- Superintendents are in public eye every minute of every day. How do you manage your personal and professional life to create your own space?
My personal and professional lives first crossed paths beginning in the third grade. I was eight years old and one of ten children used to integrate schools due to a court order to desegregate my district in my Florida hometown. Each day I boarded a bus to take a 45-minute ride from my safe and comfortable surroundings to another school where my safety was questionable. This and future experiences with inequity and its devastating impact on communities shaped my personal life and career in education. Though it’s hard for me to separate the two at times, my personal life deepens the meaning of my daily decisions and actions at work.
Creating my space between personal and professional life is an acquired peace of mind and feeling of satisfaction. Every morning when I awake in the early hours before I brush my teeth or have a cup of coffee, I begin my day by thanking God for my opportunity to lead my district as the Superintendent and humbled to have been chosen to do this work. This devotional time helps to set the tone of my day. Throughout the day, when I see children smiling and engaged, teachers celebrating their students’ achievement, or parents thanking their principals, I feel satisfaction. When I see students helping other students by hosting a food or toy drive, holding fundraisers, or cheering on students competing in the Special Olympics, I feel satisfaction. Watching teachers work together and coach each other to be better teachers or custodians planning ways to improve the school’s environment, I feel satisfaction. When 167 grandparents are celebrated at a school luncheon or other community partners volunteer to help students, I feel satisfaction. Thus, my space is created and carries me through to the next day.
The work of the Superintendent never ends. How do you get it all done?
Honestly, as hard as I try, I never get all of the work done. Trust me when I say that I actually thought that I really could get it done! Until I realized that when I get one project completed or problem solved, either another one is waiting to take its place or I’m trying to think of ways to make improvements. This quote always runs through my mind like a mantra:
“Good, better, best. Never let it rest.
‘Til your good is better and your better is best.”
However, I know that I have to keep it all in perspective and know that the more you try to do all at one time – the less you will actually get done. For instance, when I was appointed as Superintendent, my district was experiencing a $22 million deficit. I publicly stated that this would be difficult work and I could not do this work alone. I would need every stakeholder in our community to help. We closed five schools and furloughed close to 2,000 employees. Within two years, our district was designated as “financially distressed” by the Commonwealth. Along with this designation came over 70 initiatives to be accomplished in order for us to achieve financial and academic stability in five years. There was a lot of work to do and not a lot of experienced staff to help do it because of the furloughing. Every initiative was vital. In addition, I still had the daily responsibilities of keeping the district running.
Working with those left on my team, we strategized and began to prioritize and categorize the initiatives. We decided which initiatives had the greatest impact on the work as a whole and which could be easily achieved with minimal time spent. We made action plans with timelines and assigned a key administrator to be the progress monitor and ensure the work was being completed. We made considerable progress, but as time passed I looked inward at my own leadership and thought that I could do more. I wanted a more formal process for helping us to prioritize and get the work done. We were able to secure the services of a consultant, who introduced us to the 4DX process. For the past year, we have been trying to execute this process, but have not fully embraced the concepts. Nevertheless, we have continued to complete our priority initiatives and even added a few new ones.
The key to getting it all done is having very skilled and competent staff. This work requires those who not only have a passion for it, but also have a strong knowledge base, matching skill set, and the will to get the work done. Even though I have had some turnover in my administrative staff over the years, I have been very fortunate to have administrators that are dedicated to getting the job done and continue to give their very best. The best thing about this process is that I know that I am not alone and I don’t have to try and figure all of this out by myself. I share the power, empower, and remember to celebrate our success!
- Impacting the lives of children is as much personal as professional. In what ways are you able to make time for both?
When I began teaching full time in an inner-city high school in Miami, Florida, I realized that I had the power to open doors and windows of opportunity for my students. At the same time, I also recognized that, by the wrong hand gesture, facial expression or voice inflection, I could also close doors and create barriers to learning. I knew that I had a limited opportunity and I didn’t want to blow it. I took my job so personally that I would get to work every morning around 6:00 am and leave around 9:30 or 10:00 pm every night. I lived to make every moment a teachable moment. I started to notice that there was a change in my pay and questioned the school’s accountant. I found out that the Night School Principal saw me every evening and was convinced that I was teaching classes and was paying me. He couldn’t believe that a teacher would be there late at night if they weren’t teaching a night class! So, of course, I started teaching night classes.
Even though I’m not in any particular classroom – my commitment is even more intense. My focus is even more clear. And my determination to ensure equity for my inner-city students more defined. I’ve heard so many stories from former students and some adults – all focused on what a teacher said or didn’t say that made them dislike or drop out of school. I didn’t want to be that kind of teacher. I believed then as I believe now that I want and need for my students to know that they can accomplish great things if they are willing to be committed to their own learning, focused on achieving their goals and persevering. Through my own planning and preparation, I wanted them to see me as a living example of what you can achieve. As an African American woman and a Superintendent, I know that just my presence sends a strong message throughout my community. I want that message to be positive. I strive to be a positive example and constantly understand the responsibility and influence I can make. I want my message to be: “You, too can do and be in this job!” I never take this work or my position for granted – it’s very personal to me.
- Being a Superintendent can place much strain on family. In what ways are you able to make time for both?
Finding ways to juggle this job with being a wife and mother has always been a challenge for me. I am fortunate that my husband was an educator and matched my commitment to our profession. I have been working with children and in education for the majority of my life. Whether it was as a candy striper volunteering as a youth in the Pediatric Ward in the hospital, working in a summer camp as a Youth Counselor, or creating my own traveling youth thespian troupe, I was always involved with children and young people in some way. So, I never really wanted to have children of my own. Until I was a principal of an elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I noticed that many of my parents were older and the possibility of being a parent entered my mind. Some of these parents shared that it wasn’t too late for me and that I should consider having my own. So, we did! In my daughter’s younger years, being a principal and caring for her was never a problem. It was so easy to take her to all of the school functions. She loved it! She was a cute kid, so all of my students, especially the teenage girls, enjoyed having her around. However, in my first year as a superintendent, my schedule changed drastically. There were so many night meetings, committees, speaking engagements, and community forums and events. Of course, being the new kid on the block everybody wanted my attention and to meet with me to give me their suggestions and ideas to improve the school district. Many nights my daughter and husband would be asleep when I finally arrived home totally exhausted. I relied heavily on my husband to do all of the parenting: homework, tutoring, driver to dance lessons; play dates; and of course, making dinner. From time to time my daughter would act out, just so I would have to go to her school and meet with the teacher. She figured out if she could do something, but not severe enough to get into trouble, earlier in the day, I would pick her up and take her to my office. Thus, allowing her to spend the rest of the day with me. As I entered my second year, we made the decision that my husband would stop working to ensure that my daughter was receiving the care and attention she needed. As she has gotten older she understands the intensity of my work. She understands the benefits, the perks, and how to avoid difficult conversations with people about tough decisions I have to make regarding the district. When she wants and needs time with me she will make the appointment to get manicures and pedicures or schedule a lunch or dinner date in my calendar. She has gotten much better at navigating being the child of a Superintendent and a student in our school district that only time and experience can provide. My husband and I agree that he prepares the meals during the week and I cook on the weekends. We make sure that we attend church together and afternoons are spent just being together watching football games, going shopping, or attending community events as a family. Overall, the key ingredient for me in trying to find a healthy balance in my world is the support I receive from my family and the understanding that they have to help me carve out the “me” and family time.
- Staying awake or waking up at night thinking about work is a staple for Superintendents. How do you manage so you can garner peace of mind in a way to sleep at night?
I’m still a work in progress when it comes to managing a peace of mind and sleeping through the night. There’s still so much work to be done and sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to get it done within the workday. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I may not know enough to have the answer. I lay awake thinking of who can I connect with that will help me extend my thinking and go beyond my limitations. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to be exposed to some great experts. For example, when I was a principal, I was given the opportunity to be a member of Harvard’s Principal Institute. I was studying with educators from throughout the country and around the world. We had some of the same challenges and were charged with creating plans to address these challenges after reviewing the best practices and connecting with the top experts in the field of education.
As a Superintendent, I have been exposed to many learning opportunities with my colleagues which have helped me to manage my sleep a little better. Our state Secretary of Education created a Superintendent’s Academy in which a selected group of Superintendents study the impact of poverty on student achievement. As a member of this group, we study other countries that rank among the top 10 in the world. We are then tasked with creating an ALP (action learning project) in which we are to choose a project in our district that when implemented will raise student achievement. Through the National Association of Superintendents, I have been working with other colleagues across the nation on the overrepresentation of minority students being disciplined and expelled from school. We have also been reviewing effective methods of teacher professional development and its impact on student academic growth. Most recently, I was selected to be 1 of 10 Superintendents in the nation to be a member of the Racial Equity Leadership Network. Together we review case studies on racial equity and meet with colleagues in other districts who are currently immersed in this work. We must identify a Design Team and create an action plan to address the inequities perpetuated within our school districts that prohibit closing the achievement gap. All of these various groups provide research, case studies, and best practices being utilized in other school districts and countries that are successful in maintaining high student academic performance.
The work we do is heart work. And because of its work of the heart, it is hard to turn off thinking about it. Sometimes it’s like that first love: you just can’t stop thinking about him or her until you know if he/she is the answer to your dreams. So, until I get the answer it is hard to rest. However, I do manage to get some peace by continuously seeking out information from those who are doing this work and taking advantage of opportunities to learn from my colleagues who are experiencing and showing evidence of success.