My View Pages 14-15
Superintendents Who Are
Inviting, Entrepreneurial and
BY PAUL D. KNOWLES
If superintendents are to successfully lead their schools and communities and if the superintendency is to remain a viable career in these challenging times, they must be inviting, entrepreneurial and gritty.
Inviting leaders place a high emphasis on trusting relationships and take a genuine interest in working with people who have different strengths and weaknesses. They embrace the notion of “doing with” rather than “doing to.” They help constituents achieve goals that are meaningful to them while strengthening the school system.
The inviting superintendent brings all interested and affected constituents together to mediate acceptable solutions. All parties need encouragement to buy into a solution that some may not want to see happen.
The superintendent in one small New England community where the citizens needed to decide whether they could sustain a comprehensive preK-12 school system did not attempt to make such an important decision in isolation. She reached out to parents, community members and leaders, provided them with credible, thoroughly researched financial and enrollment information, and facilitated numerous community discussions. These allowed the public to be heard and be an intimate part of a decision to close their high school and partner with a neighboring school system to develop a new, redesigned high school.
Entrepreneurial leaders, in the business world, push their organizations to respond to their customers’ needs, open their doors to new markets and secure new sources of funding through innovation. The entrepreneurial superintendent must be an involved and influential instructional leader who can encourage the discovery and development of innovative academic programs that further personalize student learning.
Being entrepreneurial means no idea will be dismissed. All ideas initially have merit. The entrepreneurial superintendent sponsors open debate and active exploration of every sound idea in search of better teaching and learning.
To increase student enrollment and broaden educational opportunities for all students, a superintendent of a 2,500-student suburban district in Maine shepherded the adoption and implementation of specialized and customized instruction in the arts and sciences across all grade levels. The initiative led to a partnership with the state’s leading university in the area of engineering and composite technology. The new programming was a catalyst for parents to move to the community so their children could participate.
Gritty leaders have a moral commitment to all children despite the demands of “special interests.” The gritty superintendent helps the school community embrace a similar moral commitment. The superintendent guides these diverse groups toward a broader community vision where all students receive a high-quality education. The work meets with challenging resistance, but the gritty superintendent has the perseverance and courage to stay the course. The gritty superintendent helps one constituency see the merits of collaborating with other constituencies and accepting some compromise along the way.
In a nine-community, consolidated school district with steadily declining state and local financial resources, the superintendent stood firm in his commitment to provide quality educational opportunities for all students. Divisive parents groups that wanted certain programs cut or retained enlisted the local media to champion their respective causes.
Despite the political pressure from various sides, the superintendent, without appearing defensive or overly autocratic, showed citizens how the limited resources could be leveraged to advantage all children. The approach resulted in resounding approval of the next school district budget.
A number of my fellow superintendents, who for whatever reasons are neither inviting, entrepreneurial nor gritty, often find the working relationships with staff, parents and community members strained, divisive and lacking trust. This leads to isolated decision making and defensiveness. These superintendents feel the weight of their school systems’ academic and financial future rests on their shoulders. Because they are not true to their values and beliefs about what is best for students, they become discouraged, feel undervalued as leaders, and find the work stressful, overwhelming and unsatisfying.
Granted, the work of superintendents is complex and at times lonely. If our schools are to be led well, superintendents must find the work rewarding and less depleting. They cannot fall into patterns of isolationism, defensiveness and reactivity. Superintendent effectiveness will continue to be essential to meet the diverse needs of communities and their students.
Paul Knowles, a retired superintendent, is a lecturer in the department of educational leadership at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org