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Stressed Superintendents in a Time of COVID

What district leaders need after a few tough years
Hand stopping dominoes from falling

The wave of resignations among teachers and principals has also extended into district offices. According to a new RAND survey, an estimated 26% of superintendents plan to leave their jobs, citing longer working hours, political conflict, teacher shortages, and learning loss lingering from the pandemic. Yet stable leadership is crucial to deliver on a school district’s foundational vision and mission — it takes time to build trust between teachers, families, and principals to help achieve educational goals for students.

Here, former Richmond, VA, superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman, a professor of practice who works extensively with educational leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, offers insight into the particular challenges of the superintendency and how to proactively build support to reduce turnover.

It seems like the pandemic set superintendents up for a “perfect storm.” What was it like for them?

The whole structure we operate on was shattered by health concerns, the fear that those concerns engendered, and the fact that we couldn’t be together. Most districts were not prepared for the switch that had to take place, so superintendents had to react and respond in real time. Parents were frightened, teachers weren’t sure how they were going to reach students, and superintendents felt like they were trying to hold the whole enterprise together while simultaneously trying to address so many competing issues.

Then, superintendents were second-guessing their own decisions because they were concerned about their staff, about their students, about their families, and they just wanted to be sure the decision they made was the right one at such a critical time. We depend on schools to provide education and care, so they weren’t just worried about teaching and learning, but also about what was happening to their students when they weren’t in schools, where so many students get critical services from meals to emotional support.

How did that impact their ability to lead a district?

The pressures on the superintendent were tremendous and the public was not forgiving of mistakes — if a district next door was open and you weren’t yet or you opened too soon, you had to bear the brunt of the public’s scrutiny and frustration. That’s demoralizing and isolating for a leader. It can feel like you’ve just been dealt a losing hand. In addition, the politics of COVID interrupted the process of delivering educational supports for schools. In that kind of climate, it’s really hard to maintain the trust you need to move ahead as a leader.

Right now, superintendents face a lot of adaptive challenges — and those are problems where the answer isn’t in a book or a manual. There was no technical solution for the problems COVID wrought.

"I think those who are successful recognize that the superintendent role comes with the power to convene different groups. They bring people together to set up the means for a solution, which is how you address adaptive problems — the people with the problem have to be part of the solution."

So, what kind of support do superintendents need right now to do the job sustainably?

Partnerships! I think those who are successful recognize that the superintendent role comes with the power to convene different groups. They bring people together to set up the means for a solution, which is how you address adaptive problems — the people with the problem have to be part of the solution. This pandemic, coming in the midst of racial injustices and political upheaval, was catastrophic. While I’d like to think it won’t happen again in the next hundred years, knowing the impact something like the pandemic has had, it’s imperative that superintendents be proactive. My advice would be to start establishing networks of support and partnerships now.

What might that look like?

The American Association of Superintendents (AASA) helps connect superintendents and has a lot of great resources, supports, and models. Every state also has its own partnering organization. But superintendents should also look to establish networks in their own geographic communities. Schools of education can provide great resources and be strong thought partners. They should reach out to community supports, like mental health collectives — one might think of these as supports for students, but they can also be used by educators. All of these steps are key to helping counteract that isolation that can come with leadership. I’d further recommend that superintendents conduct an “after-action review” to determine what worked and what didn’t work during the crisis and establish a system of weekly check-ins so they can connect with others who are engaged in this work, especially during high-stress times.

Finally, try to figure out where their growth edges are, which might feel challenging. But it’s important for the leader to fully understand where you did a good job, where you may have dropped the ball, and what you can do better in the future. Self-knowledge truly is the beginning of wisdom and never was wisdom more necessary than during this pandemic.

What about beyond the job itself?

I always tell my students that it’s also critical to have systems of support outside of work that will build you up and remind you that are the person for the moment. In all seriousness, I can’t emphasize enough how much having a pet who loves you unconditionally and a supportive partner help. Their presence in your life helps you stay positive, focused, and able to lead another day! Peace be to the memory of my wonderful partner, Cornelius, and my loving pet, Nyro!

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