Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

How Superintendents Can Pay It Forward

District leaders didn’t get where we are alone
By Theresa Rouse — May 04, 2022 4 min read
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Why does one remain a superintendent in these trying times? Because we all have a story of our journey, an appreciation for those who supported us along that journey, and a passion for ensuring the role of the superintendent remains strong.

Even as a child, I knew that I would be a teacher because of the teachers I had in 1st grade and for music at my elementary school. I wanted to be just like them and teach children all the amazing things this world has to offer. By 5th grade, at that same elementary school, my principal helped me see the benefit of rising to a leadership position to be able to affect even more lives. These experiences opened my eyes to my life’s journey.

I became a teacher, then a principal, and then on to a county-level administrative position in which I encountered district-level leadership in a way that had not been obvious to me. At the county office, my role was to assist school districts implementing the state and federal accountability systems.

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My mentor, a superintendent of one of the districts I supported, asked me about my professional goals. She was guiding me down my professional path toward district leadership. Every workshop, every class, every conversation, every networking event, even my doctoral work built the foundation for my journey to the role of superintendent.

I spent my first six years as a superintendent in California, first leading a small district and, then, a midsize one. I reached out to professional networks and leaned on veteran superintendents in my county and across the state when I needed to, calling with questions and seeking support when I had challenges. There was always someone who had experience and wisdom to guide me. This experience proved foundational as I continued to hone my leadership skills and abilities.

My experiences in California proved to be an amazing dress rehearsal for my next career move. In 2016, I traveled to a much larger district, in Joliet, Ill. Am I still facing challenges in this role? Absolutely, but I am fortunate to have grown a great network of peers whom I can call, text, or email whenever I need to talk.

Then March 2020 happened. The pandemic closed every one of our districts. We had to pivot. In many cases, we had to lead from our kitchen tables. The skills we had developed would help us, but our prior experiences were no longer as helpful as they had been. The networks of superintendents, both within the state of Illinois and across the nation, were even more important during this time. Our Zoom meetings almost felt like group-therapy sessions, as we each found a way to share our challenges both personally and professionally.

The stressors we were experiencing were compounded daily by the overwhelming anxiety of managing the pandemic for ourselves and our own families. These pressures have been compelling many superintendents across the nation to hand in their resignations or consider early retirement. It’s not that we don’t want to do our jobs, it’s just that personal health concerns, stress levels, and public threats are piling up on our already full plates.

Even as I edge closer to retirement, key to my work now is supporting new and aspiring superintendents.

I, too, will admit that the stress has at times been a bit much. Yes, I’m tired, but I am not ready to step away. There is still much to be done. I have not lost my passion for this work; it guides me as I continue to focus on my mission to make sure that students have options and opportunities that meet their academic and social-emotional needs. I want to support my staff so they, too, have the resources they need to address their own and their students’ mental health needs.

Even as I edge closer to retirement, key to my work now is supporting new and aspiring superintendents. I am passionate about developing and strengthening their path. This is my moment to pay it forward. Just as my former elementary teachers and principal helped me to begin my journey and my mentor superintendent helped to further develop my skills, I want to be able to help build and support in the same way for those who are stepping up to join us on this leadership journey.

My sincere hope is that we as superintendents remember the power of the group-therapy sessions during the pandemic as we get back to our day-to-day work. Let’s not go back to being an island. Let’s be sure that we are reaching out to the new and veteran superintendents around us in meaningful ways. Every time we give to those around us, we are refilling our own cups in ways that help to keep us focused on the positive, hopeful, and empowering.

We deepen our efforts to support those around us as we move forward and take the lessons from the pandemic to ensure the role of the superintendent remains strong and focused on why we do this work. We must build the success of future leaders so that public education can move into the next cycle of improvement and be better than ever before.

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