One Life-Changing Step
November 01, 2023
Appears in November 2023: School Administrator.
In a quest for balance in her professional and personal worlds, a veteran superintendent requested and received a six-month sabbatical that delivered the intended results
One of my most vivid childhood memories is seeing my father secluded in our home’s library every Sunday to read the multi-section newspaper after a lengthy six-day workweek. I rarely interacted with him then, though I have tried to make up for it in my adulthood now that he is retired. He started working at age seven delivering newspapers in Bangor, Maine, and never looked back. His parents worked just as hard. They devoted their lives to their card and gift store.
I never aspired to be like them. I am filled with a zest for life and adventure and, left to my own devices, would spend all my time outdoors — doing yardwork, hiking, kayaking or bike riding. Yet, for the past two decades, I have become my heritage. I have almost no work/life balance. Maybe it is in my genes. Maybe it is in my job.
I am in my ninth year as the joint superintendent of two closely connected and overlapping rural school districts in mid-coast Maine. By national standards, my district is relatively small — 1,450 students. We are big enough to have operational directors, but small enough that everyone rolls up their sleeves when needed. We have our fair share of colorful issues.
Our districts’ lawyers responded to my phone calls in awe at the assortment of situations I faced in my first few years: a forgotten loaded handgun in a staff lunch box that fell out of a refrigerator, a false tale of a student/teacher relationship, a true tale of a student/teacher relationship, student deaths, misinformed opinion pieces about me in local newspapers, a decades-long tax assessment error, a threat against me that required a protection order, students running naked in hallways. That list could go on.
I am sure some of those scenarios sound familiar to most superintendents. Ours is a job that might bounce from a neighbor complaining about light pollution to an allegation of sexual assault, from overseeing the construction of new schools to deciding whether to mask up indoors again, from working on revamping evaluation tools to figuring out how to attract more bus drivers.
Most of us navigate this enormous range of issues while trying to proactively lead under a microscope. We don’t have legal departments, multilayered HR departments or communications staffs to help us. The departments we do have are far leaner than private-sector companies of our size. In a school district, the superintendent, like everyone else, wears a lot of hats. Delegation is important, but everyone in the system is stretched thin.
I am a person who unequivocally assumes I can juggle all the balls. I have an overdeveloped sense of self-sufficiency. Hard work and high standards for me are like an old pair of jeans — a very comfortable fit. It is simply who I am. It is in my DNA. I can’t “do” mediocrity.
A Non-Stop Pace
The enormity of a superintendent’s job is what has thrown me off. The scale of the job, coupled with an indefatigable spirit and work ethic, leave no time for the rest of life. It takes an inordinate amount of time and effort to be a top-notch leader given the breadth and depth of our responsibilities.
My brain never rests. I dream about work, contemplate how to solve the latest problem during a morning walk and fall asleep while strategizing ways to strengthen my leadership. Our district cares deeply about student learning and does not rest on its laurels. Leading the way requires a monumental effort.
Every year I hold the belief that this will be the year. The year that crazy events don’t happen, and I will get a chance to breathe. The new school is finally done. We just finished negotiating two contracts. Maybe, just maybe, I can get into classrooms as much as I’d like this year. Likewise, every day I wake up and imagine: this will be the day I can leave work by 5 p.m.
Truth be told, that year or day has yet to come. What typically happens is that I step through the threshold of my workplace and am swallowed by a vortex so strong that all my hopes and dreams for a balanced day are immediately dashed. Sometimes it is not until 10 p.m. that I realize, “Wait, I had promised myself that I would get up and walk around the building at least once today, no matter what.”
Quite honestly, I have been perplexed by my inability to strike any sort of reasonable balance. I am a person who has been successful with most endeavors in my life. I was born with a quick, analytic mind, an agile body and a pioneering and determined spirit. I have moved mountains in my life. But this is a nut I cannot seem to crack.
The superintendency requires incredibly thick skin — I have developed armor. It requires resilience — I feel like Tigger. It requires perseverance — I often muse that one of my greatest handicaps is that I don’t run out of steam at night. It requires continually juggling 25 balls — I can handle the moving parts. But I need three of me to keep up.
I seek opportunities to delegate. I don’t need control. Any space freed up is immediately replaced by the next unexpected situation. Like many in school administration, most of my days are usurped by the mini- or major crises that demand attention. Almost every day, typically between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., I have an overwhelming sensation that now my workday can begin. I can finally start chipping away at my “to do” list from the morning that includes everything from discrete tasks to strategic thinking and planning.
I don’t need much to refresh me. The days when I can sneak in a morning walk or quick summer lake dip during lunch sustain me for weeks. I was so grateful to start writing this article on a getaway hiking weekend to the north Maine woods. Nonetheless, it is out of whack. I desire a well-balanced life, not intermittent bursts of having a life outside of work. I’m not in it to see how much I can endure.
Unfortunately, I know this is the story of too many school superintendents who are working incredibly hard to move their districts forward. Many of us are questioning the cost-benefit analysis, and I fear the implications of intelligent, dedicated, caring, high-performing leaders leaving the profession because our jobs are unsustainable. Public schools and districts need leaders who are committed and willing to push the status quo.
Without us, the behemoth that is public education will either unravel or become irrelevant. It is hard for a school district to progress when leaders are short-lived or ineffective. For some, moving every few years is a survival strategy as the superintendency is a far easier job if you are not invested for the long term. Others may surrender the fight to move mountains; they can only survive by maintaining the status quo.
But the superintendency is not a resting place. Nor should it be a place that requires leaders to sacrifice their ability to have a life outside of work. Something has to give. I have not found that answer, yet I continue to seek it. I don’t want to give up looking. I am hanging on to my optimism, eternal hope and an indefatigable spirit that believes it is possible.
One life-changing step I took to interrupt the insane pace was securing a six-month sabbatical in 2022-23. I knew I needed a break — just to breathe again. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and the timing worked well for the district. My departure, which began in July, precipitated a series of internal moves that mimicked a run of salmon jumping up a fish ladder. A series of people stepped up, resulting in the district only needing to find a long-term substitute for a paraprofessional position.
As I pondered my sabbatical, I wondered what would happen when I had that elusive space to breathe and be and think and rest. I expected good things, and I wasn’t disappointed.
My main goal was to slow down. My main activity was writing — I worked on two book projects that had been percolating for nearly a decade. Writing opened new worlds to me — new learning, new people, new opportunities and new dreams. That was, and continues to be, incredibly invigorating. I also had time to exercise, read, visit friends and family, and go to the recycling center and grocery store in the middle of the day.
One of the greatest and simplest pleasures was driving at or below the speed limit everywhere I went. I was never in a rush. I delighted in the fact that other cars passed me.
Toward the end of my sabbatical, some people started asking if I was excited to return. Others asked if I dreaded returning. My answer was genuine — I was returning with appreciation and acceptance. Appreciation that I had the opportunity and acceptance that I would be returning. It didn’t take long to get back into the groove once I did return, but there is a difference in my step now.
Maria Libby is superintendent of Five Town Community School District and Maine School Administrative District 28 in Camden, Maine.
Plotting the Terms of My Sabbatical
I began planning my sabbatical a few years before I formally requested it. There were several factors to consider, including my own finances and the timing for the district.
I embarked on my sabbatical after completing two major building projects, with the pandemic seemingly behind us, and a budgeting plan that allowed me to live on half my salary. Mentally and emotionally, I felt I waited as long as I could. As hard as I tried, I felt I couldn’t swim against the strong current I was in. I needed to get out and stand on the shore for a moment.
A year before I requested the sabbatical, I approached the capable high school principal who had previously been an assistant superintendent. I had heard hints of his desire to one day be a superintendent. I asked him if he would consider being the interim leader for a six-month period. It would provide great continuity in my absence and be a good career enhancer for him. He expressed interest.
One of his assistant principals had previously been a principal. We knew she’d be interested in stepping into his role as principal. We had three teachers who were interested in becoming administrators and we predicted at least one of them would be interested in the opportunity to gain experience in an interim assistant principal role.
A Smooth Runway
I approached the leadership of the two boards to whom I report in spring 2021, sharing my desire to take a six-month sabbatical beginning July 1, 2022. I quickly gained their support, partly because of the smooth runway I had laid out. I let them know I would formally ask the following fall. Fortunately, it did not cost the district any additional money due to the internal movement of people filling in. The money we saved in the interim salaries made up for my half pay.
Though it may not be possible for the stars to align so well in every school district, I encourage any superintendent (or principal) who has been in any one district a decade or more to look for an opportunity to take a sabbatical, even if it is only for three months. I cannot underestimate the value of taking time to breathe and recharge and explore other dimensions of life. It changed the trajectory of my life in so many ways, all for the better.
I used the time, in part, to write 150 pages of a 225-page nonfiction book about education. I wrote a children’s book that I’ve submitted for publication. I met authors and publishers and became a better writer. I discovered and listened to music that filled my house and soul with so much joy. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in 30 years. I lost 50 pounds. I rediscovered myself. And I am not letting go of that.
After catching my breath and coming back inspired to lift up all of public education, I accomplished another long-standing professional goal: to start a podcast. By highlighting the voices of people on the ground — students, teachers, bus drivers and everyone in between — “Super Story: Inside Education” brings the public into the inner workings of public schools and helps them gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and triumphs within public education today. The informal conversations that comprise the podcast have been rewarding on multiple levels, including being well-received by listeners.
A sabbatical is a highly effective tool for exhausted education leaders to maintain consistency, longevity and excellence in their roles. And that is critical if we are going to truly make lasting change in public education.
— Maria Libby
SIDEBARThe Superintendent Sabbatical: Uncommon But Not Singular
by Jay P. Goldman