Feature                                                       Pages 42-48


The Balancing Act

The superintendent’s quest for equilibrium between parenting of school-age children and the encompassing professional life


When Ana Riley was appointed superintendent in Dartmouth, Mass., a year ago, the 40-year-old fulfilled a professional dream to command a greater voice in shaping instruction and curriculum.

Married to a director of special education in a neighboring school district, Riley is also a parent to six children, ages 3 to 19, meaning she follows what she calls “a hectic but very organized schedule.” Her children, she adds, have learned to “value teamwork and flexibility.” 

Superintendent Ana Riley (second from left), with husband and six children. 

Meanwhile, in Skokie, Ill., Quintin Shepherd readily concedes he’s wrestling with a tough dilemma as a third-year superintendent with 8- and 10-year-old daughters. “My initial thought is balance — what balance? It’s a huge challenge to maintain a normal family dynamic and not let that infringe on my ability to do my job,” he admits.

Both Riley and Shepherd are in ideal positions to articulate the balancing act between the personal and the professional that plays out confoundingly in the superintendency today — especially for the increasing segment of school system leaders in their 30s and 40s with school-age children or preschoolers at home.

Reconciling Two Sides
The subject of how to lead a productive work life alongside the care of one’s family has drawn scant attention in the research literature in regards to superintendents or anyone else who holds the top executive reins of a public agency at the local level. With expectations for public education performance never higher, how is it possible to be “on duty” 24/7 and to be present everywhere the community seems to demand — school sporting events, fundraisers, student concerts and more?

So how does one reconcile that with desires of the home front? Is it possible for a superintendent, male or female, to manage such a demanding job and still have time for family?

The six superintendents interviewed about these questions yielded plenty of anecdotal solutions for maintaining a semblance of balance between professional and personal obligations. Their experiences contributed to these four points of advice:

  • Secure support and understanding from family members and the school district and make contingency plans for unexpected events;
  • Set aside time for your family and include them in school events;
  • Build a supportive team at work in order to delegate some tasks to surrogates; and
  • Take care of yourself through healthy eating, exercise and vacation breaks.

Quentin Shepherd

Taking the Plunge
Whether to apply for a superintendency in the first place requires serious discussions with family members who will be affected to ensure both home and work responsibilities can be fulfilled effectively.

Whether to apply for a superintendency in the first place requires serious discussions with family members who will be affected to ensure both home and work responsibilities can be fulfilled effectively.

Because of the potential complications of child care, some administrators opt to wait until their children are older and not so needy before taking on the top leadership role, while others plunge in whenever a great professional opportunity arises. Mary Springs accepted her current post as superintendent of the Santa Gertrudis Independent School District in Kingsville, Texas, seven years ago when the youngest of her three daughters entered 1st grade. She had worked as a principal, a somewhat more manageable role when parenting young children, until that point.

Yet even with the best preparations, most school leaders discover they greatly underestimate the time required for the job — to build relationships with various stakeholder groups, attend evening and weekend events and learn a new culture. Even those working just a notch down the district administrative ladder find substantial differences in time commitment, pressure and expectations between the superintendency and any other high-level leadership post.

David Thieman, who spent 17 years as director of human resources in Steger Public School District, located south of Chicago, before he was appointed the district’s superintendent in 2011, has undergone a personal learning experience “trying to find that balance between the position I am working so hard to master while providing the essential attention my daughters (ages 9 and 12) and wife deserve.”

The disparity in demands struck his wife Renee, as well. “I didn’t realize the number of evening events Dave would have to attend,” she admits. But it’s the spur-of-the-moment stuff that she says concerns her the most. “It’s hard to make plans because things always come up and he needs to go back to school or take care of something right then.” Many a dinner has ended before dessert. An understanding spouse is a necessity.

Parenting Solutions
To put in the long hours required of superintendents, those who are mothers or fathers need to be assured their children are safe and secure, whether through day care, a preschool, a stay-at-home parent or a nearby grandparent. As with school-age children anywhere, there are needs for chauffeuring to after-school activities and doctor appointments, as well as homework help.

Teamwork between spouses is essential — and so is compromise. A superintendent does not want to impose too much on a spouse, leading to resentment. In turn, the spouse wants to help the school leader succeed without feeling overly burdened. A good balance has to be agreed upon between the partners. And open communication is a must, so grievances can be aired and resolved.

In Thieman’s household, he cooks a complete pancake-and-eggs breakfast for his daughters every morning. “I want to start them off right,” he says. His wife, whom he’s known since 3rd grade, works an early morning shift as an occupational therapist at a suburban Chicago hospital so she can be home when the kids return from school.

But no matter how much planning, there are bound to be slip-ups — such as the times when Riley and her husband Kyle show up with the right kids at the wrong soccer field or both arrive at the same location instead of two different ones.

Single parents working in the superintendency face additional challenges. Isabelina Rodriguez accepted a superintendent’s job in a small community, Granby, Mass., after seven years as a superintendent in western Massachusetts, following her divorce. The move has enabled Rodriguez to spend more quality time with her daughter and take advantage of nearby support from her parents and brother. As a result, she says, her teenage daughter, Maria, has a close relationship with her grandparents.

The biggest challenge, Rodriguez says, is shifting gears from organizational leader to nurturing parent. “When things are difficult at work and I’m under stress, I still have to come home and be a mom. I can’t ask a spouse to take care of things for a while because I need a break. I still have to cook dinner and help with homework,” she adds.


Personal Priorities: When Crisis Hits Home

“The most rewarding aspect of being able to balance these roles has been to see my daughter grow into a very independent, strong young lady who sees herself as a leader. … Because of my schedule [she] has had the opportunity to see me at work and loves it, as do I,” says Rodriguez. “The district with which I worked adopted Maria, and as part of my annual opening-day remarks included ‘Maria stories’ that everyone grew to look forward to hearing.”

External Support
Working parents juggle priorities on a regular basis. In the case of superintendents, an understanding school board and central-office staff can go a long way in enabling school chiefs to attend milestone events in the lives of their young children, such as school plays or athletic events, or to assist a sick child or parent without feeling guilty. That’s made easier when school board members are themselves parents.

Kelly Bowers, superintendent of a 13,000-student district in Livermore Valley, Calif., praises her board for its “protectiveness.” The board insisted on adding a stipulation to her contract that says she must take at least two weeks’ vacation every year. “They want me for the long haul,” says Bowers, a parent of three college-age children.

On the other hand, to protect her time with her family and to permit attention to the doctoral degree she’s pursuing at University of California at Berkeley, Bowers has asked her board members to limit their phone calls on weekends and use e-mail instead “so there’s some separation and downtime.”

Family Time
Superintendents employ various ways to make sure they maintain and bolster family connections. Some are spontaneous, while others are more programmed. They can include mundane tasks such as grocery shopping or cooking together with spouses or children or sending texts and e-mails to each other at appropriate times during the workday to keep the relationship alive.

Some spouses enjoy participating in school events. Bowers’ husband Rob joins her at school-based fund-raising auctions, high school football games and barbecues. “But he draws the line at bingo,” she says. Other school leaders include their children in their work lives by bringing them along to district sports events, musical concerts and the like.

Many superintendents attempt to keep the dinner hour a sacred time for catching up on what’s happening in family members’ lives. Springs, who leads a small south Texas district, tries to have dinner with her husband and three daughters, Madison, Grace and Elizabeth, at least four times a week “to keep us connected as a family.” But school leaders also have a hard time maintaining such a schedule because of unexpected crises or evening meetings, especially if they live a distance from the district.

Several school chiefs put their families on their day-to-day schedules to ensure time spent together. Riley, the second-year superintendent in Dartmouth, Mass., swears by her personal calendar, which is maintained on all of her handheld devices — cell phone, iPad and laptop. She can see her home and school commitments in a single glance. “When I schedule a meeting, I can set it according to my other responsibilities,” Riley adds.

She and her husband, who have known each other since they were 16 years old, have a weekly calendar meeting to dole out tasks relating to their six kids. But even then she has to remember to look at it. On the day of her interview with School Administrator, she realized she forgot her daughter Jensen’s birthday and the attendant “happy birthday” greeting that morning. “I’ll pay for that with an extra-special present,” Riley says sheeplishly.

Another superintendent maximized face-to-face time with her elementary-age daughter by bringing her to the office during school vacations. With hardly anyone else knowing of the little girl’s presence, the youngster built a little house under her mom’s workspace, played with her toys and took naps. 

Superintendent Isabelina Rodriguez (right) with daughter Maria

For Isabelina Rodriguez, the superintendent in western Massachusetts, Friday nights always have been special bonding moments between mother and daughter, known as “topsy turvy” time. Rodriguez and daughter Maria put on pajamas, eat pancakes, watch TV and cuddle on the couch. “No matter what, this is her time. It is scheduled in. No work is allowed.” They still reserve this time together, although with Maria now 16, the PJs are no longer required attire.

Living in or Out
The matter of residency bears on the family balance issue. The superintendent who doesn’t have a contractual stipulation over where to reside must weigh the benefits of living in the district of employment with living elsewhere and sending his or her children to schools in that district. (See related stories, "Living Inside the District," "Living Outside the District.")

Bowers, a married mother of three, lives in the Livermore district she has led since 2010. That tends to put her in regular contact with community members when she’s out and about, walking her dog or grocery shopping. She sees value in the informal meetings, saying, “It goes a long way toward transparency and in making connections.”

In Skokie, Ill., Quintin Shepherd chose to buy a house in the district where he was appointed superintendent. In doing so, he realizes he gave up his status as “just a parent” around his children’s teachers. “I try to maintain a distance so neither I nor the teacher is in an uncomfortable situation,” he says.

Others, such as Riley, prefer more privacy, both for themselves and their families, by living outside the district. She and her husband settled in Fall River, Mass., midway between their two jobs, about a 25-minute commute for each. They can go bowling and “goof around,” she says, without fear of being approached about a school-related matter. Also, they can function simply as parents when dealing with their children’s teachers.

In her south Texas town, Springs, a superintendent for seven years, intentionally bought a home with her husband Wayne, a math teacher in the district, five miles from the central office, located on King Ranch. “I can eat dinner with my family and then go back to school for an evening event,” says the mother of three teenage daughters. “I see my children more because I live close to the school, although not in the district.”

One downside of living outside the district means the travel time sometimes precludes a visit home whenever there’s an evening event.

Future Prospects
Those in the business of attracting qualified candidates to fill vacant school system leadership positions don’t see family issues as negatively affecting the applicant pool, though it’s on the minds of many individuals they approach.

Some aspirants wait for an appropriate point in the lives of their children to pursue a superintendency, whether it’s their first or a subsequent high-level post. They may time their candidacy for a desireable job with their children’s move from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school, while others, especially female candidates, may prefer to become serious superintendent candidates when their children graduate from high school.

Spouses’ professional work status also may factor into a decision, which can limit their pursuit of a superintendency to school districts within commuting distance of their current home.

“The time commitment is big, and I tell aspiring superintendents they can’t be 90 percent career and 10 percent family. They need to be prepared for long hours, including nights and weekends,” says Thomas Jacobson, a former superintendent in two states who has been in the superintendent search field for 21 years. “But there’s a need to balance both.”

David Thieman 

Another veteran search consultant, Terre Davis, tells potential candidates to involve their family members thoroughly in any decision, even suggesting they visit a prospective new community before submitting an application for a superintendency. “They need to go into the job with a positive attitude and know what it’s going to do to the family. … They have to know that whatever they do has consequences,” Davis says.

Once in a new leadership berth, finding equilibrium is vital to a successful career and home life. Most of the superintendents consulted for this story admit they’ve had to work through real challenges, sometimes involving strained spousal relationships. School chiefs sacrifice a lot on the home front to be successful in one of their community’s most important public roles. But they are inclined to cite the plusses.

Mary Springs, the Texas superintendent who now has added graduate school to her already complicated life as a parent, encourages administrators, especially women, not to be afraid of taking on the top job. “The kids turn out fine and the marriage survives,” she says.

As he ended his rookie year in the superintendency last summer, David Thieman, based in suburban Chicago, is optimistic the future will bring him a better semblance of balance. “I believe things will get more comfortable in the coming years, for everyone involved. This first year I gave 120 percent to the district. It doesn’t have to be that way going forward. I want to find time to be a good dad to Allison and Danielle, and husband, as well as a good superintendent.”

Marian Kisch is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. E-mail: mariankisch@verizon.net

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