Former Rookies Offer Six Rules to Live By

by Donna Harrington-Lueker

As rookies, they turned to others for advice on surviving and thriving as first-year superintendents. Today, these rookies have become mentors themselves, more likely to dispense advice than to seek it. What do they know now that they wish they’d known then? Their insights follow.

Relationships are everything. John Kinley spent much of his rookie year building relationships with people, something he says can only be done one person at a time. Being visible in the community is key, he says. Elizabeth “Betty” Molina Morgan offers a corollary to Kinley’s relationship rule: “Treat people with respect,” she advises, “and they’ll follow you.”

Don’t be afraid to take charge. Superintendents need to listen and gather information, but they also need to take charge. “If there’s a void, someone will step in,” Marshall Marshall advises.

Never underestimate the power of a small group. Even a small number of people have the power to affect board elections or disrupt district functions, says Susan Garton. In her case, a last-minute write-in candidate unseated a strong school board president who had been running unopposed. “I would never have dreamt that was possible,” she says.

Put kids before your own career. Even when the school board president pressured him to resign, Michael Jones never wavered on this point. “I was doing things so that the children could have the same privileges I had had,” Jones said. “If it meant someone was unhappy with me, I had to do it. … My goal was to preserve the district in the best interest of children.”

Hire the right people. Elaine Cash is especially proud of her leadership team, most of whom came from within the district. “I look for a strong sense of commitment to all children in the district and for integrity,” Cash says. “We want the right person, not just the right credential.”

Choose the right district to begin with. A superintendent will have the best chance in a community where there’s a history of respect between the superintendent and the board. “Otherwise, you’re just going to spin your wheels,” Cash says. “I don’t know what to tell people with a 3-2 board, except the board should get it together before they hire you.”

And when all else fails? “Eat lunch with the kindergarteners,” Marshall counsels. “Then you’ll remember why you’re here.”