Time Saving Tips for New Superintendents: Don’t Go It Alone; Pick Up The Phone!

Jill M. Gildea,
Superintendent Fremont School District #79
Mundelein, IL 60060


 Jill M. Gildea

At the annual end of year recognition and retirement luncheon, I join in celebrating successful careers of educators while feeling a very real sense of loss at the years of experience that will be exiting our school’s halls in the coming weeks. Educational experience takes time to develop and is not easily replicated. Those educators who have served a specific school for an extended length of time know the culture, climate, and expectations of the community intuitively.

In a very similar way, those superintendents who retire and leave the educational community take with them those real lessons learned, wisdom, and expertise in navigating the very challenging role of education organization leader. For those of us who may be new to the area, it takes a great deal of dialogue and time to develop an understanding of the culture and communication patterns of a learning organization. While we must allow ourselves the time, the role of the superintendent is not one that has a great deal of downtime.

As a matter of fact, I am fairly certain that there will be in progress files, projects, and a July Board of Education packet to prepare that is waiting for you the first day that you step into the new job role. As a new superintendent, you may be thinking, “Where do I begin?” Developing and sustaining a relationship with a mentor is a critical transition task for the new superintendent.

Our local chapter of the IASA/AASA hosts both a state-wide New Superintendent Orientation and provides a three-year mentor partnership for those who request a mentor. The orientation is well planned and organized, but the mentor partnership is a key to new superintendent success in Illinois.

As you transition to the role of superintendent, it is critical to develop and sustain a relationship with a mentor as an external “expert” who can provide a listening ear, experience, and “another set of eyes” as you work with the existing Board of Education and community. Those new superintendents who have reached out, networked, and accepted feedback are often much more successful that those who attempt to “go it alone.” The superintendent role is often an isolating job role; therefore, it is up to you to seek out that sounding board and that person with experience to provide a check and balance for you in the coming months and years.

While celebrating a colleague’s entry into a new superintendency from an Assistant role, I asked Kara how she was feeling.

“It’s sobering,” Kara replied. “I had never considered just how much responsibility the superintendent role is until receiving my first job offer to be one.”

The realization that stepping into the superintendent job role is a huge responsibility is an accurate one. Many of us stepped in not realizing just how many minor and major job role assignments are linked to the title. A mentor can help the new superintendent to prioritize tasks, give “an insider’s view” to the community’s culture and climate, and ensure a smooth transition. Trying out communications of a change initiative, proofreading a newsletter, or joining you on a facilities walk can help to provide you, a new superintendent, with an introduction to the “language” of the superintendent job role.

I read the local paper and an article on my former district once again hit the front page. Apparently, the new superintendent’s style varies greatly from mine. While the new superintendent is bringing forward amazing instructional initiatives, the community is not receiving the improvements as anticipated.

“You know what it’s like,” she said the next time we ran into each other, “You’ve been there.”

“I cannot remember ever having an issue show up on the front page news,” I replied. In fact, I do recall leaning quite significantly on several mentors that first year. Two retired superintendents from the district were able to walk me through their progress with the Board and community up to the point where I took the reins. The third, an outside the District, retired leader, visited, e-mailed, and chatted with me periodically on the phone. The ‘rehearsal time’ with an experienced educational leader provided me with honest feedback before I made any sweeping reform or announcement that would damage my relationship within a new community. My memories of those first years are very positive, and I credit that to the work of my mentors!

In moving from one school district to the next as superintendent of schools, I reflected on the most important lessons learned in my first three years. That message is and continues to be - don’t go it alone; pick up the phone!