Growing Your Own Administrators

by Frederick J. Tirrell

Not long ago a colleague who is in the superintendent search business said to me, "Superintendent candidate pools have become puddles!" She was referring to the dearth of candidates for the superintendent's position both in terms of quantity and quality.

We are all keenly aware of this frustrating trend. Some espouse we should employ executives from other fields to fill the needs, something already occurring in large city districts. If we cannot better provide leadership from within our own field, this trend will grow.

Why don't we train our own people? Why don't we give the people in administrative positions in our school systems a chance to experience central-office administration? Why don't we take responsibility for ensuring qualified young school leaders are introduced to a different level of leadership and a different way of shepherding educational improvement? Permit me to share an idea with you that I put in place when I was a school superintendent.

Boosting Capacity

As superintendent of a suburban system outside Boston that served 4,000 students in eight schools, I watched the size of the central administration shrink as the school-age population declined and budgets were reduced. At one point, seven administrative positions were reduced to four. Naturally, functions were combined and the quality of service and leadership were compromised.

I believed we could overcome our perennial problem of "capacity deficit" and take advantage of the energy of our building administrators by creating a central-office internship program. The central administration debated elements of this role. We decided it would have to be at least a semester in length so that the intern could get a feel for the changing seasons of our work. It was imperative that the intern carry out work assignments for which he or she would be responsible so that the position reflected the classical line administrator rather than that of a staff position.

Any administrator who had been in his or her job for at least three years could apply. The applicant simply had to send me a note indicating interest in the internship and areas of work he or she might like to explore if awarded the position.

We created the internship on absolute respect for what a person would bring to our work and a commitment to mentor the person enthusiastically. The job was determined to last for one semester. The interns would have to rearrange their schedule to attend central administrator meetings or we would change ours if rearranging their schedules proved impossible. The central administration interns would attend all central-office meetings. Most importantly, they were treated as equals.

During their time as interns, they had to be responsible for the completion of one major project. It could be the development of a new system, such as a method to evaluate technology use in classrooms. Or they might have to prepare a series of workshops for the administrative staff. They were expected to attend all school board meetings.

Since this internship would require the commitment of considerable additional time, we attached a stipend of $1,000 for the semester. It was a great bargain. Because the work was at the central-office level, we did not negotiate with the administrator's bargaining group.

Two-Way Benefits

Over time we offered an internship to three individuals. Today, two of them are working in central-office administration, and I am confident that at least one will become a superintendent.

The interns completed a number of projects that benefited the school system, including:

  • A study of alternative school calendars with recommendations for our district;
  • A study of environmental issues facing our school buildings scheduled for renovation or construction;
  • An analysis of the district's standardized test results; and
  • A preliminary long-range capital plan for the elementary schools.

More importantly, they attended all central-office meetings and school board meetings. They provided us with fresh perspectives on how we think about our work. The interns agreed the most valuable aspect was being involved in the day-to-day work we did and sharing what we experienced in the various meetings. They grew to understand our work—especially the variety of things we needed to consider as we dealt with each constituency.


The interns had a great opportunity to challenge themselves and reflect on whether central-office administration is the right assignment for them.

As states propose induction and mentoring programs for new teachers, why don't school system leaders take the initiative to develop our own leaders and to restore the superintendent applicant pools? That way we might actually keep genuine educators in the school leadership ranks.

Frederick Tirrell, a former superintendent, is an associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State College, Bridgewater, Mass. 02325. E-mail: ftirrell@bridgew@edu