School districts face a multitude of struggles. To make matters worse, a new challenge is on the horizon: finding enough qualified leaders to become superintendents. The “2007 State of the Superintendency Survey” released by the Association of School Administrators’ Center for System Leadership found that 87 percent believe an inadequate supply of educational leaders exists to fill the anticipated superintendent openings in the near future. As a former superintendent, I understand why many educators and professionals may shy away from the role. It’s a tough job. Yet it’s a rewarding career.
To develop more qualified district leaders for our future, we first must identify young professionals who demonstrate a passion for education and steer them in the right direction. We have a unique opportunity to mentor those we see with budding potential.
There are many great training programs, such as Harvard University’s Urban Superintendent’s Program, and great large districts, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, which requires administrators to participate in ongoing professional development.
Second, we need to be sensitive to our population’s shifting demographic and recruit more minority and female leaders. Consider this: Only 1 percent of current superintendents are Hispanic. Likewise, the majority of teachers are women, yet few move on to the top administrative roles. This is a challenge to overcome.
If you are a professional considering moving into a superintendent role, don’t be intimidated. Begin by setting a plan for your own success. Like the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you plan to get there?” With that in mind, every future district leader should take time to backward map for success.
The first basic step to becoming a successful superintendent is to establish a vision for what type of leader you want to be. Do you want to be known for your no-nonsense approach to finances? Would you prefer to be seen as a passionate leader who improves test scores? Knowing what you value in the leadership role will help determine what type of school district attracts you most. If you want to be a leader who empowers others, a small, already successful district might be a good fit. If standing up for the less advantaged is what motivates you, then step up and seek an urban district struggling to improve achievement for all students.
From there, you can back up to refine the skills needed to lead that specific type of district. You want to match your passion with the school district. If you’re working for a district with a large number of English learners, for example, you may want to spend more time building your cultural competency.
Six Essential Steps
Another key to success is following the “Standards for School Leaders” developed by the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium. This guide to leadership policy and practice says the six essential steps for superintendents are:
1. Have a vision.
2. Establish a mission-driven culture.
3. Manage like a business leader.
4. Stay connected with the community.
5. Always act ethically.
6. Understand the larger, global framework of education.
No matter what your talent and use of these six skills, if you are to be an effective superintendent, you must be flexible enough to meet the needs of your district. You must look at the context and local community around you, applying diff erent leadership and management styles as you see appropriate.
For example, one superintendent I’ve worked with applied an action-oriented management style when dealing with the challenge of rapid growth. His district was growing so quickly that he needed to oversee the construction of new schools and the recruitment of teachers and principals to staff them. Outlining the actions that needed to take place to support the increasing number of students was key to a successful transition.
Recently, this superintendent was hired to lead another urban district. In his first year, he saw the need to adjust his management style to fit the context, as he facilitated the development of a plan to close the achievement gap. He demonstrated courage and forthrightness in revealing the lack of student achievement at his new district, especially for poor and minority youth. With this acknowledgment, he was able to galvanize support for the students and teachers. He and his team are now fully vested in their mission to close the gap.
Growing up in a small mining community, I was inspired by my own high school teacher, who one day asked me what I intended to do after graduating. When I told him I didn’t know, he suggested teaching. The idea stuck, and that’s the path I followed My passion for teaching quickly led me to pursue the superintendency, and that’s a choice of which I am extremely proud.
Stan Paz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president of McGraw-Hill Education’s National Urban Markets. He formerly served as a superintendent for Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District and El Paso (Texas) Independent School District.