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Feature                                                       Pages 18-25

 

Family First Considerations     

In superintendent career decisions, weighing your own family’s needs before moving into that desirable new post

BY SCOTT LaFEE

As a teacher and high school principal for nine years through the early 2000s, Howard “Jake” Eberwein III says it was relatively easy to balance work and family life. Family members typically would join him at school events. “If I had a dance or prom, I’d take my wife. There were lots of opportunities to involve my family. Everybody at school knew them.”

It got more complicated once Eberwein, a father of five, decided to become a superintendent. He returned to college part time to earn the requisite postgraduate credentials. And his wife put her career as a nurse on hold. “We made a conscious decision that I would work more and she would stay home to provide (the children) with a certain level of support,” he says.

Eberwein
Jake Eberwein (left) with his family.

In 2008, Eberwein attained his career goal, becoming superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools, a 6,000-student K-12 district in western Massachusetts’ Berkshire County.

Four years later, he’s out — by his own choice.

Staking Priorities
In June of this year, Eberwein resigned his superintendency, ending a multiyear contract renewed in 2011. The reason for leaving wasn’t about the job, says Eberwein, which was stressful but rewarding. It wasn’t about the district. “I love Pittsfield. I’ve lived here almost 20 years,” he says.

It was about his family life. Or rather, its relative absence.

“I was working long hours, weekends, always on call. I wasn’t around my family as much as I wanted or needed. And when I was home, my mind was often elsewhere, thinking about district problems. It got to the point where I needed to do something. I wanted to be present for my family when I was actually present with my family.”

So Eberwein, 47, opted to resign and begin a new, more family-friendly professional life. In the months since, his wife has resumed her career. In August, Eberwein, who says he “still has ambitious goals to influence public education,” became dean of graduate and continuing education at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

The college is located in North Adams, Mass., 22 miles from his Pittsfield home. Eberwein plans to commute.

“The job is about 30 minutes from my home, so it’s very convenient and conducive to a balanced family life. I expect it will be very demanding with expectations around performance (enrollment, revenue and program development), but less so than with the day-to-day, operational demands that require a superintendent’s attention and availability 24/7.”

Hesitation Factors
For superintendents like Eberwein, becoming the chief executive of a public school district represents the culmination of a public service career, the payoff for years toiling in classrooms and central offices, the reward for multitudinous sacrifices made, large and small.

Of course, being a superintendent creates its own lengthy list of sacrifices, high among them the all-consuming nature of the job and the resulting effect upon family and personal life. “I don’t think you fully understand this until you’ve had the job for awhile,” says Eberwein. “I was a deputy superintendent for a year, being groomed for the top job, and the reality is you don’t know what you’re getting into until you’re really in it.”

The typical superintendent these days is male (though the percentage of female superintendents is steadily rising, now accounting for one in four, according to AASA’s 2010 decennial study of the superintendency), in his 40s and almost always married with children. When educators become superintendents, the issues of family dynamics and related concerns today often command as much attention as the employment terms.

In his 2009 doctoral dissertation, Roger J. Klatt, superintendent of Barker Central Schools, a 1,000-student district in western New York, identified three key “hesitancy factors” that he says influence superintendents’ perceptions and decisions about the job and how it interacts with their lives, public and private. Those factors are (1) having school-age children, (2) spousal considerations and (3) quality of life.

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However, empirical data exploring the status of family and personal relationships among superintendents are sparse. Relevant studies are few and limited in scope. Family dynamics may be a regular topic of casual conversation among superintendents at professional conferences, but it’s not something they talk much about in public or on the record.

A Timeout Call
For this story, more than a dozen superintendents and assistant superintendents shared their views and experiences about what it means to concurrently manage a school district and have a family. Almost to a man and woman, Klatt’s hesitancy factors resonated. Superintendents may be motivated by the higher calling of educating new generations of students, but they want to have a life, as well. They want a happy home and family.

That factor alone may dissuade — or at least delay — some potential superintendents. Like Amanda Lecaroz.

Lecaroz, an assistant superintendent of the 2,600-student Pelham School District in Windham, N.H., says she “will not even consider a superintendent position until my children are out of the house because the demands and politics surrounding the position would be too much of a sacrifice for my family.”

“The biggest challenge to being a superintendent is how to balance a healthy marriage, family and personal life so that you don’t burn out. You want to create a legacy, and not just at work. I’m not alone in thinking this.”

No factor weighs more heavily in how superintendents measure their personal and professional lives than time — or the lack of it. A 2003 survey by the Colorado Association of School Executives said many superintendents reported routinely working 80 or more hours a week. The job hasn’t gotten easier since.

That time at work, of course, comes at the expense of time at home. “The hardest part is the nights out,” says Paul Bousquet, superintendent of School Administrative Unit 20 in Gorham, N.H., which provides administrative support for a number of school districts in the northeastern portion of the state. “I’m probably out 60 to 80 nights a year. I need to be available to school boards when they need me.”

Bousquet says his 8-year-old daughter expresses her unhappiness about her dad’s regular absence from the dinner table.

Family Supports
To survive and succeed under these time constraints, superintendents necessarily rely upon a strong family support system — particularly a spouse who understands the demands of the job and who can fill all of the necessary gaps and shortcomings that occur as a result.

Virtually every superintendent interviewed had a spouse who also worked or had worked in education, either as a teacher or as an administrator. In one case, the spouse was a school counselor, “which comes in handy when you’re a school administrator,” jokes Bill Fritcher, superintendent of Teutopolis, Ill., Unit 50 Schools.

“If my wife was not a teacher,” says Adam Ehrman, 33, who became superintendent in New Berlin, Ill., in July, moving from nearby Franklin, Ill., “the marriage relationship would be a lot harder. She gets it. She knows what the demands of the job are, and she understands that when I’m in public, why I spend so much time talking with this person or that rather than focusing only on my family.”

 Ehrman
Adam Ehrman with his wife and daughters.

Supportive spouses frequently scale back or even shelve their own professional lives. That’s what Eberwein’s wife, who had worked as a nurse, did. That’s what Patrick Martin’s spouse did as well.

Martin, superintendent in Washington, Ill., says his wife Taren, a highly successful women’s basketball coach at Eureka College, declined an invitation to become an assistant coach at the much bigger, higher-profile University of Missouri, which would have required a move to Columbia, Mo.

“It was a dream job for her, but I had a signed contract with my district and we loved the community, so she passed,” says Martin, who has two preschoolers. “It was a significant sacrifice.”

Residency Demands
For superintendents whose working spouses can’t or won’t leave their jobs (or whose children are happily ensconced in their current schools), one solution is to maintain their current residence and commute to the school district for work.

Traditionally, school boards prefer their top administrators to live within the district. It makes practical sense. “Obviously, it’s good to live in the place where you work, to be close and available in times of crisis. It shows a certain support and faith in the district you lead,” said Ehrman. “Plus, there’s a certain degree of discomfort if you’re, say, not living in a town but having a role in determining its tax rates.” (See related stories, pages 30 and 31.)

In some places, school boards are becoming more flexible about the residency requirement, recognizing that personal and economic factors might strongly dictate where a superintendent must live. They don’t want to lose an attractive candidate because of an address.

Ehrman has held administrative positions in which he lived in one district, but worked in another. For the New Berlin job, he agreed to move, but he also negotiated a one-year grace period to give him time to sell his home in a down market.

On the other hand, Fritcher, who just finished his second year at Teutopolis, has held on to his home of 21 years in a thriving township in southern Illinois, where his children attended and his wife taught and coached sports in the schools.

“I made a commitment many years ago that I was not going to hop around for the next best job,” he says.

Fritcher lives outside his district, which provides him with a modicum of anonymity. He can, for example, go shopping without parents stopping him to ask questions or voice complaints.

But there’s a downside to being an outsider as well, he adds. It goes back to the universal concerns of time and opportunity. “The biggest issue my family has wrestled with is having no control over things like where I’ll need to be, the time conflicts with my children’s school events and activities. I haven’t missed any major ones, but I’ve missed some. And I know eventually I will face a really tough situation.”

Palan
 John Palan (left) at home with his family.

For six years, John Palan worked as a teacher, principal and finally superintendent in the public schools of St. Anne, a small, rural agricultural community in northern Illinois. He loved the job and place, but lived 20 miles away in the town of Grant Park, where his wife had grown up and taught language arts and where his three children were enrolled in school.

“I was extremely happy professionally. St. Anne was and is a wonderful place to work. The board understood why I lived outside the district and was very supportive. But I was also working 10 to 12 hours a day, attending two or three events each week, plus board meetings, and the lack of time with my family was really starting to bother me,” Palan says.

“I began having this internal debate over what it meant to be an excellent superintendent versus what was required to be a great father. One time my daughter announced she had a band concert. I found out about it late and didn’t know if I could make it, given my job commitments. My daughter said, ‘That’s OK, dad. It’s not a big deal.’ She kind of assumed I wouldn’t be there.”

It was a revelatory moment, admits Palan, father to a 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old twin boys. It got him thinking. He also got lucky. Not long afterward, the superintendency of Grant Park Community Unit School District 6 became open. “It was a fortunate opportunity for me,” he says. “Completely unexpected.”

Palan recently began his second year as Grant Park’s top district administrator. The hours are still long, but he sees his family a lot more. “My daughter has had to adjust to having dad as superintendent,” he chuckled.

Special Treatment
Being superintendent of a district your children attend brings different challenges, says Jacob Sherman, who retired from a full-time superintendency in 1996 but continues to work as a part-time, interim administrator in districts around east Texas. He’s had 14 such jobs in the last 16 years.

Sherman and his wife, Sandra, a onetime assistant superintendent who now directs the Texas office of AdvancED, an educational support and development company, say living within a district with school-age children can get complicated.

“People expect your children to behave at a higher standard,” Jacob says, “but if they’re successful, some will assume it’s because of the parent’s position. I remember one incident when my oldest son entered a poster contest. I didn’t know anything about the contest, which wasn’t even in the city where I was working. But when my son won, someone asked if I had fixed the contest.”

Sandy Doebert, who retired in June after 10 years as superintendent in Lemont, Ill., and 28 years in educational administration, can sympathize. It’s natural and perhaps unavoidable, she says, for others to assume the superintendent’s children enjoy certain perks and advantages, however unintentional.

But Doebert, like other superintendents interviewed, says she always worked hard to avoid any appearance of special treatment. She carefully delineated her roles of superintendent and parent, especially when talking with her sons’ teachers. At open houses where she appeared as superintendent, her husband (who was a teacher in a different district) took the role of visiting parent.

“We thought it was important that our sons had student experiences, not son-of-superintendent experiences,” Doebert says. (See related story, "When Mom or Dad is the Superintendent: Sandy Doebert.")

Eldercare Emerges
There is another aspect to the superintendent/parent issue that evokes similar dilemmas. Fritcher’s decision to remain in Teutopolis was guided not solely by his wish to provide stability and a sense of place for his growing children.

“I wanted to live close to my wife’s parents. I’m just 25 minutes from my parents,” Fritcher says. “I didn’t feel my career was more important than our parents. We watched them take care of their parents, and we wanted to be able to offer that support as well.”

Jane Pryne faced a wrenching eldercare issue. Just a year into her superintendency of the Continental Elementary School District near Tucson, Ariz., Pryne’s father, living an hour away, was diagnosed with colon cancer. She took time off before he passed away, yet still second-guesses herself.

“As I look back on it,” says Pryne, “I probably should have taken a little bit more time off because you don’t realize that you’re grieving when you’re in the midst of taking care of other people. … It’s important for anybody in a time-consuming job to remember that at the end of the day, it is your family and life is short. And that was the lesson I learned, that life is short. My dad was 79, and I still didn’t get enough time with him.” (See related story, "Personal Priorities: When Crisis Hits Home.")

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, more than 43.5 million Americans provide care for someone age 50 and older. An additional 61.6 million Americans provide at least some care during the year. But can a working superintendent effectively take on eldercare?

It’s hard to say. The challenges of caregiving are well-documented and daunting. The responsibility can last for years. One-third of caregivers do so for five or more years, according to a 2009 National Alliance for Caregiving study, amounting to 10 to 20 or more hours a week of parental support.

That’s a huge, additional burden upon an already hard-pressed superintendent, says Kathleen Kelly, the Family Caregiver Alliance’s executive director. “The demands upon superintendents and people who have these kinds of high-profile, high-stress, long-hour careers just don’t mesh well with being a caregiver. Realistically, the two things don’t coexist well. It’s a hard reconciliation to make.”

Quite often, she adds, working professionals must tap other family members to help or turn to more formal resources, such as professional caregiving services or assisted-living housing. “This way, they off-load some of the demands they simply do not have the time to handle, but can still be involved.”

Parenting First
In 2007, a AASA survey of superintendents found that nearly 60 percent, a record high, of respondents considered their jobs to be very stressful. It’s probably not a surprise, then, that many top administrators say their wholehearted preference is to find a good, family-friendly job and hang on to it — at least until their children are out of the house.

“I could be content watching my two girls graduate high school from this district,” says Ehrman, in New Berlin, Ill. “As superintendent, you’re always professionally hungry. You want to do more and better. But you also need to step outside yourself and look at life as not just your life.”

In his recent doctoral dissertation at the University at Buffalo, Klatt noted that the pool of candidates for superintendent vacancies appears to be shrinking. “Research suggests that unlike the Baby Boomers, the next generation of school leaders (Generation X and Y) is unwilling to make the family sacrifices typical of their more traditional role-oriented predecessors,” he says.

Whether that’s actually possible in this field remains to be seen.

Scott LaFee is a health sciences writer at the University of California, San Diego. E-mail: scott.lafee@gmail.com

 

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