Guest Column

As Retirement Approaches

by Barbra A. Zakrajsek

Twenty years ago I made a choice to become a school superintendent.

Armed with 18 years of teaching and administrative experience in the principalship, as well as a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, I knocked on the door of the Minnesota School Boards Association and asked for advice on how to obtain my first CEO job.

When I recall that moment, I recognize I was a woman who felt she had to be better educated and more experienced than most men and had to display a work ethic of regularly working beyond the typical 50- or 60-hour week. This formula seemed to work, and I had the good fortune to land that first superintendent position.

Change came easy for me. My family moved many times over 38 years in the education profession as I pursued the next goal, the next job, the next promotion. Fortunately, my three daughters, whom I adopted as infants and raised as a single parent, just ran alongside and landed on their feet after every move. How I managed to juggle three daughters and the superintendent position continues to be a mystery to me even to this day.

Stress Remover
Now, nearing the end of my 20th year in the superintendency, I find myself facing that moment in time when I will leap into the next chapter. With my youngest a sophomore in college, I’ve decided it’s time to change my own personal direction.

I had no idea when I announced my retirement last fall I would feel so good about it. It’s removed a great amount of stress from my life. It’s also allowed me to concentrate on making a good transition personally and professionally because I intend to continue to live and pay my taxes in Milaca, Minn., my home for the past nine years.

Though I have ideas of visiting my children and of learning to quilt and take up scrapbooking, I recognize my Type A personality will need to engage in some professional challenges, too.

The considerable number of interim superintendent positions now opening will provide a perfect outlet, affording me a chance to work part time at a job in which I am skilled and experienced in districts of varying size. I hope I’ll provide an attractive alternative for a school district trying to bridge time between permanent superintendents.

The transition time of the current school year has been personally invigorating. In previous moves, I’ve literally picked up and moved within a few months. This time I’ve had the opportunity to create a “To the New Superintendent” file and finished some long overdue projects. I hope my successor can ease into the job.

I’ve also had more time to enjoy people as never before.

Wavering Respect
Letting go has not always been my strong suit, but I have been practicing that skill and am getting better at it. This has personally been good for me and, in many ways, good for the school district.

During these final weeks of my career, I can’t help but reflect on how the superintendent’s job has changed. In the early years of my career, superintendents had tenure. The loss of that protection has most definitely affected the profession. However, one thing that has remained constant are those community members who fail to understand that the operation of a school system is big business, and the administrators hired to run the system must be highly educated, experienced and licensed.

I remember my own parents talking about school superintendents they grew up with in northern Minnesota. The superintendent was revered as one of the most educated and respected members of the community. While the pendulum may have needed to swing away from blind respect to a more reasonable version of a superintendent’s worth, the pendulum has swung far to the opposite side.

A Fringe Benefit
The struggles peak during difficult financial times. The height of the disrespect seems to readily surface in the latest complaint mechanism, commonly referred to as blogs. The anonymity of blogs concerns me. While good and sensible community members are able to sort through these sometimes negative and inaccurate portrayals of people and information, damage is done to the superintendent personally, as well as to the profession, when these inaccuracies remain unchecked. I have watched this unfortunate scenario repeat itself in far too many districts.

While I am looking forward to the end of such experiences, I believe it might affect the next generation of leaders as they consider whether to become a superintendent. Most particularly, I worry about female leaders who may choose a different profession to avoid such negativity in their lives. The loss of these outstanding potential leaders will exact a negative toll on the profession.

Aside from these concerns, I am eternally grateful for the overwhelmingly positive fringe benefit that came with this job. Though there were always too many meetings and incredibly long hours, I was able to be at every 1st-grade reading play, at dozens of band concerts, at numerous high school dances and at many other events in which my daughters were involved.

For the means to raise my daughters with financial security, and for the hundreds of colleagues I can refer to as friends, I leave this profession feeling incredibly appreciative.

Barbra Zakrajsek is superintendent of the Milaca, Minn., Independent School District 912. E-mail: