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An Unexpected Journey

It was with deeply mixed emotions that I decided to retire as superintendent of schools.
Randy Collins with students at the groundbreaking of Oswegatchie Elementary School.

I retired in June 2010. I thought it would be an easy decision. It was not. It was difficult because I was leaving behind what had defined my professional life for nearly three decades. My journey as a student began in a oneroom schoolhouse in the poorest county in Maine. My journey as a superintendent began in Wiscasset, a small town on the mid-coast of Maine, wound briefly through Easthampton, Mass., and culminated in a 19-year tenure at Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools. Hindsight being what it is, I reflect on those experiences with more clarity than perhaps I enjoyed while living them.

It was 29 years ago that I first walked into my office as superintendent of schools in Wiscasset. It was so long ago, yet in many ways it seems as if it were just yesterday. I was only 35 years old and thought I knew what the superintendency was. I thought I knew the challenges of the job. In fact, I thought I knew everything.

The First Snowstorm

An early snowstorm was forecast for Wiscasset that first year, and with all the enthusiasm of a storm chaser, I listened intently to the weather reports from the two local weather services. This was going to be a big one. I sprang into action, canceling school for the next day, calling the town garage to be certain our snow removal plan was up to date, and coming just short of alerting the National Guard.

I was sure the townspeople would say, "This new guy is decisive, a take-no prisoners type of man." But I was from central Maine and didn't fully understand the weather on the coast. My vision of being a hero burst when the next day dawned with intermittent rain and breaks of sunshine.

My morning visit to the local coffee shop brought jeers. Rather than referring to me as decisive, the citizens were using other descriptions I will not share. You are a hero, I realized, only when you are right.

Ah, the joys that only a superintendent can appreciate. Take, for example,the wonderful interactions I enjoyed at the supermarket deli counter throughout the years. They began with the inquisitive, "Do you really make that much?"and "Did you enjoy the summer off?"and have evolved into "How much longer before you retire?"

My Calling

I consider the superintendency to have been my calling. I cannot imagine having done anything else. While as with any career there have been successes and some failures, one thing has remained constant: the students. Some decisions have been difficult, such as calling snow days, negotiating difficult contracts, and firing individuals for moral transgressions. On the whole, when I made these decisions while looking through the lens of what is best for the kids, the pathway was always clear.

The world in which we live, the children we serve, and the profession we love have all changed. During my lifetime we have moved from adding machines to laptops, from telephone party lines to cell phones, from slate boards to interactive whiteboards, from exclusion to inclusion of all of our precious children, from universal access to the goal of universal proficiency. Nevertheless, the challenges facing American public education are greater than they have ever been before.

The public school is the incubator for the next generation of Americans. It is where our children learn how to read, write, question and figure. It is where they will first practice kindness, integrity and discretion outside of their homes. In school they will experience successes and failures and learn how to handle both.

The public school possesses limitless potential, yet its responsibility is tremendous. We must find a way to get it right.

I am proud that I have had the opportunity to serve. I hope I have made a difference in the lives of children. I know they have made a difference in mine.

Randall Collins served as superintendent of Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools for 19 years and was president of the American Association of School Administrators from 2008 to 2009.