Survival as the Superintendent’s Spouse

Having relocated seven times, the author shares her coping strategies for dealing with the lack of respect toward school leaders by Mary Riley

Plenty of behind-the-scenes speculation exists over what contributes to the high rates of superintendent turnover and mobility. One increasingly overheard reason for what drives superintendent movement falls into a category generally relating to family or “personal reasons.” What does this really mean?

Academics who have studied the issue identify insufficient time with family as an explanation. Of course, the same rationale exists for corporate CEOs and other private-sector executives whose all-consuming responsibilities keep them away from home. Others who study this subject also attribute an increasing divorce rate among both private and public leaders to loss of time with family.

MaryRiley.jpgMary Riley, a certified life coach, with husband Max Riley, superintendent in Port Jefferson, N.Y.

As the spouse of someone (Max Riley) who is about to finish his 12th year in the superintendency, I would suggest a different reason. Both anecdotally and experientially, I have found the respect factor far outweighs the time factor in decisions by superintendents and their families to stay or to leave a school community. A highly experienced, retired superintendent from New York recently described how a lack of respect made him feel like a “field hand” in his community because of the uncivil ways citizens and board members regularly treated him.

Spouses, children and other family members experience this behavior secondhand as public and private abuses are unfurled against their loved ones. Paul Houston, AASA’s executive director emeritus, has referred to this as the “lightning rod” effect. Also, unlike corporate CEOs, superintendents receive highly subjective rather than bottom-line assessments. Lack of clear, performance-based evaluation provides excuses for those who might otherwise come to superintendents’ defense if meas-urable objectives replaced innuendo.

Assuming that spouses, partners and significant others serve as advisers, sounding boards and confidants when superintendents make career choice decisions that affect traditional and nontraditional families, I have discovered — at last — some ways of coping. My formula is threefold:

• Create new ways to research opportunities.

• Make the positive outweigh the negative, jointly.

• Use humor to get back into balance.

Research Avenues
Many school districts provide a resource person for superintendent candidates’ partners to help them become familiar with the community. If a school district fails to mention such an opportunity, ask for it. Good resource people often include real estate agents, parent organization leaders and public librarians. If the job search has a veil of secrecy around it, pretend you have other transition reasons for researching the community.

Do not rely on the executive search consultants hired by school boards to provide such information, especially if they themselves come from outside the community. Remember, search consultants work for the school board, not you and your family. If possible, do the research in person. Otherwise, telephone and e-mail contacts also can work.

The Place You Call Home by Mary Riley

School boards sometimes want their superintendents to live within school district boundaries. It has something to do with encouraging opportunities for informal communication and generally connecting with the community. If the superintendent has school-age children, it serves as an outward indicator that the schools must be good.

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What questions do you ask? Ask about the things important to you and your children. At the same time executive search firms conduct communitywide brainstorming sessions about what qualities they want in a new superintendent, you and your family can have your own brainstorming session to decide what you want in a new community. Consider sharing this information with selection committee members. If they appear disinterested, this may indicate a self-centeredness that could subsequently result in “field-hand” treatment.

Amplify Positives
Some individuals criticize the news media for focusing more on the negative. The same holds true for family problem solving. Too often, we recognize the need to support our partner after something negative has occurred. Family members can lack a context for the good that goes on every day.

Those of us who have superintendent spouses know that such top educators have mission-driven motivations for what they do. It’s clear that few would endure such jobs for simply the salary, benefits and fishbowl scrutiny. Encourage your partner to share with you positive outcomes, no matter how small, so you have a better foundation with which to balance the adversities we know will occur even with the very best leadership.

When controversies occur, I think it helps for a superintendent to know about the larger audience affected by school district decision making. Of course, the audience includes his or her family as well as the members of the community who tend to observe quietly the local education scene and usually maintain a rational perspective over time. Evidence of this quiet support often surfaces after a school chief moves on. I suggest that systematically providing more information about positives to the community at large might enlist a stronger base for decision making, particularly the kind that involves changing the status quo. Sometimes, a superintendent’s spouse can help identify such individuals.

Use Humor
I once attended a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored gathering so that the community could meet my spouse when he began his first superintendent position. After what we at home call a “lofty speech” having to do with the onset of the 21st century, and challenges for educators, students, parents and community members, Max asked the audience if they had any questions. Only one man, a local attorney, raised his hand. “Why don’t students take showers after PE anymore?” he inquired. Thus, we began our new adventure.

Now, 12 years later, I think some of the shower-type questions have moved from in-person Q&A into the blogosphere.

Muldoon and the Snow Day Call by Mary Riley

For some superintendents’ families, living in the school district of employment can have its perks — especially if you enjoy attention. A local supermarket where we often shopped once opened a new checkout line just for us because they recognized my husband Max, the superintendent.

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If you want to survive as a superintendent’s spouse, I urge you not to read blogs that could contain information about your loved one. My husband and I used to receive anonymous hate mail. Now that negative community blogs have proliferated, especially in small, suburban communities, the old, anonymous hate-mail writers have found a new, more public forum. I no longer feel I have to read blogs. I prefer the kind of civic engagement where people stand fearlessly behind their own opinions without hiding their identities. If words alone took people down, my husband and I would have died a long time ago.

It has taken me quite some time to lighten up on the subject of school leadership and its negative consequences for families. Many of us have jobs behind the scenes and have to learn ways to carve out roles for ourselves when some see us as sidekicks without our own identities and professions.

In the early days of being a superintendent’s spouse, I once sat behind a teacher during a high school drama performance. A few audience members around us began discussing the prospect of frigid temperatures reported for the next day. I said, “It sounds like the kind of day one wants to stay in bed covered up with lots of blankets.” The teacher, who knew I was the superintendent’s spouse, somewhat angrily turned to me and said, “For some of us, that’s not an option!” Of course, she assumed I didn’t work and such fantasies served as actual options for someone like me.

At that time, stereotyping and misunderstanding made me sad. Now, they make me laugh. We have the choice to make it good for us and for our families.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his theory of flow tells us we have the freedom to control our subjective reality. What he calls the “events of each moment” really do remain under our control. Social pressures mount only if we permit them. Outside of a small circle of family and close friends, few spouses discuss the impact of the superintendency on their family.

In “Career Crisis in the Superintend-ency,” a report published by AASA in 2000, the association recommended this: “Like executive searches in industry, the hunt for the best superintendent must rightly include the spouse and children.” To make such changes in attitude come about, spouses need to join in the conversation and put a voice and a face to those personal and family reasons. Let the conversation begin.

Mary Riley, a freelance writer, is a certified personal/life coach in Setauket, N.Y. E-mail: rileymary1@gmail.com. Max Riley is the superintendent in Port Jefferson, N.Y.