President's Corner

Give Me One Magnificent Obsession

by Randall H. Collins

It was 27 years ago that I first walked into my office as superintendent of schools in Wiscasset, Maine. It was so long ago, and yet, in many ways it seems as if it were just yesterday.

I was only 35 years old and thought I knew what the superintendency was. I thought I knew the challenges of the job. In fact, I thought I knew everything.

An early snowstorm was forecast for Wiscasset that first year, and with all the enthusiasm of a storm chaser, I listened intently to the weather reports from the two local weather services. This was going to be a big one. I sprang into action, canceling school for the next day, calling the town garage to be certain our snow removal plan was up to date and coming just short of alerting the National Guard.

I was sure the town’s people would say, “This new guy is decisive, a take-no-prisoners type of man.” But I was from central Maine and didn’t fully understand the weather on the coast. My vision of being a hero burst when the next day dawned and I saw intermittent rain and breaks of sunshine.

My morning visit to the local coffee shop brought jeers. Rather than referring to me as decisive, the citizens were using other descriptions I will not share. You are a hero, I realized, only when you are right.

Ah, the joys that only a superintendent can appreciate. Take, for example, the wonderful interactions I enjoyed at the supermarket deli counter throughout the years. They began with the inquisitive, “Do you really make that much?” and “Did you enjoy the summer off?” and evolved into “How much longer before you retire?”

In all seriousness, I experience great joys in the superintendency. In my church, we often sing a hymn that includes these words:

Give me one pure and holy passion,
Give me one magnificent obsession,
Give me one glorious ambition for
my life.

The opportunity to improve a child’s life should be our passion. Our obsession must be to send forth high school graduates who will make our country and this world a better place. And our collective ambition is to make this happen in every public school in America.

We are in a profession in which we can remove barriers for teachers and students, we can speak up for children and we can fight back against attacks on our schools. We are in a profession in which the real joy is making a difference, and we do that every day.

Each one of you has the awesome power to change everything for a child, to restore hope. When you are consumed by budgets, personnel issues and politics, don’t let the opportunity escape you.

Mark Sargent, provost at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., writes, “Our calling is to see beauty where there is brokenness. To create patterns to overcome disorder; to find new strategies for repairing what is discarded or unjust.” While he is not writing about the superintendency, we, as superintendents, are called upon to take children — many facing insurmountable odds — and restore beauty, make whole what is broken, ignite hope in those without hope and give birth to the American Dream for those least likely to succeed.

Our calling is noble, our success is essential to the survival of our great republic, and our joys are many.

Randall Collins, AASA president in 2008-09, is superintendent of Waterford Public Schools in Waterford, Conn. E-mail: