the staff. He was totally vulnerable as "old timers" on the staff and in the community jumped on the bandwagon to get rid of the superintendent. To the staff, he wasn't one of them. You guessed it; he is no longer there.

Everyone’s Vulnerable
I've been in my district for seven years. If negotiations became bitter I would be vulnerable to attacks like any other superintendent. However, I know too many people and they know me. My daughter went to school here. My wife and I are active in church. I'll be attacked and the same untruths will be said about me, but the tendency to go for the throat and kill poses a minimal threat. I may get fed up and leave, but it is unlikely there would be a "fire the superintendent" movement. My personal relationships are too strong. I really like the people in my district and they know it.

Most new superintendents come in and start making changes and ignore the critical nature of developing personal relationships. The staff knows that if they just wait it out this too shall pass. Superintendents come and go, but the staff stays forever. There isn't a school district that doesn't need improvement, but to try to bring about immediate change without laying the foundation for that change brings about a lot of turmoil and job turnover.

I know there are exceptions. There are superintendents who have been in their districts for years and things go bad for them almost overnight; no one is ever completely secure. But looking at the big picture, we see that most failed superintendents don't understand the politics of their districts, the unofficial power players, the culture of the district or the true nature and motivations of their board members.

Most importantly, they just don't understand how people think. They just haven't taken the time to develop relationships. Yelling charge and running up the hill without knowing whether the people are with you is the surest way to a short career.

Paul Hewitt is superintendent of the Mother Lode Union School District, 3783 Fornie Road, Placerville, CA 95667. E-mail: phewitt@mlusd.k12.ca.us