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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Behind The Curtain

There are few more entertaining experiences than enjoying an excellent stage play or musical. The array of talent on display - the artistry of the choreography, the enchanting music, the elegant costumes, the interesting sets, the intriguing drama,...  However, there is so much more than what we see and hear. The incredible work and effort that occurs behind the curtain is often unappreciated and overlooked, and more likely unknown to all but a few members of the audience. There are many people involved in moving the sets and arrangements, making costumes, manipulating the lighting and sound controls, and so much more. We just don't have access to the private side of a public show.

The same is true regarding many different workplace experiences. For instance, I attended a conference today - a Select Seminar on developing a comprehensive support system for school leaders - sponsored by the Capital Area School Development Association. There were a number of issues raised concerning obstacles in the path of those people desiring to become successful principals.

During the discussion, one of the veteran principals pointed out how she worked with two interns who had attended graduate school and taken coursework leading to certification in school administration. The principal explained that once the interns, both experienced teachers, discovered the responsibilities of the principal that were performed "off stage and behind the curtain" (i.e. countless evening duties, many intense meetings held in private due the sensitivity of the issues, absorbing phone conversations...) they were no longer interested in becoming principals - despite the classes they had taken to prepare for such an opportunity. The dialogue continued forward and a handful of suggested practices were generated in response to developing future principals, like leadership academies and mentoring programs and collaboration with appropriate professional organizations. The ideas continued to flow. I remained quiet until the moderator acknowledged my silence and solicited my opinion.

I volunteered that I was still reflecting on the point made earlier about the interns who had expressed an interest in becoming principals - until they actually found out more about the vast role of the principal. These two interns were experienced teachers, yet they were not at all familiar with the scope and intensity of the leadership position. I had to admit that after serving as a principal for thirty-three years, the last nineteen working with a superintendent who was open and transparent in his actions, and thinking that I understood the wide range of responsibilities of a school superintendent, I was nonetheless still surprised by the many tasks that confronted me as a new superintendent. I had no idea of the subtle nuances of state reports, amortization of school debt service, actuarial data compiled to determine expected durations of health care payments to retirees, and the many other requirements and expectations that were deftly performed under the radar by my former superintendents. These were not the attractive, attention getting, or exciting elements of the job of a district leader. This was a surprise, after all those years I worked as a principal.

I shared this experience as a further example of the belief that school leaders do not explain or fully demonstrate what they do in their roles. The confidential nature of a great deal of the responsibilities prohibits others from a view of the principal's or superintendent's work. What's left is a compilation of varied activities and duties that could be perceived as appealing and within the grasp and capacity of experienced educators who have acquired the proper coursework. Perhaps school leaders are reluctant to offer a more revealing perspective on their assignments for fear of being considered as complainers or whiners. I don't really know.

Here's what I think I know now, after nine months as a superintendent, that I didn't fully understand before I accepted the job. There are two different analogies that come to mind as I think about my experiences thus far.

First, the role of superintendent is like being the last person remaining in the circle of a dodge ball game. You must constantly dart here and there as a ball is tossed at you. Agility is prized so you can avoid being hit. No sooner do you elude one throw then you need to anticipate where the next throw is coming from, and react quickly - over and over. Your head swivels so much you get a bit dizzy. You wish your head was on ball bearings. You move so fast things become blurry and you can't tell who's got the ball. Sometimes it seems like the ball is coming from everywhere, all at once.

Second, the duty of the superintendent is much like a goalie in soccer. There are ten other players on your team out on the field but the opponents only score when they get the ball in the net behind you. Even though that means that the opposition must somehow get past your ten teammates before they reach you as the last line of defense, the goalie bears the brunt of any score by the other team. The final image of a goal is the ball passing by the outstretched arms and legs of the goalie, not that of the other defensive players that share in the responsibility of protecting the net. There is no one to turn to for solace or share in the burden of blame and responsibility. You're out there alone. You're the one who must stoop down and regretfully retrieve the ball from the back of the net while the other team and their supporters raise their voices in cheer. If your team wins, it's because your side scored more goals than the opponents. If your team loses, it's because the goalie surrendered too many goals. 

Yet, I wouldn't change a thing. I have enjoyed my initial year as a superintendent as much as I enjoyed my thirty-three years as a principal - and for the same reason. I firmly believe that an individual can make a difference in the lives of others. I am willing to experience the occasional irritants and challenging demands of the leadership position in exchange for the tremendous personal reward of feeling I have helped to promote growth, nurture hope, and sustain dreams among those I have served. It's worth it. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. If school leaders were as anxious and willing to share their celebrations as they are to broadcast their misery, there would be no shortage of candidates interested in the role.

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