Living the Superintendency

Elizabeth Osga, 2011 Connecticut Superintendent of the Year


 Elizabeth Osga

Welcome to the superintendency! You have accepted more than a position of employment, you have accepted the life of a superintendent. This comes with the potential for great professional and personal fulfillment, but it also comes with new definition to your life. Understanding the experiences you will have can go a long way in helping you to succeed in your life as a superintendent and not just in your job as one.

Max Van Manen describes a framework for understanding experience in his book entitled, Researching Lived Experience (1990). The framework suggests that we experience life through body, time, space and relationships. This is a very useful paradigm for helping to understand the phenomena of a superintendent’s life.

The Lived Body Experience of a Superintendent

The work of the superintendency is not highly physical, but it is a test of body on many accounts. It will sometimes demand that you extend your waking hours from very early morning when weather or other emergencies demand your presence and sometimes demand your involvement in very late night meetings. The demands are likely to be irregular and are neither exclusive nor considerate of your recent sleep accumulation. There will be periods of unavoidable sleep loss that you’ll need to endure.

The body will not only need to compensate for some deprivation of rest, but it will be tempted by opportunities for food indulgence. Right from your entry reception, you will discover that the superintendency can be a high caloric adventure. Bagels, muffins, and other high carb foods will greet you in breakfast or morning meetings. Lunch and dinner events and banquets will be multi-course meals with intakes that throw you totally out of balance for days to come. Teachers and parents are always eager to have you nibble on treats when you attend activities. Whether you are the guest of honor or simply a drop-in, food will always be available in excess. Anything short of conscious self-control will weigh you down with sluggishness and extra pounds.

Complicating the plethora of food opportunities will be a dearth of exercise opportunities. Long meetings and lengthy travel to events or appointments not only does little for fitness but puts lots of strain on the spine. Truly, there are some superintendents who have figured out exercise schedules that conclude by 6 a.m. or who have carved out an uncompromised block of time between day and evening commitments, but for most superintendents, exercise is a struggle. A lot of little efforts, like parking away from entrances and walking visits when possible are often the best that one can do during the week. Weekend exercise becomes a most important habit if one is to hang on to some hope of fitness.

The third area of “body” experience that is part of the superintendency is dress. If you are transitioning from a position that already required a suit/dress standard, you may find little change in your daily dressing routines. Some local and regional norms are forgiving enough to allow for business casual during school vacations. Given that the outfit you put on in the morning may very well be with you for 12-15+ hours, total comfort from neck to toe is imperative.

The Lived Space Experience of a Superintendent

In all likelihood, new superintendents move into an office space that was selected and bounded by a predecessor. While you don’t want your entry to be characterized by a long list of self-serving demands, you are likely to find genuine openness to adapting your space to your needs. Consider those things that are most important to comfort, function and aesthetics as part of the leadership transition. You will spend lots of time working and meeting in your office. Your productivity and your spirit will be well served by a space adapted for you.

Be sure that the chair you have is comfortable for your size and frame and lends itself to the movement you wish. Your technology should have those features that facilitate your needs even if it means adding small conveniences like desk-side printers, adding machines, or cable TV for monitoring weather or other urgent events. Consider white boards, bulletin boards, and storage and other furniture as suited to your routines. While you don’t want to discard serviceable items, especially in hard economic times, you shouldn’t start your job feeling handicapped by inadequate technology and furnishings.

The aesthetics of your space largely fall into your domain. It is reasonable to expect a freshly painted environment, good lighting, and serviceable flooring. Beyond that, it’s your hand that will dictate the surroundings. Seating and furniture placement can create distance or intimacy with visitors. Photos of family, favorite places or events can not only share treasured parts of your life with others, they also can echo their presence as you toil in the office. Art and artifacts created or gifted by students, staff or your own family members tell a story of your past life as an educator and hint at who you are. While you don’t want to create a shrine to your own career, there is no reason not to hang your credentials or select awards. Enveloping yourself in space that is meaningful to you is reassuring, uplifting, and motivating.

It would be a mistake, however, to limit your space as a superintendent to your office. Developing quick comfort in all schools and campus environments will support your understanding of the work in your schools. Driving neighborhoods and exploring businesses will give you a sense of place for the people you serve. The superintendency is a big job and so is the space it is lived in.

The Lived Time Experience of a Superintendent

Perhaps there is no element of experience that is harder to grasp than that of time in the superintendency. Your biorhythms will be tested by long and irregular days. Your best efforts in scheduling a complicated calendar will be overturned with a single unanticipated incident. You will wonder how or even if any mortal can truly manage the work of a superintendent.

You would do well to accept that there is always undone work in the superintendency. The challenge is to be sure that the essential and unforgiving tasks are completed on time. Getting an early start, delegating, and accepting building blocks from your predecessors or colleagues can help to ensure that you’re not caught short on deadlines, even if an unexpected event hijacks your focus. Call up all and any time management skill s you’ve accumulated. Determine what mail you want filtering through you and what you want referred elsewhere. Hone your email sort and response strategies so that you can identify and act on those that are critical and dispense with the volumes of clutter.

Aside from your closest co-workers, few people will understand the demands on your time. You will host a parade of visitors from parents to staff to community members. Sometimes they will visit to enlist your commitment to a cause whether it be pesticides or cell tower bans. Some will visit with the hope that you will solve the one problem that they have been most dissatisfied with in the district. Some will come with stories of deep personal hardship, illness, or aspirations. For whatever reason they come, you will need to free yourself of the burdens of your responsibilities and be there in the moment. Some will just want a listener, others will hope for a miracle worker who will immediately address their interests. Assure that messages have been heard but be careful about extending commitments that will get you through this moment and into commitments that are disproportionate to the role you can or should play. “I want to think about those things you have shared” or “I need to check out some other information “are genuine response s that can help you guard against promises that are undeliverable yet communicate your willingness to consider action.

It is well worth the investment to study a variety of artifacts that help you to understand how time has been structured in your district. Look at meeting agendas, minutes, school calendars, and other documents that fix some elements of your work. Quickly outline how these converge on your calendar so that you can determine how and when you can add work and meeting blocks that you need to establish. While you cannot protect your schedule from all intrusions, a general rhythm will serve you well.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of time as a superintendent is the convergence of personal and professional time. School musicals and athletic events might double as leisure activities for you or they may strictly be duty. You may find that full access to resources at home enables you to avoid some night or weekend trips to the office or may find that full access creates a trap for you. Think too of your communication devices and what habits and expectations you want to set. If you make your contact information widely available and respond to all on a 24/7 basis, you can be sure that you will never be away from your work. Think hard about the vacations you’ll take. It takes an extraordinary amount of control to avoid “checking in” especially if it’s a “stay-cation”. The superintendency is a life, but it need not exclude some pure and undivided time to your own personal interests.

The Lived Relationships of the Superintendency

The last element of Van Manen’s framework is “lived relationships”. Truly, relationships will be at the core of your life as a superintendent. You will gain new relationships, change existing ones, and struggle to maintain some that may have once been very special, just because of competing demands.

Your leadership team and central office staff will be your closest co-workers. They, however, are just a small part of your lived relationships. The layers begin with the reality that you may have direct responsibility for the lives of up to 20% of the population in the district you serve. The size of your district may keep some of them nameless and faceless, but they will recognize and see consequence in you. The layers extend into the community as your District may very well be the largest employer in your area and certainly the largest consumer of local tax dollars. The relationships that fall from these roles may be very businesslike, but they are nonetheless important.

You undoubtedly have cultivated some skill in relationship building while en route to your superintendency. Of all the skills you’ve acquired, the most important may be in maintaining relationships with your own inner core. Ultimately, there will be lonely professional moments as your actions will not please everyone. If, however, your actions are consistent with your core values, you are much more likely to find respectful responses to differences with others. Inevitably, however, expect that there will be some folks whose rules of engagement demand that they have their way with you or have nothing to do with you at all. There isn’t much relationship to be had in these situations and it’s best not to be consumed with the fact. Keep it cordial, civil, and move on.

When considering all of the joy and challenge of being a superintendent, it is unquestionably the weight of relationships that comes to the forefront. Seldom is there a day when a new person doesn’t enter into your life virtually or face-to face. Technology has greatly expanded the ability to network and sustain relationships electronically, yet you will likely long for the presence of family, friends and colleagues. Feed these needs as possible.


There is a somewhat artificial quality to discrete discussions about body, space, time and relationships. Each, however, deserves its own due diligence. Each is part of your life as a superintendent. Make it a good one!

Van Manen,M. (1990) Researching Lived Experience. Albany: SUNY Press.