Getting There from Here

A superintendent
speaks about
Getting There from Here
The NESDEC Report


Ted Nellen

"The most important elements to surviving as the superintendent are good communications and defining of roles." These words came trippingly from a superintendent's lips after our cordial exchange of salutations and the beginning questions of my interview of him. He explained he had read the article I had sent him in advance of our meeting, titled Getting There from Here a report issued by The New England School Development Council (NESDEC). His initial reaction to the problem of conflict and the method of avoiding destructive conflict was by practicing good communications and by defining all roles to be played out by the superintendent and the board. Many of his responses were in line with the report's findings. 

By communications, he iterated that the superintendent is to keep the board informed of all matters. This idea is mentioned many times in the report. The communications should be constant, verbal, written, honest, and forthright. It is the duty of the superintendent to notify the board before they hear it or read it in the media. In fact the supperintendent must learn how to work the media as suggested in the report and practiced by this superintendent. It is important that the board be made aware of any incident or problem that may confront the school system. If you do your best to keep the board informed honestly, than your relationship will be very strong and your ideas will have a more receptive audience. Daily reports on critical matters is good policy and weekly reports as a matter of keeping everyone aware of the goings-on. Would an email listserv help make this communication better? asked I. Absolutely, says he, but the problem is that not too many superintendents are active email users. Perhaps the next generation, says he. I know in this superintendency, an active and powerful force is at work bringing the Internet into his schools and into his method of better communications for the entire superintendency. This notion is supported in the NESDEC report, "They knew to communicate, to give and take, and to celebrate together." It further projects this superintendent's vision which is another important step in establishing a sound team as reported by NESDEC.

As a communicator, this superintendent is excellent. He visits his schools often and speaks to classes while visiting, stops in the library to speak, and even visits during special events. He attends Parent Association meetings and communicates with the parents and the staff of a school to help set the course of the school. Building a framework for teamwork by engaging the community is crucial to this superintendent. Knowing his schools and his parents is as important as knowing the non-school community members. This is how this superintendent exhibits his advocacy of his schools. Letting the community know his vision has been stressed by this superintendent often during this interview. In practice, I know this to be so when he visits schools and attends meetings with parents. Advocacy is mentioned often in the NESDEC report and is supported by this superintendent as seen by his actions.

"The key in establishing good sound communications between yourself and the board is to be honest. Tell the truth, even if it is bad. The board members do not like to look foolish in front of the press or at the meetings if they do not have all of the facts, unblemished or tainted. If this trust is established the board feels confident to support and trust you. If you establish this trust, then the board does not feel as if it needs to micro manage and you can go about your business of education." Stresses this superintendent. "My job is to help define our roles and to help maintain them." He adds. The report emphasizes defining roles. To help define roles that last and work, trust is crucial, says the report.

This superintendent strongly believes in accountability and assessment as an important tool in maintaining high standards and success. He explains that success is good press and it convinces others taht they should support the team in their goals. The report offers this idea as a political necessity to survival. The politics of education is played out in successful team management. This idea is conveyed by this report and by this superintendent.

Now a second important point made very early in our conversation was about "defining the roles of the superintendent and the board members." How is this done ask I incredulously, adding, since the board hires you how might you be the one to suggest or define the roles of the board. "The superintendent need not be coy and put the board in a situation where they come to define themselves with the guidance of the superintendent. He responds. "The best way to accomplish this is to have a retreat. The retreat is on neutral ground with an outside facilitator. The purpose is to create a team, especially since everyone has to work in unison and in many cases without benefit of consulting before answer questions about the school district. You have to be a well informed team who knows each other so well that you can function in isolation but with intuitive and intelligent understanding of the other members of your team. You need a team." In working with the board, this superintendent agrees with the recommendations of the NESDEC report on team building.

"At the same time remember, I am like a CEO, who has been hired by a board to accomplish a goal. It is my job, not the board's job," he adds to the idea of dealing with the board which hired him. This supports the idea espoused by the NESDEC report. Working with board closely aids in the success of the superintendent's agenda and success as suggested by the report.

The phone rang and this superintendent was informed that it was a board member. He excused himself and took the call. From what I heard, I could sense that the board member was wielding her influence to assist her nephew in securing a favorable teaching position in a fine school in his superintendency. This superintendent assured her that he would assign this situation to his special assistant on matters of teacher placement. Upon hanging up he immediately used that phone call to provide a lesson in being a superintendent. "That call and situation could be interpreted many ways." He began. "Certainly as an outsider one may see it as an abuse of power. The board member is using her influence to gain advantage for a relative. It may be my way of returning a favor by prearrangement. It may be a gesture by me to gain a favor owed for later. Most definitely it is politics. The survival of the superintendent depends on good politicking and you just witnessed some politicking good or bad, you heard it. I can only hope the whole thing benefits the children in my superintendency in that they get a good teacher, that I can turn that favor to the benefit of the children or that it pays back a favor which benefitted the children. It is a matter of rising above personal feelings and continuing to do the right thing while always keeping ones focus on the children. It is a balancing act." This certainly supports the notion offered by the NESDEC report, "The members of these school district governance teams knew well their respective roles and responsibilities."

In reflecting upon this notion of developing the team, this superintendent recalled an incident a couple of years ago with his board. "During meetings there was one member of the community, not a board member, who was very vocal, ultra conservative, constantly writing to the papers disparagingly about the state of education in the community. Eventually this citizen was elected and immediately expected changes and action. But because the superintendent and the board had established a strong team, votes were always 6 to 1. If the superintendent had not spent his early days establishing this team and then fostering trust between himself and the board then this rabble rouser may have been able to create problems. Essentially the board censored one of its own because they saw the value of the team they had created. The malcontent resigned in time and no children suffered for this minor occurrence." Here this superintendent stressed how the board sought concensus against this one curmudgeon. Their tactics supported the NESDEC report's findings about team forming.

In defining the role of the superintendent, the contract and specific matters are imbedded to insure the board will have a means of assessing the superintendent and that the superintendent will have an idea of what he has to do. Many matters of expectations and methods of assessment must be crystal clear in the contract. This superintendent explained that it is during these initial meetings and negotiating that the team begins to learn about each other. These early meetings help set the tone for future work and team building.

Certainly isolation is one of the negative aspects of being the superintendent. Inquiring as to how he stays connected with his peers and staying informed of important matters relevant to his own performance, he explained he reads The National Staff Development Council and Education Leadership. Conferences and these two publications keep him abreast of the important matters of his profession. Another source he has recently been exploring are listservs catering to K-12 Administrators. This notion of using the Internet to better communicate with his brethren nationwide ties into the suggestion made by the NESDEC report about connecting up with other school leaders and to alleviate isolation.

In asking about his non-business related reading, he informed me he loves science fiction because it takes him out of the world he knows into a world that is not real, but real problems are faced and negotiated. Removing the trappings of the here and now and replacing it with a fanciful environment allows me to concentrate on the relationships between the characters. Currently he is reading a novel by Sheri Tepper. This demonstrates his wholeness, an attribute of great importance as stressed by the report.

Developing good relationships is crucial then in being a successful superintendent, this superintendent reflected. Adding a commentary on New York City's school's Chancellor Crew, this superintendent observed that Crew's great strength is his ability to create solid relationships with his board. They travel together, Crew is rarely seen without a board member being present. He has established a good working and professional relationship with the board. Perhaps this is one reason he has had a positive and successful tenure so far. He has also established a positive working relationship with the Mayor of New York City. Certainly, for Crew relationship would be a key to his success. He is a master at developing and nurturing relationships. Crew is a fine example of building a strong team.

In reviewing his path to the superintendency, he observed he did it in a non-conventional way. He started as a teacher and then became assistant to the superintendent. Next he became a principal in two different schools before becoming a superintendent. Asked where he would like to see himself in five years, he replied superintendent. In ten years? Superintendent. At retirement? A college professor. This superintendent exudes confidence. He has a plan and he carries it out with gusto. He is an energetic, charismatic man who leads by example.

At a recent gathering of public officials and business leaders, I was attending, I was shocked to see him enter the meeting forty-five minutes late. He apologized explaining he needed to escort some students, whom he had met on the subway, to their school. This incident revealed a great deal to me and the others. His active involvement and hands on approach to his job speaks volumes about him and illustrates his successful tenure as superintendent and illustrates one of the most important points made by the NESDEC report: advocacy for the students, the studnets come first. He demonstrated this by his actions. The NESDEC report contains many elements practiced by this superintendent.

In conclusion, this superintendent stressed teamwork, concensus building, and honest communications among all members as a way t ohave a successful superintendency. This observation of his is similar to that of the NESDEC report.