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Steps to a Fresh Start

Now is the perfect time to fine-tune your positive attitude. Here’s how.

A superintendent’s job is no walk in the park, but we don’t have to tell you that. With the complexities of today’s education environment, the opinionated advocacy (some might call it pushiness) of today’s parents and the financial challenges that so many communities are facing, it probably seems as though it’s all you can do to keep your head above water. But let’s be honest—isn’t the challenge part of why you do this? Would your successes be as rewarding if they were easier to come by? You didn’t get where you are by running away from what’s difficult. But we know that sometimes the pressure can take its toll on your enthusiasm. And a negative attitude can eat away at your ability to be effective. Sometimes you don’t even realize it’s happening.

So, as we kick off a new year, it’s a great time to reflect on your approach to your job. You have little control over the political forces in your community, but that’s OK. Rather than ask the government to simplify its demands, the teachers union to lower its expectations, or parents to back off a tad—all fool’s errands—why not find ways to change your own attitude? Here are seven strategies—in the spirit of the season, we’ll call them resolutions—that will help keep you and those you work with on a positive track.

Resolution No. 1: Externalize the conflict.
It is important to remember that the various factions in the educational system are doing what factions do—expressing advocacy for their set of loyalties, values, and commitments. The superintendent represents a hope or a threat. By externalizing the conflict—seeing it as a set of issues between factions, not a personal criticism—you can remain in the debate without becoming the debate. Your job is not to make everyone happy or everyone like you. It’s to hold competing values and commitments in your head. That means orchestrating conflict, not avoiding it, and helping factions maneuver through loss. It means framing difficult choices that communities must face, although they would rather not. And all of this means remembering that “superintendent” is your role, not your identity. With all eyes on you, it’s easy to take it personally, which leads us to the next resolution.

Resolution No. 2: It’s not personal.
Discerning between “who I am” and “what I do” will keep you in the game when the going gets tough. It’s easier to manage resistance to your ideas than to yourself. When the attack feels personal, imagine you are no longer the superintendent. How would these people be acting toward you then?

Resolution No. 3: Listen.
As the debate heats up, the deft art of “waiting for my turn to make my point” is often substituted for listening. Look beyond the words of those representing each faction for the real issues and opportunities for progress. What losses are the competing factions working to avoid? In between the demands, what offers are being made where resolution, or at least progress, might find a foothold? If you are merely waiting for a chance to speak instead of truly listening, chances are you won’t be processing what everyone is saying.

Resolution No. 4: Create partnerships.
This doesn’t mean bringing your old administrative team along with you when you take a new job. We’re talking about true partners—representatives of factions whose interests overlap with yours.

Partners by definition have a stake in your success. Just as their stakes overlap with yours, they in turn overlap with others, and so on. However, a cautionary note about the difference between “overlap” and “match” leads us to the next resolution.

Resolution No. 5: Understand that partnerships are fluid.
We often assume that some agreement means complete agreement. We ought to know better because we have all been surprised by a lack of support at a crucial moment. What seems like betrayal on the part of our partners is really our inappropriate assumption that our partners want everything we want and will take losses to see us get it. (As you read this, perhaps a moment of presumption comes to mind.) We tell ourselves it was betrayal because that helps us remain the hero of our own story. But this all-or-nothing attitude toward partnerships can leave us feeling wounded—hardly the stuff you need to sustain yourself as a superintendent.

The last two resolutions seem self-evident but are deeply underutilized.

Resolution No. 6: Find sanctuary.
You need a calm, reflective place where the noise in your head quiets down; a place to reflect on your work and yourself; a place to recalibrate, reenergize, and return to the work. This is not a time to catch up on e-mail or numb oneself in front of the television. Some find that writing in a journal frames their reflections. Whatever the form, quiet, demand-free time is necessary for survival in the educational pressure cooker.

Resolution No.7: Infuse the work with meaning.
Finally, why do you work as a superintendent at all when there are probably easier ways to earn a living? The answer lies in the meaning of the work. Call it higher purpose, advocacy for children, or in its purest expression, love. Don’t lose sight of this.

Today, turnover in the superintendent position is greater than ever, and no wonder. But communities need good superintendents to stick around. Following these resolutions will help you avoid the major pitfalls that often cause superintendents and their districts to prematurely part ways. It means more than holding on to your job. It means remaining vital in a role every community needs but every community will do battle with time and time again. A lot of people are depending on you to keep your cool so you can lead your community to educational excellence. We know you can do it! Happy New Year!

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