Guest Column

A Superintendent’s Vote for MVP: The Secretary

by Sandra Tonnsen and Kay Barr

Each spring, superintendents throughout the country make florists extremely happy as they order flowers for their secretaries. Or they should.

Administrative Professionals Day, dutifully marked on many school administrators’ personal calendars each April, provides us an opportunity to honor those who support us throughout the year. Working with a secretary is not something all new superintendents have experienced prior to entering the position. Neither is it a skill learned in our superintendent training programs.

Yet the importance of the relationship between superintendent and secretary may be second only to the relationship a superintendent has with his or her board of education — and there are plenty of times when it is more important.

Power Wielder
The superintendent and secretary must work as a well-tuned team. A fully functioning team is best attained through mutual respect and continuous communication. The secretary offers support services and critical daily advice to the superintendent.

As the two of us reflected on our experiences as a secretary-superintendent team, it was clear we were well-matched and that both of us grew as professionals because of our interactions. Hence, we decided to share what we perceive to be the lessons we learned during our three-year relationship.

One of the most important lessons we learned was the power others perceived the secretary possessed. This power (both real and imagined) has both positive and negative implications.

The superintendent’s secretary’s visibility in the school district and the community and her broad perspective of the district are inherently powerful. The secretary has insider information that is not known by most employees. In the minds of many, if the superintendent’s secretary says it, it is true! Therefore, the superintendent can best support his or her secretary by communicating effectively the expectations, priorities, goals and vision of the administration.

A meeting with the secretary on a regular basis, whether daily or weekly, to share ideas and develop assignments is important. This habit takes the guesswork and assumptions out of the work week for both parties and allows them to operate on the same page, yielding much greater productivity. Also, a supportive superintendent will communicate to his or her leadership team that the secretary’s requests for information and action should be viewed as directives from the superintendent that should be handled promptly and accurately.

Ambiguous State
Your secretary probably already knows this, but a powerful lesson for superintendents is the knowledge that their secretaries live with constant ambiguity. They frequently are not privy to the whole story.

Because the decisions a superintendent makes are not always popular with many individuals with whom the secretary works closely and on whom she relies for information and support, it is important for secretaries to know as much as possible so they can put the superintendent’s decision in perspective. It should be made clear to the secretary when information is for “her ears only” as background purposes solely. Other information, of course, may be public, in which case the secretary should feel comfortable sharing it.

Making such a distinction reduces the level of ambiguity with which the secretary must cope. It also helps the secretary maintain the superintendent’s trust and strengthens her credibility with peers and others, both of which are critical to the superintendent’s success.

Being an effective buffer for the superintendent can leave the secretary emotionally drained at day’s end. While she defends and protects the superintendent all day, she may feel the same level of support is unavailable to her. Everyone knows it can be very lonely at the top. Most people forget the superintendent’s secretary is also at the top (higher salary, bigger office, frequently sought by others in the district for advice) where loneliness and stress can take their toll. Finding ways to help your secretary feel renewed and valued is essential to the success of both parties.

Growth Opportunity
One of the things we talked about during our tenure together was an interesting dichotomy experienced by the superintendent’s secretary. On one hand, the secretary’s job is not a typical 9-5, know-what-you-are-going-to-be-doing-at-any-given-moment kind of job. It is exciting. There is always something new and challenging on the horizon.

On the other hand, there is considerable routine (sometimes with a different face or name, but routine nonetheless). In our case, the secretary’s capabilities far exceeded the tasks she routinely performed. For us, the solution was for the secretary to organize and present training sessions for other secretarial/clerical support staff throughout the district.

Another suggestion is that the district support the secretary’s membership in the National Association of Educational Office Professionals, which offers publications, professional development and other opportunities for secretaries to hone their skills and rejuvenate. These types of activities benefit both the secretary and the school district.

Finally, the most important thing a superintendent can do to support the secretary is to be an honorable, compassionate leader — one who makes decisions based on what is best for students and one who cares about improving the community. This superintendent is a big-picture person who considers the implications of his or her decisions on the various constituencies of the district.

This superintendent ensures the insights of the secretary count and that she knows it every day, not just on that April date circled on the calendar.

(Final note: While the National Association of Educational Office Professionals estimates 10-20 of its members are male, for ease of communicating, we have chosen to use the feminine pronouns in referring to secretaries.)

Sandra Tonnsen, former superintendent in Orangeburg County, S.C., is an associate professor of educational leadership at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. E-mail: Kay Barr is secretary to the superintendent in the Orangeburg, S.C. Consolidated School District 4.