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Personal Priorities:

When Crisis Hits Home  

BY BETSY SAMSON

 Pryne
Jane Pryne

 

Jane Pryne had been superintendent at the 300-student Continental Elementary School District in Green Valley, Ariz., for about a year when she eagerly began a doctoral program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. While juggling her responsibilities to her district, husband and adolescent son, she completed her course work for the Ed.D. in about 20 months.

However, just before her oral comps, Pryne’s father, who lived about 50 miles away, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Less than a month later he was moved to hospice care. The date: Sept. 10, 2001. He passed away after only three days.

There is never a good time for a family emergency or personal crisis, but when forced to navigate one, superintendents face several distinct obstacles. They are public figures in a high-stress position with little respite from the job’s time-consuming responsibilities and obligations. With so much of a superintendent’s work focused on serving others, what happens when circumstances require those in the role to abruptly divert their attention to their personal lives?

During her onslaught of catastrophe, Pryne worked hard to maintain whatever normalcy she could. “I told my (doctoral) adviser that my father was dying, but I didn’t want the comps committee to know because I didn’t want special treatment. When he died, I took three weeks off from writing my dissertation and four days off of work.” She defended on schedule in March 2002 and graduated that spring.

When it came to prioritizing work and family responsibilities, Pryne relied on her instincts to guide her. “Not being at work on Sept. 11 was really hard,” Pryne remembers. “People were afraid, they were in shock, but I felt like at the end of the day I really needed to be with my dad in hospice.”

She made the conflicted decision to stay in touch with key district staff members via phone, and they worked together to lead the school community through the day’s tragic events.

Faithful to Faith
Even without the added distress of a national tragedy, though, taking the time to cope with the death of a parent can be a struggle, as Len Lubinsky learned firsthand during his tenure as superintendent of Erving School Union 28 in rural Erving, Mass.

Lubinsky was in the midst of a contentious budget negotiation period when his mother passed away. He took leave from the district for just over a week to observe the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva, a customary period of mourning and remembrance following the burial of a first-degree relative.

During his time away, Lubinsky was not in touch at all with the school district. This was in 1995, before the days of iPhones and even e-mail, but his decision was based more on the moral tenets of his faith than logistics. “I wasn’t sure what would happen or if a decision would be reached, but it would have been inappropriate to be involved in any way,” he says. “It was clear to me that my obligation was to honor my mother.”

An assistant and influential principal were prepared to act in Lubinsky’s absence. Nevertheless, the former superintendent concedes, “The budget was lower than I would have liked. We lost some services. … No matter what structures you have in place, there are things that other people don’t have the freedom or experience to do as well as you can.”

Communal Coping
Preparation can go a long way when navigating a personal crisis, especially an extended one. In March 2011, eight months after beginning her superintendency of the Pleasant Hill School District in Peoria, Ill., Kim Hanks’ doctor found an abnormality on her annual mammogram. A couple of weeks later, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, stage 2. What followed was almost a year of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and other treatment, and recovery.

Hanks
Kim Hanks (center)

For Hanks, preparation was key in leading her district effectively during this period. “After the diagnosis,” she explains, “I wanted to do everything ahead of time. We arranged graduation in April.” These efforts, of course, extended far beyond Hanks. “My goal was always to be two weeks ahead, and if you’re two weeks ahead, everyone else needs to be, too,” she says.

Though large school districts may have more personnel to shoulder additional work responsibilities, leading a small district also has its advantages, notably a stronger sense of unity and personal bonds. “It would have been easier on my staff to have more people,” says Hanks of her one-building district, “but the staff stepped up — the whole community did. We couldn’t pay people to cover for me, they did it just to help.”

Pryne, now superintendent in the 3,600-student Port Angeles, Wash., district, had a similar experience in the wake of her father’s rapid decline and death. “People just rose to the occasion,” she recalls. “Parents were helpful, staff was helpful, and the community just came together.”

Relinquishing Control
As important as that communal coping is, superintendents facing scenarios like this must consider their personal progress as well. Keeping perspective over what is fair to expect of oneself is imperative to maintaining mental health.

“All you can do is focus on what you can accomplish that day and forgive yourself if something doesn’t get done,” Hanks advises. And though relinquishing control can be incredibly challenging for a superintendent, Lubinsky echoes her sentiments. “There are some things you can’t control,” he says. “You can be well-prepared, you can prepare people, but sometimes [a difficult situation] happens. And then you do your best.”

Betsy Samson is the editorial assistant for School Administrator. E-mail: bsamson@aasa.org

 

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