Eight Tenets for Beginning Superintendents

By Marsha Carr-Lambert

Carr-Lambert is president of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators and former superintendent of Grant County, W.Va., Schools.

From time to time, new superintendents ask those who’ve been in the field for advice on how to survive those early years. The following eight tenets reflect a common approach to surviving the first few years in the superintendency.

1. Don’t take things personally.

Sometimes it’s difficult not to internalize others’ reactions to and feedback about the decisions you make. However, it is important to understand that a negative reaction is not a personal attack on you. Make the best decisions you can with information and data you have. Some people may not agree. Get over it.

2. Make decisions for the right reasons.

Base your decisions on facts and solid data so you are able to make a fair decision you can stand by. You cannot yield to the loudest detractor or to the bully whose goal is to gain from your decision. If you allow yourself to make decisions to please others, you will encourage other groups or persons to bully or intimidate you. The loudest group is not always the majority, and it is too late to change your mind once you make a decision. Stand up for your decision as a professional and sleep well at night.

3. Maintain your focus.

Don’t let the day-to-day distractions of your job shift your focus from what you want to accomplish in the long run: a more effective school system.

4. Draw and defend your ethical boundaries.

Administrators sometimes allow political groups to chip away at the edge of the ethical boundary, and once the chipping begins, it is not long before the line is erased and you no longer know where to stand. Determine your line of ethical behavior and values early in your superintendency and then defend this boundary. It will take a lot of courage but it is worth the battle.

5. Remember that board members come and go.

The names and faces of board members will change over time. Loyalty to any one person or group or even a board of education will isolate you when terms change or election results bring new people on board. Stay the course toward a high-achieving school district regardless of changes in personnel.

6. Don’t micromanage or allow others to do so.

New superintendents tend to think they must know everything and make every decision on their own. You are a leader, and as a leader, you have the distinct pleasure of building leaders within your organization. Take this responsibility seriously and learn to delegate with accountability; it is not easy, but the rewards are far greater than if you were to treat the staff as if they were incapable of making a decision. If they are incapable of making a decision, get a new staff.

7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you.

Too often, we believe we should act a certain way in a given circumstance. The best way to determine your actions in a challenging situation is to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. How would you want to be treated? This is not to say that you should ignore misbehavior or incompetence; rather, be kind and respectful in your words even in the worst situations.

8. Remember the importance of knowing yourself and being true to yourself.

Your job will challenge you, and the values you hold true will get you through or be your demise. Stand up for what you believe at all costs. If you cannot, maybe this is not the career for you.