Super Teachers: Superintendents Must Be Strong Leaders, Operations Experts, and Budget Gurus. but, Most Importantly, Superintendents Must Be Good Teachers

By Corda, Salvatore J. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Super Teachers: Superintendents Must Be Strong Leaders, Operations Experts, and Budget Gurus. but, Most Importantly, Superintendents Must Be Good Teachers


Corda, Salvatore J., Phi Delta Kappan


"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?' Actually, who are you not to be?"

-- Marianne Williamson

Recently, a young administrator I had hired as an assistant principal for her first administrative position asked me if she could visit. Now in her fourth year as a principal in a different, large urban district, she wanted to talk about what she could do to help students reach the next level of achievement. During the conversation, she gave me one of the nicest compliments I've ever received: "You're a wonderful teacher, and I have treasured knowing that relationship would continue no matter where I went." That got me thinking.

Superintendents, as I once was, are hired for a variety of reasons, including strong leadership, political acumen, organizational strengths, and financial expertise. All of these are important, but there's another element we don't sufficiently consider as part of the responsibilities of the position: the superintendent as teacher. Over the course of a career, superintendents have acquired a vast body of knowledge and experience. That's usually passed on to others in a passive process by example, as opposed to engaging actively in teaching others what the superintendent has learned.

We tend to avoid acknowledging that superintendents have a teaching role. Emphasizing the importance of colleagueship, collaboration, and collective leadership makes superintendents shy about acknowledging and assuming the conscious role of being a teacher. Superintendents seem afraid to present themselves as having accumulated expertise for fear of appearing to be condescending to the administrative team. Yet teachers and administrators--and even school board members--value the expertise and wealth of experience of their superintendent.

Three elements of teaching

Superintendents have a responsibility to engage in the act of teaching colleagues what they've learned about the most important work of school districts--ensuring high student achievement. They also must provide strong leadership that will foster and nurture powerful learning communities.

The teaching process involves three elements: the teacher, the learner, and the content. In the case of administrative leadership, that content is the improvement of practices that result in powerful teaching and student learning, strong and trusting relationships, rigorous instructional practice, high expectations, and students taking control of their own learning. The work of system improvement is the interaction between the superintendent (teacher) and central office and building administrators (learners) about that content. If this sounds like a variation of the instructional core that Richard Elmore (City, Elmore, Fiarman, & Teitel, 2009) writes about concerning the work of the classroom, it is.

Superintendents behaving as teachers must be specific and focused. Teaching is a conscious and de-liberate act. The responsibility of the superintendent as teacher is two-fold: Identify the content by naming the work to be done, i.e., creating conditions for high student performance and ensuring that classroom work is focused on achieving that; and frame conversations with the administrative team by engaging everyone in the dialogue necessary to deepen their understanding about improving learning and encouraging effective practice.

Adult learners bring their own mental models to discussions about practices related to their work--their "way of doing things." Principals and other administrators come with their own experiences and views of good practice. But there is a general reluctance to share those practices openly and to engage in candid discussion. The usual, but not often-stated, reason is the reluctance to present oneself as an "expert" to colleagues. …

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