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The Redneck Superintendent:

Poverty’s Effects on Leadership

 

BY MARSHA L. CARR

Like most school districts, the one in West Virginia where I served as superintendent had distinct groups of students, each tagged by their peers with a specific label. In our community, students who were raised in the country, hunted and fished, wore camouflage, drove older vehicles and typically were from families of a lower socioeconomic status were nicknamed “rednecks.” Not all redneck students were from lower SES families, and higher-SES redneck students were easily identified by their brand-name boots, jackets and jeans.

The second group was the “preppies,” described by the rednecks as conceited bullies, wealthy or wanna-be wealthy and spoiled. They were well-dressed high achievers who were college-bound and had the support of their parents. These students came from higher-SES families or from middle-SES families that aspired to be higher-SES.

The third group consisted of leftovers from the two alpha groups and didn’t earn a label per se. These students kept to themselves, were well-behaved, and maintained good attendance and good grades. These students were a mixture of SES backgrounds.

A Humble Start
As a superintendent, I was able to identify with all three groups. I was born into a humble family and was the first to attend college. I went on to earn my doctorate in organizational management.

When I became a superintendent, my ability to flow in and out of the various groups gave me an advantage. By all accounts, most students saw me as an ally, someone who knew about and was sympathetic to their experiences. Therefore, I was admittedly taken aback when an angry community member, upset over a decision I upheld, hurled the words “redneck superintendent” at me as he left my office. As I watched him retreat, I contemplated whether I should be offended. Clearly, he felt I should be. I thought about the term “redneck” and even looked up the definition online.

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, redneck is slang for “a poor, white, rural Southerner” and stems from the sunburned neck that farmers acquire while working in the fields.

I was raised in the northern United States in a family with limited financial resources, yet I managed with hard work and motivation to move from one social stratum to another. The term, as defined by this source, seemed misplaced, but it got me thinking.

Is there a difference between how superintendents who were raised in a lower socioeconomic family approach their jobs as compared to those from better-off circumstances? Do we think differently? Do we approach the challenges of being a superintendent differently? Do we treat students differently? Is one group of superintendents more successful than another? I wanted to know.

Does Status Matter?
I began my research with a focus on superintendents from across West Virginia, using a cross section of urban and rural schools as a sample and schools of various enrollments. Ages of the superintendents ranged from 40 to 65. The 14 superintendents I interviewed were in the higher SES when I interviewed them, but 10 were raised in the lower SES, with limited material resources, and four grew up in the higher SES.

For superintendents who grew up in the lower SES, education was their means out of poverty. Many of these superintendents came from families like mine, and they were the first in their family to graduate from college.

Despite early hardships, these superintendents were more likely to share how their lower SES affected them as leaders. One superintendent put it this way: “It tends to make you more aware. ... I have the ability to empathize.” A superintendent raised in a higher SES confessed that it took him years to really understand the struggles of students who came from poverty. It just wasn’t something he had experienced, he admitted, and therefore it took time to recognize the effects of poverty and learn how to make leadership decisions that considered what was best for all students.

All 14 superintendents in my study agreed that their socioeconomic standing as children influenced greatly how they made decisions, large and small. Superintendents from a lower SES seemed to feel more in touch with all students than did their counterparts from a higher SES.

Cultural Barriers
As a superintendent, I understood the feelings of students from less-advantaged households and recognized their struggles. I believe these students also saw me as someone who had moved from poverty, yet who respected my upbringing. Shortly after my confrontation with the angry parent, I shared the incident with one of my students. “Yes, Dr. Carr,” he said, smiling, “you are one of us. We trust you and can talk to you. You are the first redneck superintendent my dad says our county has ever had.”

Understandably, our schools and businesses operate from middle-class norms and hidden rules. This middle ground, while justifiable, is advantageous only to students from middle or higher SES. For those students in the lower SES, the rules are not obvious and can create cultural barriers too difficult to overcome. Certainly, we can’t advocate lower SES norms of operation, but we can be sensitive to this challenge for students of lower SES.

Marsha Carr, a former superintendent, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at University of North Carolina at Wilmington in Wilmington, N.C. E-mail: carrm@uncw.edu. Twitter: @doccarr 

 

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