Be Available, Be Personable, But Don't Take It Personally


Dr. Daniel D. Curry, Superintendent
Lake Forest Schools
2011 Delaware Superintendent of the Year

The fairground for the Delaware State Fair is within my school district. This year our booster groups and our education foundation were provided an opportunity to fund raise by selling soft drinks in the grandstands for the evening concerts. I volunteered for a night of selling $3 bottles of soda one evening in the 95 degree heat.

Arriving to the fairgrounds early and walking through the barns I came upon Bruce, a familiar face, having dinner out of a Styrofoam box. He is a local construction contractor, farmer, parent of children in my district and annual superintendent of the livestock barns at the fair. I pulled up a bale of hay and we chatted. I asked him how the fair was going; and how the heat was affecting the animals and attendance. I’ve learned over the years that you don’t have to be a talker to be a good at conversation. You have to be a good question asker.

Before I moved on to the duty for the evening Bruce made a point to tell me how much he appreciated that I came to the fair and volunteered for things like soft drink sales. He pointed out that his family noticed that I attended most every event he did and he did so because he had kids. He told me he appreciated it.

There was a time when I wasn’t that comfortable with being available.

I first became superintendent in a small rural school district in West Virginia. Having been in the district 10 years as principal and central office administrator, the job came to me somewhat by accident at the tender age of 34. Everybody knew me. My phone number was in the book. Things went well, but I found that the few occasional casual questions about school business and the calls of complaint made to my home in the evening started making me anxious. In the grocery store, when someone would say, “Can I ask you something?” I found myself pretending not to hear. I began to experience tightness in the stomach when the phone would ring. I began to dread the phone.

After three years, I left that district for a job with the state department of education. I found that, just as local citizens might call the superintendent regarding complaints and problems of various proportions, they also frequently called the state superintendent. The state office had few staff members fresh from the field as I was, so within months, I became the one designated to handle those kinds of calls. I found that I loved it.

I loved it because I understood their concern. I loved it because I understood their school district and how school works at the local level. I helped them. I never solved anyone’s problem- never fixed anything. What I did was listen. I validated their concern. I explained to them why the school may have a policy like that or why the principal may need to make rules in that way. Then I coached them on who to talk to next. I told them what to ask and how to ask it - steering them back to the local chain of command.

Each time I talked to people with local issues, I missed working in the district level. I really didn’t like being a state level bureaucrat with a job title that meant nothing to them. I actually loved talking with people and helping them resolve their issues with the local school district. I figured if parents felt they had a superintendent they could talk to, they wouldn’t need to call the state office. That’s where I belonged, back in the district.

So, after one year working at the state level, I returned to the job of superintendent with a new attitude about those phone calls and conversations that will inevitably take place when you’re shopping, in church, attending a ball game or dining locally. I no longer fear the phone call or avoid the questions. In fact, I truly enjoy talking to parents and community members because many of their problems and dilemmas turn into great stories.

Hopefully you’ll be able to adopt the same attitude if you use the following rules:

  • Don’t take complaints about the district personally. Sure it’s your district, but they are not mad at you – they’d probably enjoy your company if they got to know you. They are mad at the system. You just happen to be the one with the title.
  • Listening is more important than solving the problem. Many will solve their own issues after processing the whole thing out loud with you.
  • Advice is easier to give than solutions. Assure them that as superintendent, disputed decisions will make their way to you, but only if they’ve not been resolved at the lowest level. I sometimes tell them that asking me to fix it is like trying to kill a fly with a shotgun. They owe it to the teacher, the principal and others to give them a chance. To understand the other side of the story.
  • Don’t insist that you won’t talk to them unless they have already followed the chain of command - unless you want a reputation for being unapproachable. Your secretary can ask them when they call if they’ve done those things and suggest they do that first. But some may have previous experiences that cause them to not trust the lower parts of the chain.
  • Avoid volunteering to be the message carrier between parent and principal. If the parent is not comfortable calling the school back, you may want to ask the principal to initiate the contact and schedule a meeting.
    A little small talk always softens them up a little. Do you have other kids? What are they like? How’s everything at work?
  • Always end with, “You be sure to call me if you can’t get this matter resolved when you meet”. I’ve been a superintendent 23 years and I’ve gotten that call maybe once.
  • Finally, I’m a big believer that the superintendent should be a tax paying resident of the district. It’s hard to have your finger on the pulse of the school district if you don’t live there.

Call me old fashioned, but the idea of local control and community schools has shaped the environment in which we work for a hundred years. It was twenty years ago that I decided to return to being a local school superintendent. It is a one of a kind assignment and it takes a unique perspective on life and schooling to survive it this long. It takes good school boards and great staff support to be successful. I hope you will love this job as much as I do.