Somehow generals, corporate executives and cabinet heads have made dashing, romantic figures. A General Patton, Avis's Robert Townsend or Robert McNamara made headlines, became subjects of books and after-dinner anecdotes. Not so for school superintendents.
As top executives for more than 16,000 school systems and accountable for the education of millions of children, few school chiefs have cut through public awareness to be noticed except when they are hired, fired or murdered. I do not know of any novels, poems or songs that have recorded the lives of school superintendents. Most places remember their school leaders either in naming a building, dedicating a football field or planting a tree.
Esteemed as the position has become in the last half-century (usually the superintendency is the second highest paying city or county position), as important as the job seems to be, the complex nature of the urban superintendency has occasionally caught the imagination of a brick mason or a gardener but seldom a writer, poet or lyricist. For whatever the reasons, school superintendents seem to lack the dash and glamor of other top executives in our society. Consequently, public knowledge of superintendents runs thin.
Actually, when you come right down to it, few persons know what superintendents actually do daily. Most people know what teachers because of their close contact with them for at least a dozen years. Most people know what principals do because the idea of being the boss of a school is uncomplicated. Most folks know at least three principals by name. The familiarity breaks apart, however, with a superintendent since few people have had much contact with even one.
I visit schools two to three times a week. On occasion, teachers will introduce me to their students as the superintendent. Invariably, I am asked what I do. Am I the same guy who takes care of their apartment building? Am I in charge of the school board? When I explain that the teacher is in charge of their class, the principal is in charge of all the school and I am in charge of all the principals - that explanation is enough to quiet further questions and get me out of class.
The superintendency is no less unclear to parents and citizens. Is he the errand or whipping boy for the school board? Does he hire and fire teachers or is he just another administrator to complain to?
Perhaps, a few words about who most superintendents are and what they are expected to do might help before describing what many actually do.
Most superintendents are remarkably similar. Several studies concur that a school executive is typically a middle-aged, white, Protestant male who taught, was a principal and became a superintendent before he turned 40. Reared on a farm or in a small town, the typical school chief earned an advanced degree before becoming a superintendent. He (since less than 1 per cent of superintendents are female, I will use the masculine pronoun throughout the article.) will probably serve fewer years as a superintendent than he did a teacher or principal. In other words, he will probably not be around long enough to receive a retirement roast beef dinner and a gold watch.
Recently, however, in large urban school systems, more black school chiefs have been appointed, e.g. Washington, Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta, etc. Also an increasing number of superintendents who are not minority members have been reared and educated in cities. But even considering these gradual changes, gather together any group of 50 school superintendents and the initial description of the typical school boss still holds. So much for the typical superintendent.
What are superintendents expected to do? A school chief is the executive hired by a school board to give it professional advice; manage the daily business of the organization in an orderly, sensible fashion, provide instructional leadership to the school staff, maintain harmony with the community and remain a respected symbol of the system. Nice words. Textbook definitions. Professionals would agree on such words, but these tired phrases reveal little about the job. How do these job functions translate into daily and weekly tasks?
Based upon observations and experience, the average superintendent works five days a week from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., two to three evenings a week and at least two Saturdays or Sundays a month. The typical work week, then, is 50 to 60 hours. Not unlike corporation presidents, chief administrators of government agencies and other top executives, school superintendents spend a great deal of time on the job.
Since time is the superintendent's prime resource, what does he do with it? Much of that time is spent in meetings with two or more people. Henry Mintzberg, a Canadian professor, observed for five weeks a handful of chief executives including a corporation president, a top hospital administrator and a large suburban school superintendent. He found that 75 per cent of the school chief's time was spent in scheduled meetings while 22 per cent was spent at his desk, on the phone, dictating memos, signing documents, holding unscheduled conferences, etc.
Examining the superintendent's scheduled time only, Mintzberg found that 25 per cent was spent at luncheons, giving diplomas, making introductions and other ceremonial duties; 27 per cent was spent sitting in on strategy and negotiating sessions with individuals and groups; 27 per cent was spent giving and receiving information. The balance of that scheduled time was spent in listening to solicitations and making requests.
In considering both scheduled and unscheduled time, the superintendent spent most of it with subordinates in dealing with the daily business of running a school system (61 per cent); the superintendent invested almost 20 per cent of his time with school board members, and about 10 per cent with parents and citizens. The research team found that the superintendent initiated less than one-third of the contacts.
The rough picture that emerges from the exhaustive observation of one superintendent is a portrait of an executive who spends most of his time in meetings often called by others, telling, listening to and planning with subordinates. Not exactly the kind of portrait that prompts a poem or song.
Pictures drawn from statistics seldom capture the vitality or the kaleidoscopic whirl that dominates the superintendent's day. Few researchers document the constant shift in activities and juggling of decisions demanded of a superintendent daily.
Most superintendents in large school districts seldom see students except when giving awards or receiving flak. Those school chiefs invest most of their time in their office seeing a steady stream of subordinates and responding to school board requests. Few teachers ever see such a superintendent in their classrooms. A conference with a superintendent is often perceived as bad news. A few superintendents spend substantial portions of their time with teachers, principals, students and parents. They seek out information and build ties with people. Regardless of style, what superintendents do (either by choice or necessity) reflects a notion and style of leadership.
Superintendents that cultivate a high public profile, catch daily headlines and search out conflict, and these are the exception, seldom complete their contract. Too often such leadership gets confused with flashy visibility, headlines and conflict. Folk wisdom among school administrators underscores the values of low visibility and completing the job one was hired to do.
The typical gray flannel, low-keyed leadership style of so many superintendents is a basic survival response to a very threatening, hostile environment. The folklore of schoolmen is rich in tales of firings, resignations extracted from unwilling administrators and forced retirements. With such a style common among school chiefs, drama is muted. Flak-catching and flak-disposing is an art form. Conflict is shoved aside gently wherever possible.
In an appointed, vulnerable position, superintendents have come to learn the virtues of silence and keeping their heads low. No matter that a school system's top executive sprints through a whirl of appointments, decisions and piles of paper. No matter that the decisions made or affirmed have significant impact upon staff and children. What does matter is staying out of newspapers, public squabbles and the school board's hair.
From such a dominant style and a highly vulnerable position few songs, poems or novels can be written. Could anyone stay awake through a movie on school superintendents? The drama, conflict and emotions that grip public attention with generals, corporate buccaneers or cabinet heads is simply missing with school chiefs.
And maybe that is just as well. As it is now, parents, school boards, staff and taxpayers expect the superintendent to please each of them and walk on water as well. Since most superintendents can't, few stick around more than three years. If we start singing songs about him, doing the impossible will be the least to be expected. Better to be unsung.