Spotlight

My Superintendent Cohort Asks: ‘What Is Going on Here?’

by ANTHONY J. BENT

There we were, at 7 a.m., six superintendents gathered in a windowless conference room to help one of our colleagues. He was wrestling with a matter of inappropriate behavior by a teacher in his district that had spilled over to critical public questioning about the timeliness of the superintendent’s response in dealing with the accusations.

We dropped everything in our own school districts, as the six of us had previously agreed, to gather in an offsite location where we offered support and guidance on dealing with an issue that was spinning out of control.

AnthonyBent.jpgAnthony J. Bent

The emergency meeting to provide substantive consulting help for a superintendent colleague meant our group had reached a milestone in implementing what we had learned from Lee Teitel about the Adaptive Leadership protocol (see related story, page 28).

Mutual Recognition
After receiving training along with two dozen other superintendents, I was fortunate to join a consult group of five superintendents in the Boston area who already knew one another. Though we came from districts that ranged from 1,400 students to one with more than 8,000, we quickly discovered that the protocol channeled our thinking on problems of practice that applied to all of us.

One of my consult partners recently described it this way: “External differences in district size and relative wealth melted into the background of a mutual recognition of the challenges of leadership. There are no easy superintendencies.”

While it is not essential that existing relationships be in place for a successful consult group, it is also true our professional friendships helped fuel the trust among us.

Over the last five years, the group has faithfully come together about every six weeks. We meet for 90 minutes, the first half hour of which is informal socializing over coffee. When we are ready to begin the 50-minute case study, one member details the problem for the day and we follow the protocol (presenting the problem, fact checking, brain storming, suggesting action steps, and lastly the original presenter reflecting back to the group).

We use a laminated version of the Adaptive Leadership Case Consultation Guide, prepared by Teitel, as a visual reminder, and one of us facilitates the conversation to keep us on task. We have discussed such issues as a controversial student health-risk behavior survey, central-office reorganization of personnel, the arrest of a teacher on sexual assault charges and even how to maintain vigor in our jobs. One member of my group indicated she learned as much from working on the problems others have brought to the table as from the ones she has shared.

Over time, we have made ourselves more vulnerable to each other and the discussions have become meaningful for each of us. For me, it has been among the best professional development experiences of my career. I have come to appreciate that every case we consider may be my problem at some point.

Confronting Ourselves
The relationships we have cultivated have even prompted one-on-one consultation within the group. When a teacher in one of our member districts was arrested on pornography charges, the superintendent called a member of our consult group because she knew he had recently dealt with a similar incident.

In one recent session, we focused on how we are feeling as mid-career and senior superintendents. That morning, the room came alive with energy and emotion. One superintendent lamented he was beginning to hire teachers who were younger than his children. In this meeting, we actually abandoned the protocol. We threw ourselves into a discussion that brought to the surface the psychological and emotional factors swirling within us: legacy, patience and fighting the same battles continuously.

I doubt any of us could have had this discussion in our own districts; the power of the consult group lies in the empathy generated by the common experience of the superintendency and the trust that allows colleagues to become true confidants.

We are successful as leaders because we take on the larger question of “what is going on here?” We recognize the limits of our understandings and push ourselves to dig more deeply into the roots of the issues that confront us. This is hard to do. We do not easily find the time to pull back from the rush of the day’s events, “get on the balcony,” as Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky put it in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, and look down on the situation and our role in it.

Yet so many of the challenges that confront us touch upon the deep and conflicting values of the different constituents who surround the superintendent and school district. My consult group has given me the time to pause, share my thinking with colleagues in a safe environment and take that bigger look.

Anthony Bent is superintendent in Shrewsbury, Mass., and president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. E-mail: abent@shrewsbury.k12.ma.us