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Partners’ Programs Deliver Support, Comraderie

Being the partner of a superintendent is a role that comes without written instructions or much of a support network. In school communities, whether small and rural or metropolitan and expansive, the partner has access to no one else who is going through the same trials. It can be a lonely existence.

 Ladies Lunch
The Partners' Program at AASA national conferences in the 1980s and '90s ran a parallel track that included a luncheon with prominent speakers.

AASA, especially during the past half-century, has recognized the unique status of the superintendent’s partner. Just as the superintendent’s work life operates 24/7, the partner may find everything scrutinized — attire, conversation topics, behavior of the couple’s children, choice of residential location and more.

With the superintendency (and AASA’s membership base) a predominantly male bastion until women’s rapid gains over the last two decades, most of the association’s programming assumed the partner to be female. The first evidence of a program at the national conference designed specifically for the female partner shows up in AASA conference archives in 1953, with the scheduling of a “ladies fashion show.”

A Broadening Appeal

Because AASA encouraged its members to bring their spouses with them to the national convention, which was a fixture in Atlantic City, N.J., until the mid-1970s, the organization wanted to make them feel welcome. As a result, the so-called AASA Ambassadors Program was launched in 1975 as a formal way to recognize and involve the spouses of the officers and Executive Committee members, according to Billye Hall, whose husband, Norman, served as AASA president in 1978.

In its earliest days, the AASA Ambassadors organized a strand of conference sessions on fashion and appearance, tours of cultural sites and advice on improving one’s marriage. The multiday series became known as the Partners’ Program. The Halls recall more than 700 tickets were sold to a 1979 luncheon featuring actress Arlene Francis.

Mary Tom Haun, wife of past president Roland “Goldie” Haun, helped with the AASA Ambassadors planning for more than a decade, through the 1990s. She found the topics broadened over time to appeal to both career women and homemakers. Haun led a conference session titled “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” in 1993 that enabled attendees to share advice about coping in the spotlight and to discover the kinship among superintendents’ spouses. These open forums continued to be a popular feature each year.

But the programming for superintendents’ partners also reflected the changing nature of society, notably the birth of the feminist movement. The 1973 conference in San Francisco featured a session titled “From Adam’s Rib to Women’s Lib: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” A year later, the roundtable discussion topics were “Women as Chief State School Officers” and “Need Women’s Lib Divide Us?”

That same year, five panelists married to superintendents discussed how to handle animosity and even violence during teacher union strikes and how families could deal with newspaper criticism of the superintendent. Earlier that year, the superintendent in Oakland, Calif., had been slain, prompting several spouses at the national conference to publicly talk about the tension that arose in their lives during heated contract negotiations. The feelings of vulnerability would return to the discussion table for spouses in 1994, a year when two prominent superintendents were murdered on the job.

Family Dynamics

Titles of the conference programs continued to be a reminder of the profession’s male domination. Sessions offered to superintendents’ partners in Atlantic City in 1983 were titled “Backstage at Miss America Pageant” and “World of Color Analysis.” Abigail Van Buren (“Dear Abby”) was the Partners’ Program luncheon speaker four years later in New Orleans, and Dr. Joyce Brothers, a psychologist and media personality, talked about “Unlocking Your Secret Power” in 1990 when the Partners’ Program ran a full 3½ days. “I Pray for Boredom and It Never Comes” looked at the complex and unique life of the partner.

By 1993, more than 2,500 partners were attending the conference. One year they heard former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby speak about her divorce and her battle with eating disorders. With a handful of men mixing in, the participants mainly used the annual event to network and take advantage of social support.

Meanwhile, AASA’s flagship publication, School Administrator magazine, began to highlight the effects of the superintendency on the lives of their spouses and children. Several issues during the past 15 years have published moving articles by superintendents’ family members. And with women today closing in on a 30 percent share of superintendencies nationally, the November 2012 magazine was devoted almost totally to family dynamics. One article reported on two studies that examined the impact of the superintendent’s husband on her decisions regarding job acceptance, performance and retention in the high-profile role.

By the turn of the century, interest in the Partners’ Program was waning. The parallel conference program, which at one point operated with a $35,000 annual budget provided by AASA, ended in 2002. Looking back, Billye Hall, wife of a past president who continues to attend the national conference, says, “You miss it. … It was a program for women, providing partners who face isolation and community gossip, particularly if they lived in a small community.”

Judy Marx, who participated in the Partners’ Program during the two decades her husband Gary worked as AASA’s communications director, said the sessions created “a sense of belonging” and comraderie. “It was not a closed club; there were new people every year. We were always pleased with the crowds. I have very good memories of what we tried to accomplish.”

Liz Griffin is the managing editor of School Administrator magazine. E-mail: lgriffin@aasa.org

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