The Personal Side of Superintending (Part 3)

In The Managerial Imperative: The Practice of Leadership in Schools (1988), I wrote of my experiences as a superintendent, husband, and father and how the job intersected with my life during and after the workday. In the post here, my wife is Barbara and my daughters are Sondra and Janice. All of what follows occurred between 1974-1981.

The superintendency was both exhilarating and exhausting. As a line from a song put it “Some days were diamonds; some days were stones.” What values I prized about public service and helping people were enacted daily; what skills I had were tapped frequently, and the post pushed me into learning new skills and plumbing hidden reserves of energy. In short, being superintendent stretched me in ways I keenly felt were worthwhile. I enjoyed the job immensely. But–there has to be a but–there were a number of job-related issues that arose over the years, softening my rosy assessment, forcing me to face the inevitable trade-offs that accompany the top executive post in a school district.

What initially turned our lives topsy-turvy was the time I had to spend on the job after two years as a graduate student and, before that, as a teacher. The days usually began at 8:00 A.M. in the office and ended at 11:00 P.M. about two to three nights a week (and even more nights out during budget season). On those long days, I would race home for dinner at 5:00 P.M. and leave two hours later for a board meeting, work session, or some other community event. During the week, I saw my family for a few minutes in the morning and at dinner. Fatigue tracked me relentlessly the first few years; I’d fall asleep watching the evening news and take long afternoon naps on weekends. Adjusting to new time demands proved difficult for all of us.

While we had not given too much thought to the issue of privacy,Barbara and I had made a few decisions about our family time. We had agreed that Friday evening dinners to celebrate the Sabbath were a high priority. I had asked the school board to be excused from obligations on Friday evenings, and they honored my request for the seven years, except for those few instances when I decided that I had to attend a meeting or event. Apart from critical county board meetings on Saturday, my bosses made few demands upon me during the week-ends, apart from phone calls.

A listed telephone number proved to be less of an issue than we had anticipated. I rarely received more than a half-dozen calls a week from parents, students, or citizens, except during snow storms or when I made a controversial recommendation to the school board. Surprisingly, we received few crank or obscene phone calls.

Buffering the family from the job was tough enough. Deciding what to do about those social situations where much business was transacted informally, without reducing time spent with my family troubled me. The first week on the job, for example, a principal who then headed the administrators union invited me to join a poker game with a number of principals and district office administrators that met twice a month. My predecessor, he said, had been a regular player for the five years that he was superintendent. Moreover, it would offer me a splendid chance to meet some of the veteran staff away from the office in relaxed surroundings. Aware of the advantage in joining and the costs to my family, I thanked the principal for the generous invitation but said no. It had also occurred to me that I would be making personnel changes and a certain amount of social distance from people I supervised might be best.

Dinner invitations proved troublesome as well. Invariably at these affairs, conversations would center on school matters and juicy political gossip. These evenings became work for me and difficult for Barbara who was immersed in completing her undergraduate degree. The last thing both of us wanted to hear on a Saturday night out was more about the Arlington schools. Except for socializing with the few friends that we had made in the county whom we could relax with and not be concerned about what we said, mainly members of the school board, we turned down most invitations after our second year in town.

We remained, however, part of the ceremonial life in Arlington. I ate chicken at boy scout dinners, sampled hors d’oeurves at chamber of commerce affairs (until I dropped out from the organization because of its persistent attacks upon the school budgets), spoke at church suppers; and represented the school board at civic meetings.

We were fortunate to have had a network of close friends in the Washington area since 1963. I could see now, in ways that I could not have seen earlier, that by entering the community as an outsider and remaining separate from existing social networks, that there would be certain costs. That was, I believe, one price we paid for being outsiders and for trying to prevent the superintendency from completely invading our home.

But, of course, the shadow of the superintendency, with all of its pluses and minuses, fell over the family nonetheless. For example, our daughters (ages ten and thirteen in 1974) were not only singled out,both positively and negatively by teachers, they also had to deal with all of the complications of being teenagers, losing old friends and gaining new ones, and coping with schoolwork and family issues. The desire to be accepted and just like the others put a constant strain on both girls; from early on they were singled out as being different because of their father’s position in the community and their religion. Active, smart, and friendly, Sondra and Janice both enjoyed and hated the attention. While some teachers were especially sensitive to the awkward position the girls were in, others were callous. Principals of the schools they attended were very understanding and tried to help, but little could be done with the occasionally insensitive teacher.

When salary negotiations heated up, for example, two of their teachers (in two separate schools) made caustic, remarks to each girl about her father’s lack of concern for the teachers’ economic, welfare. The pressures were such that our eldest daughter wanted to try another school. It proved to be the hardest decision that Barbara and I made while I was superintendent. For us, her welfare was more important than concerns over what others might think of a superintendent pulling his daughter out of the public, schools. We transferred her to a private school in Washington, D.C., where she began to thrive academically and socially. Of course, the local newspaper carried an article about it. Our other daughter went to a private school for one year but wanted very much to return to the Arlington schools and did so for her high school years.

Barbara was clear on what she wanted. She did not wish to be “the superintendent’s wife.” She wanted to complete her undergraduate degree and enter a profession. In seven years, she finished her degree at George Washington University and earned a masters in social work from Catholic University while completing the necessary internships for a career in clinical social work. Between caring for a family, doing coursework, research papers, tests, and coping with a tired husband, Barbara had little time or concern for meeting others expectations of how a superintendent’s wife should act.

Yet, try as we might, it was difficult to insulate ourselves from the fact that I was a superintendent in a small city. My efforts, for example, to keep my family and my job separate when serious decisions had to be made often did not work. Firing a teacher, determining the size of a pay raise, recommending which schools to close, and dozens of other decisions had to be made. After listening to many individuals and groups, receiving advice from my staff, and hearing all the pros and cons from my closest advisers, I still had to make the decision. At these times, I might discuss the situation with Barbara. Often, however, there were family concerns that required our attention instead.

Yet I would still come home with the arguments ricocheting in my mind; and I would carry on an internal dialogue while I was eating dinner, raking leaves, playing with the girls, or on a weekend trip with the family. I was home, but I was distant.

Over the years I became more skilled at telling my family that something from the job was bothering me and that if I seemed distracted it had nothing to do with them. But I never acquired the knack of leaving serious Issues on the doorstep when I came home. Some-times, escaping the job was impossible. Newspaper articles or the 11:00 p.m. television news reports on the schools entered our home whether we liked it or not.

What did stun me, however, was the lengths that some people would go for political advantage, including destroying someone’s reputation. Elected officials, accustomed to the political in-fighting, might find such back-biting trivial. It jolted me and my family.

I’ll give one example. Shortly before the school board reappointed me for another four years, a board member called to ask if I had ever been arrested in Washington, D.C., on a drug charge. No, I hadn’t, I told her. She said that there was a story that would appear in the next day’s newspaper stating that I had been arrested and put in jail for possession of heroin. Within the next hour, I received a dozen calls from county officials, parents, friends of school board members, and the head of the teachers’ union asking me if the newspaper story were true and if there was anything they could do to help. Finally a newspaper reporter called to say that they were printing the story and did I have any comments to make. I told the reporter that there was no basis for the allegation and that before printing such a lie they would do well to get a record of the alleged arrest and other documentation. The newspaper did not print the story.

What shocked me most was the fragility of a professional reputation, the willingness of people to believe the worst (this occurred a few years after Watergate), and the lengths some people would go to destroy someone they disliked politically.

The seven years as superintendent taught me a great deal about the mixing of public and private lives for officials like myself. More prosaic than senators who party or congressmen who resign for disclosure of sexual jaunts, or corrupt governors our experiences still map an unfamiliar terrain for a superintendent and family who tried to maintain privacy.

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4 Comments

Filed under raising children, school leaders

4 responses to “The Personal Side of Superintending (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: The Personal Side of Superintending (Part 3) | Educational Policy Information

  2. Michael Cowley

    Thanks for this insightful look into the rigors; I have gleaned some pragmatic ideas to support my family and self.

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