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. Because the family side of being a superintendent is often unwritten much less talked about–especially during the Covid pandemic, I have updated this earlier version of my experiences for the current book I am writing. All of what follows occurred between 1974-1981 in Arlington County (VA).
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 serving the public and educating others were enacted daily; what skills I had were tapped frequently, but even more important, the job jolted me into learning new skills and dipping into hidden reserves of energy. In short, being superintendent stretched me in ways I keenly felt were worthwhile albeit demanding. I enjoyed the job immensely. [i]
But (there invariably is 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. Especially with my family.
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. Prior to the superintendency I simply had more time at home.
In Arlington, my family and I usually began the day at 6:30 when I would get up with Barbara joining me in the kitchen around 7. Sondra and Janice would come down for breakfast shortly after that. If I had an early morning meeting, I would leave and Barbara would get the girls off to elementary and intermediate schools. I would get into the office most of time around 8:00 A.M. with the day often ending after 6PM except for evening meetings with community groups and Board budget meetings and then I would get home after 10PM two to three nights a week.
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.
While we had not given too much thought to the issue of privacy, Barbara and I had made a few decisions about our family’s time together. We had agreed that Friday evening dinners to celebrate the Sabbath were high priority. I had asked the School Board to be excused from obligations on Friday evenings, and they honored my request for seven years.
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 at home from parents, students, or citizens, except during snowstorms or when I made a controversial recommendation to the Board. Surprisingly, we received few crank or obscene phone calls.
Buffering the family from the demanding job was tough enough. Deciding what to do about those social invitations, 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 headed the administrators union invited me to join a Friday night 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 three years. 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 playing poker twice monthly and the costs to my family in missing Sabbath dinners, I thanked the principal for the generous invitation but said no.
Another piece of the “no” decision was the simple fact that I would be making personnel changes and a certain amount of social distance from people I supervised might be best. Over the seven years I moved or replaced at least two-thirds of the principals.
Dinner invitations also proved troublesome for Barbara and me. 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 then 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 long-time in D.C. and new ones in the county whom we could relax with, we turned down many 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 appetizers at chamber of commerce affairs (until I dropped out from the organization because of its persistent attacks upon our school budgets), spoke at church suppers; and represented the school board at civic meetings.
I could see now, in ways that I could not have then that entering the community as an outsider and remaining separate from existing social networks, that we paid a price in preventing the superintendency from completely swallowing our lives. But, of course, the shadow of my job, with all of its pluses and minuses, still fell over the family.
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, gaining new ones, and coping with schoolwork and family issues. The desire to be accepted as newcomers to their schools put a constant strain on both girls; from early on they were seen as being different because of their father’s position and their religion.
Active and smart, 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 in a classroom lesson.
When salary negotiations with the teachers union heated up, for example, two of their teachers made caustic, remarks to each girl about her father’s lack of concern for 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, earned a masters in social work from Catholic University, and completed 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 the district superintendent. 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. Nonetheless, I would still come home with the arguments ricocheting in my mind about a recommendation I had to make to the Board or a personnel decision; 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 not there. Over the years, with Barbara’s help, 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 fully acquired the knack of leaving serious Issues on the doorstep when I came home.
Sometimes, escaping the job was impossible. Newspaper articles or the television news on the schools entered our home whether we liked it or not. What did stun me, however, were the lengths that some people would go for political advantage, including destroying someone’s reputation. Elected officials, accustomed to political infighting might find such rumor-mongering trivial; however. It jolted my family and me. 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 was true and if she could 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 well before Donald Trump served as President), and the lengths some people would go to destroy a political enemy.
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 or presidents who tweet daily, our experiences still map an unfamiliar terrain for a superintendent and family who tried to maintain privacy.
[i] A John Denver song the lyrics of which can be found at: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johndenver/somedaysarediamonds.html