I can speak from most positions in education from teacher’s aide to superintendent, so this is a fun topic. I spent 12 years as a county superintendent with 11 other superintendents in my county and on a policy council with me.
Our job as superintendent is also to help support the teachers and support staff to allow these events to become part of the fabric of learning.
I spent a number of years in committees with other county superintendents and three years in the leadership of the state county superintendent’s organization. I do have a bit of experience here. This isn’t to pat myself on the back or to kick myself either, it’s simply to say, I’ve been there. So, what do I find most important in the role of superintendent?
For me, the most important parts of being a superintendent are kids, teachers, parents, support staff and budgets. I’ll start with kids. My first priority is and would always have to be students. What’s best for the learners? Here’s an example from my teaching days. A little boy used to hang around my Special Ed classroom a good deal. He wasn’t in my program, but he liked me and the other kids, and it worked. One day, he showed up a bit late and pretty scruffy. It was clear he hadn’t taken a bath, and he was hungry. Eventually, he got to telling me what had happened. It seemed the family had their electricity in their house turned off. They were using candles to see. The night before, he had tipped over the birdcage with a candle in it. The house had caught fire and burned down.
How do you teach a child math with that kind of situation going on? This child didn’t know where to go after school or if there would be a place to go or if his family would still be there. As much as I believe in teaching children everything I can, my first priority is their safety and security. This child didn’t feel either. Or take the child whose dog died the night before or who didn’t get dinner because he did something wrong, or the little girl whose dad just left for prison. It goes on and on.
Of course, there are the happy stories about the wedding, or the new baby, or the job promotion for one of the parents. Each of these events has an impact on a child. These are the thoughts and emotions that help a child develop into who they will eventually be as adults. For us as superintendents, we support those students and work to provide the best environment possible for children to integrate ALL of those events that go on in their lives. It’s not possible for them to separate out one set of home events from the academic events that go on at school. So, how do we provide that safe and secure place for ALL events to occur? ALL of them are learning events.
Our job as superintendent is also to help support the teachers and support staff to allow these events to become part of the fabric of learning. Again, in my teaching days, I was on the playground at lunch time and a student from another class showed me the snake he brought for show and tell. I knew his teacher was deathly afraid of snakes so I asked the child to come to my classroom and share his snake. He did and kept asking why he was there so long. Eventually mom came and took the snake home and he went back to his class. My principal and the superintendent were very flexible with where that child was for a few hours. Whew! That was learning for everyone. And in this case, the teachers and learners were all supported.
I’ll talk budgets for a minute before I get to parents. In my role as a Special Education director, I was responsible for figuring out Special Ed funding. If anyone has accomplished that, being a superintendent who works with the business office is a piece of cake. The funding formulas in Special Ed can be exceedingly complex. I was fortunate to have the experience.
Balancing the budget with what you want to accomplish with and for kids and teachers can get dicey. It’s a lot like looking for money under rocks. I did a lot of that. The driving force for finding money was the desire to do more. I wanted an afterschool program so we found money for it. We wanted to expand our preschool program, so we found money for an infant program. Again, the biggest driver was the desire to do more. The money is there. We just often get locked into looking at it coming from one source and if we can’t make that stretch, we don’t do it. Don’t get locked into that belief. The money is there. Look for it, and then look in another place and another. You’ll find it.
Parents. That’s my favorite topic these days. What I find is that when I connect with the parents, the whole scene changes. I can help create that safe environment for kids both at school and now at home, the teachers are more supported as are the support staff, and I’m clearer about what is needed, what my desires are. The schools run smoother and most kids are attending and getting what they need to go on to be really successful adults. Everything runs smoother when I add in this group of folks.
Here’s another story for you. The current push is for the test scores to be high. Sometimes balancing test scores and houses burning down is a real challenge. I know moving forward, success, is about where I put my attention — so paying attention to the parents becomes essential. They can then pay attention to the physical and emotional needs of the child while I focus more on the learning part. It becomes a team effort.
At an inner city school in Sacramento, we did just that — helped to support the parents so they could in turn help us with supporting the students. This school had lower test scores when we started, but as we continued to develop the relationship between home and school, a strange thing happened. The scores started to go up. The demographics didn’t change. These were still minority, low-income situations, but the test scores rose and rose again. Eventually, they were some of the top in the state. Yes, there was more effort in before and after school programs, but the real difference was the time and energy spent in supporting the home, both the parents at home and the kids in both home and school.
So what makes a difference as a superintendent? For me, it’s about BEING a superintendent, not the doing. We all DO a lot of stuff, but first and foremost it’s about BEING someone who cares, whose head and heart are about the kids first, then teacher, parents, support staff and, oh yeah, the budget to do what you desire. Have fun. It’s worth the ride.