Fresh perspective on district administration

By Maria Libby | Oct 13, 2016

Administrators can get a bad rap — just the word can has a negative connotation in our society. It conjures up people who spend their days pushing papers, creating regulations, and not really producing much of anything.

Each year when budget season rolls around, those in education understand that the public is far more wary of administrative costs than direct student costs. As we all should be. I would be the first to agree that an excess of bureaucracy often does more to hinder a system than to help it. In fact, administrators in education are constantly pushing back at our state and federal government when they pass down new mandates and requirements to schools. That red tape, those ever-changing mandates, and those additional requirements (frequently associated with increased levels of reporting) place a significant burden on schools. Ironically enough, an important administrator role in education is to shield teachers (and principals at times) from these shifting tides and rising seas so that they can focus on classroom instruction. In Maine, it is not local governments who are generating the red tape in education!

As our governor continues to question the value of superintendents in Maine’s educational system, I would like to offer a fresh perspective on district administration. After all, I have been in multiple roles within the public education system in our state, from teacher to superintendent. Our governor isn’t truly familiar with what it takes to fill any of these roles. There is no question that teaching is critically important — it is where the rubber meets the road and what happens in a classroom is at the heart of our educational system. It should be nurtured and elevated. When I was in my classroom, I had the ability to influence the lives of the 80 to 100 students whom I taught. And that was powerful. I loved it. I naturally formed incredibly strong bonds with my students and it made a difference in my effectiveness as a teacher. Nonetheless, I found myself wanting to impact more students — I found myself wanting to affect the systems that structured my school, so I became a principal.

Being principal was harder than being a teacher. A principal is a lightning rod for everything that happens in a school and the job is incredibly demanding. Education is not just about academic learning. Schools are tasked with providing immense social and emotional support to an ever more challenging array of student needs, from high rates of mental health issues to maladaptive behaviors that stem from a host of social problems that face our nation, including drug addiction and helicopter parenting. Our schools host dental clinics, flu shot clinics, and vision clinics. We have in-school counseling with outside providers and social workers helping connect families to outside agencies. We provide athletics, visual and performing arts, and a multitude of other extra curricular activities so that every student can find his/her niche. We provide special services and programs to struggling students and acceleration to advanced students. That package is all bundled and yields an immense leadership responsibility for principals. School leadership is second only to teaching as a factor in student learning, and our principals work incredibly hard to try to stay focused as the instructional leaders.

Despite the demands of being a principal, I loved that job as well. But the internal call came around again. I knew that district leaders made a big difference in a school system. They set the direction for the system as a whole and serve as the glue holding it all together. It was the bureaucratic aspect that dissuaded me for years at first. I was hesitant to step that distance away from students. Superintendents are certainly responsible for paperwork that the government requires. Despite the time it takes, that is not where our value lies, however. Not even close. Rather, that is a distraction to our important work.

Superintendents earn their keep by setting a vision and steering the ship. We help create systems and consistency so that students can move through a district with minimal speed bumps, detours, and potholes. We support our administrators to be the best leaders they can be, helping them to grow professionally and stay focused on student learning while attending to all the other responsibilities they have. I spend much of my time in meetings — employee contract negotiations, administrative team, teacher leadership, teacher evaluation, with parents who are dissatisfied at lower levels, to collaborate with community members, to review policy, to help student board representatives understand upcoming agendas, to liaison between the board and the schools, the list could go on. The meetings enable me to continue moving the district forward in a cohesive way, to continue improving our schools. Superintendents are the glue that holds it all together. When I am not meeting with staff or the community, I am creating/producing and drafting new policies, revising systems (i.e. evaluation), streamlining processes, thinking hard about meaningful agendas for the board and administrators and others I meet with, planning and implementing strategies to meet district goals. The superintendent also serves as the public spokesperson for major district issues, whether they are legal or political. Given that we live in a litigious society, this is an important responsibility.

There are definitely some days that I wonder how it is humanly possible to be a superintendent of schools. The time demands are significant, the emotional demands are constant, and the level of complexity is extremely high. I do it because I know I am making a difference in a lot of students’ lives. I am personally compelled to serve the greater good and to make a positive difference in the world, even if only in this small corner.

If there were only 30 superintendents in Maine, as LePage suggests, our superintendents would become paper pushers and their roles would be greatly diminished. There would be no time or space for leadership. There would be no connection to school staff or students. As it stands now, our districts are getting a great deal of value from our entire administrative team — we are mindful in leading our districts to become the best schools we can be on behalf of the students in our communities.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Oct 16, 2016 17:24

I for one am so proud of you! I remember you fondly when my girls were young and you all participated in YMCA swim and gymnastics, respectively. You are so much a leader and I know your parents are also proud of you. Hang in there, LePage is soon gone and will leave behind a bad taste, soon forgotten.

Mary "Mickey" (Brown) McKeever

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