If you Google “what is a superintendent?” you will find several definitions. But if you ask someone, “what is a superintendent?” you will quickly learn, there is so much more that goes into the job than a simple definition can properly illustrate. In fact, it’s challenging to nail down precisely what it takes to be a successful superintendent.
No matter the type of school district, in order to be successful, a superintendent must be able to juggle several responsibilities and demonstrate their effectiveness in a variety of different roles. To get more insight into the obstacles—and opportunities—today’s school superintendents face, we turned to our very own Frank Forsthoefel.
He currently serves as an education specialist with SHP—but prior to joining SHP, Frank served as the superintendent of Sycamore Community Schools for six years. Leveraging his firsthand knowledge, Frank outlined six key elements for what it takes for a superintendent to run a school district successfully.
Developer of People
While all roles a superintendent plays are vital, the first (and perhaps most important) is that of a developer—specifically, a developer of people. A successful superintendent must be able to coach and support the people they work with and help to develop them into the best versions of themselves. This goes for everyone who works within the district, from students and teachers to principals and cafeteria workers.
“The day-to-day was never the same, but that’s what I loved about it,” said Frank. “You could start the day with community members, principals, district office leaders, or interacting with staff and students, which to me, was the best part of the job.”
The form in which this coaching takes place will vary from position to position and from person to person. For example, superintendents typically do not coach teachers directly, but they most certainly assist them by ensuring the school system has a method for professional development so they are put in the best possible position to educate students effectively. Students may require one-on-one sessions to help elevate them into becoming successful learners and leaders.
This was an aspect of the job that Frank took very seriously. Throughout his tenure with Sycamore Community Schools, Frank implemented what he called the “superintendent advisory council.” This council consisted of two groups of students: one at the high school level and one at the junior high level. Their job was to help him be the best superintendent he could be and to give him honest feedback on the state of the district.
He implemented this advisory council for two reasons:
- It allowed him to get feedback on important decisions in real-time from the people these decisions would affect most: the students. To use his words, “The students need to have a voice because they’re the most integral stakeholder a school has.”
- The council put students in a position to understand how to be leaders and how to effectively give constructive criticism.
It’s important to note here and remember that superintendents are human too. Sometimes they need support as much from their stakeholders as their stakeholders need of them.
Of the many hats a superintendent wears throughout her or his day, another and possibly undervalued one is that of a communicator. Though no superintendent will ever be able to satisfy everyone fully, they need to be able to effectively communicate their ideas to impacted stakeholders while maintaining essential relationships all along the way, especially with the school board.
“You have to be a relationship-builder first because if you think about everything that our superintendents have to do, it all involves people,” said Frank. “You’ve got to have refined skills and know how to develop and nurture relationships from the top down.”
Thomas Alsbury, a well-respected author and professor at Seattle Pacific University, found a connection between student academic achievement and the stability of the board-superintendent relationship. He concluded that when a negative relationship is present, “the result is more turnover of both the superintendent and the board members and lower student achievement.”
In addition to maintaining relationships, a successful superintendent is articulate and understands that their words hold tremendous value. They remain poised under immense scrutiny from the public eye and handle issues within the district with extreme sensitivity so as to not burn any bridges.
Being a good listener is vital to a superintendent being successful, given the wide variety of people who demand their attention. From the school board and parents to the staff and students, accessibility is crucial to garnering trust from the key stakeholders that a superintendent serves.
An article by FastOnlineMasters.com states that “a great superintendent is highly visible and approachable. They are always available to support school staff. By regularly visiting the schools in their care, they stay abreast of administrative challenges, student progress, and facility needs.”
But as we all know, communication is a two-way street. Wearing the listener “hat” means a superintendent is paying attention to the input they receive from the community. That means a superintendent must remain confident in their leadership and decision-making skills without becoming too rigid in their ways. which should be taken into consideration before any significant change or decision is made. Being flexible in the vision will lead to longer and healthier relationships with stakeholders.
The degree to which a superintendent will be viewed as a community leader will vary from district to district. (In fact, Jim D. Copeland, a researcher from the University of Colorado, noted in 2013 that “patrons of larger schools could not identify their superintendent if presented in a lineup. However, in rural communities, they know which church they attend, how often, and how much he tithes.”)
Superintendents are not only the face of a school district but also the face of an entire community—which means superintendents are always on the clock. Whether they are perfectly buttoned-up at the beginning of a school day or in line at McDonald’s on a Saturday night, they need to remember who they are and whom they represent.
“There are no off-hand conversations as a superintendent. You could be in the line getting your Big Mac, and you could have a community member right next to you who recognizes you and wants to spark up a conversation,” said Frank. “That informal level of communication is critically important because one poor interaction could lead to major issues down the road.”
Fortunately, most of these interactions are positive, according to Frank. They are with people who care deeply about the health of the district and want to help the superintendent be as informed as possible.
So, they need to keep this in mind before making decisions that could alienate any one particular group.
One group that is easy to overlook are those who no longer have any direct connection to the district’s schools. These are typically empty nesters, many of whom have not had kids in the school system for 20+ years. It’s important to include them for two main reasons.
- Their tax-dollars support local schools
- This group, especially in suburban areas, often makes up a majority of the population
How do you refrain from leaving them out? One way is to think about who these people are and how do they prefer to receive news and information.
Frank and his team leveraged the concept of “quality profiles,” which was an end-of-year summary of all of the great things accomplished by the district. The quality profiles were available in several formats, long-form and short-form videos and social posts, for instance. But Frank and his team one day realized that a portion of the community–those not on social media platforms—were not being reached. So, they decided to put the profiles in a format the older generation would prefer: a newspaper. They sent copies across the district and received encouraging feedback from folks who otherwise might have no direct connection to the school.
An effective superintendent is well organized and is continuously planning for the future. They are expected to prepare for all things necessary in a school district, which can include anything from curriculum, scheduling, activities, remediation and finances.
In his case study, Copeland notes that “fully half of the desirable traits of a superintendent deal with planning in one way or another.”
“While managing finances is important, planning for the financial stability of the district is considered just as paramount,” said Copeland. “The ability to plan for the academic progress of students and teachers was also an oft-mentioned expectation.”
Unsurprisingly, the planning for a particular school year does not begin after the previous year concludes. It begins six months to a year before the school year is set to begin, with the two biggest elements being staffing and student enrollment.
“From what principal to hire to the number of cafeteria workers, it’s all contingent on your student enrollment numbers as well as what your finances will allow,” explained Frank.
As a tactician, a superintendent must also be ready for the unexpected. The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in the plans of every superintendent around the country. In turn, this has made their responsibilities that much more complex. From state mandates, societal pressures and the obvious health concerns, superintendents were pulled in a million different directions. But it is the nature of the job as a leader. Ultimately, they have to handle the issues that are in front of them in order to succeed.
Mastering the art of being an effective manager takes time, effort and most of all, patience. Tasks that fall under the “manager” category typically include supervising students and staff, lots of paperwork and being the final say in decisions that may affect an entire community. An exemplary superintendent must have the mind of an innovator, a workhorse mentality and an eye for evaluating the overall health of the district. They must also be a visionary and have an eye toward the future.
The position also entails aiding staff members at a moment’s notice, such as helping to shovel snow after a blizzard or driving a bus when no other drivers are available. This part of the job may feel thankless, but Frank believes it is imperative nonetheless to the success of the school and district as a whole.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It is a simple formula, but it’s hard to get to; if you have great schools, you’re going to have great communities and if you’ve got great communities and you’re going to have great schools. So I think those two things are very intertwined,” said Frank.[/perfectpullquote]
Superintendents are a lot of things to a lot of different stakeholders. They are managers of people, pillars of support for students and leaders in their communities. Through greater access to information and communication tools, superintendents have the ability to reach nearly all members of their districts in ways that not only inform but, more importantly in ways that engage and—hopefully—inspire.