Guest Column

What Does the Title ‘Super-in-tend-ent’ Mean to You?

by Don Draayer

Hidden within the title of superintendent are three elements that call for the best. Those who fill this high-profile position exemplify these elements through what they feel, think and do.

The word “tend,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary, means “to minister to the needs of, look after, take care of, serve at or apply one’s attention; tend a child.” More than a vocation can be implied herein as the various definitions, considered as a whole, point to a service attitude that reaches to the heart itself.

Thus a school superintendent watches over, guards and responds to the needs of those within his or her charge: early childhood, K-12 and adult learners, co-workers, community and society at large. Tending such a vast array of people can never be completed in an eight-hour day nor be turned off in one’s mind when bedtime arrives because love — the denominator of all relationships — never comes and goes. It abides.

This emotional connection might suggest that simple maintenance or custodianship is the whole of the superintendent’s responsibility, except that two letters, “in,” come immediately before tend, which adds another dimension — intend. Again the dictionary provides definition: “to have in mind, plan, to design for a specific purpose, to signify, mean.”

Therefore the title of superintendent thrusts upon its holder an added expectation, namely to use his or her head on behalf of the heart, to set forth goals, strike direction and achieve purposes. Status quo goes out the window. Homeostasis is found not in what was or is, but what shall be. Leadership, action and change form centerpieces of the job description. Boldness, risk and opportunity come together intentionally when this fuller measure of the superintendent’s job is properly understood.

Compelled to Act
The forefront of the superintendent title carries the final element: Super. No wiggle room here, according to the dictionary: “superior, exceeding the norm, excessive in degree of intensity … .” Accepting the title of school superintendent requires a willingness to apply both the mind and heart-felt values to the cause of education with a level of devotion and direction that clearly goes beyond the ordinary. Accountability is tied to the highest standards.

Powerful motivations mark men and women in the superintendency. Strong leadership, high energy and sustained effort shine consistently like the sun — even when many clouds cloak the day or the dark night seems long and lonely.

Most who accept the title see themselves not as demigods but ordinary mortals whose compassion compels them to serve. Their vision encompasses success for every child. Their goals are across-the-board excellence in educational services. Their efforts are wont to leave no stone unturned.

School superintendents are professionals who love and lead, not for glory, not for great personal gain and not for a legacy long remembered. Rather they superintend for the joys to be found in living life to the fullest and making hope happen in each generation.

All superintendents share a common bond, whether they are newly launched, at career midpoint, within the anchor run or into retirement. It is called good public stewardship.

Living Embodiment
When a school superintendent is introduced in a mixed crowd, the information is greeted by a slight pause, raised eyebrows and a careful scrutiny to study the person carrying this honorable title. The title conveys conviction, courage and commitment to the cause of children. Furthermore, the title assumes the holder has competence to address 21st century challenges in public education. The bar is set high.

We accept this prestigious title with our first appointment. We honor it by giving embodiment to each element: a caring heart, a creative mind and a dedicated spirit. We support one another while facing the challenges of this pivotal leadership position. Even in retirement we hold a great affection for one another that lasts a lifetime.

We are the chosen few. Our title carries long history, deep meaning, high expectations, considerable risk, great opportunity and the rewards due a good servant’s heart.

Donald Draayer, the 1990 National Superintendent of the Year, is an educational consultant. He can be reached at 5906 Holiday Way, Minnetonka, MN 55345. E-mail: