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.