The things that guide my professional life as a superintendent are: competence, commitment, collaboration, and compassion. Competence starts with having very high academic and professional growth and development standards. I do believe a superintendent, who is the lead instructional leader for a school district, cannot do an effective job without attaining high standards of excellence personally. This means engaging in the practice of being a life-long learner, and always looking for ways to do things better through education, training, professional writing, and interaction with leading experts. Holding a Ph.D. from Northwestern, regularly contributing to the field of education through journal publications (particularly in the areas of technology and program development for at-risk students), and serving on various local, state, and national boards has bolstered my efforts at pursuing academic excellence. Competence also means the ability to do research properly, gather and critically analyze information, and seek advice from others when needed. Knowing what you don’t know is a key element of competence because it moves a person in the direction of finding a way to do what’s best for students.
Commitment involves having the energy and willingness to get things done and believing that you can make a difference, overcome political and economic obstacles in doing what’s right for students, and have the confidence necessary to take action. I never ask a subordinate of mine to do anything that I would be unwilling to do myself, but I will hold people accountable when their level of professional commitment to their job does not at least approximate my own. I am continually alert to the opportunities to improve school district operations, and if opportunities don’t readily present themselves, I create them. I’m always looking for the next best way to accomplish various operational, personnel management, and student services tasks, but I do so by inspiring others to join me in this effort. This brings me to the next guiding principle I practice in my professional life: collaboration.
I have found that collaboration with others is only effective when you give others most of the credit when things go well, while assuming most of the blame when they don’t. I continually check myself to ensure that my words are consistent with my actions and that I do not use my own pedagogical values and beliefs as a shield against being flexible with others. In building a collaborative culture around teaching and learning, I insist on creating an environment where ideas and input are encouraged from all levels of the school system, including teachers and support staff, parents, and the community at large. Collaboration also means possessing the communication skills necessary to motivate a vast array of people towards a common purpose, that of educating children. I’ve been very successful in moving diverse groups of people towards this common purpose by demonstrating that I am a person of strong character, and that I possess the drive, energy, determination, self-discipline, and nerve to facilitate the development of a shared vision for school operations.
Finally, compassion is the most important element that guides my professional life. The opening sentences of an article I published in The School Administrator Journal (April 2006) on dealing with at-risk students clearly states my position as a compassionate superintendent: “The primary responsibility of all school administrators is to protect students against failure. If you live by this credo, your leadership will challenge the assumption that certain students are destined to experience learning problems based on their school history, and cultural background. Experienced teachers and administrators have the tendency to accept the fact that certain children will fall through the cracks and there is nothing that can be done about it. Of course, this isn’t true.” I go on to state in this article that effective school administrators focus their attention on removing obstacles to learning for both groups of students and individual students through a systematic approach to identifying and addressing the needs of students at-risk.
Having come from a school social work background, and serving as director of special education services in schools for behavior disordered students for sixteen years, I believe my compassion for the life circumstances of students, and an understanding of the various learning obstacles that can arise as a result of these circumstance, have helped guide my ability to successfully intervene in instances where failure seems inevitable. Taking a stance that there are no throwaway kids and developing a deeply-rooted philosophy around serving students and their families, has helped me to explore the true meaning of compassion on a day-to-day experiential level. I will, and I expect my staff, to walk through fire to assist a student in need.