3 things incoming superintendents must do to succeed this school year

An increasingly chaotic climate requires a special kind of mettle.
By: | August 6, 2021
Pete Gorman leads an exercise at a recent session of the Superintendents Academy, which was customized for Ohio administrators.Peter Gorman leads an exercise at a session of the Superintendents Academy.

Leadership, vision and strategic thinking were at the top of the list of the most important skills to succeed as a superintendent in a survey conducted by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), in which 17 leaders who had been named superintendent of the year either on a state or national level were asked to list three to five skills they considered most important to their success.

And while each of those traits always applies, in the midst of an extended pandemic and politically charged atmosphere like the one schools are dealing with right now, there are certain actions and skills that superintendents, particularly those who are new to the job, will find especially necessary to their success and to that of their district. Here are three things they must do.

Master crisis leadership. Nothing about our education model today is normal—and never will be again. At least, not the normal we once knew. “The last year has been like driving a car with your eyes closed,” Heidi Eliopoulos, superintendent of Altoona Schools in Pennsylvania, said while speaking at a late-July Chamber of Commerce meeting, where the discussion centered on learning loss and mental health trauma to students—issues at the forefront of educational discourse everywhere right now. It’s times like these when crisis leadership is a more invaluable skill than ever before, according to a research article done by Frontiers in Education in March, especially the ability to remain calm, flexible and adaptable as situations rapidly change, as they have been doing for months—particularly now, with the delta variant and conflicts over masking and vaccines upending plans for returning to in-person learning.


More from DA: Superintendent Dave Deets on the key to succeeding: ‘Don’t go this job alone’


Engage positively with their community. Identifying community values and expectations and nurturing relationships with key constituents in the goal-setting process has always been part of the job description but is more essential now than ever, according to ECRA Group Inc., a leadership, planning and analytics firm focused on helping educational leaders improve student outcomes. Peter Gorman, superintendent-in-residence of the District Administration Leadership Institute and former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, says, “Watching superintendents today makes me think that too often they spend all their time either preparing for or recovering from a school board meeting.” Particularly now, with so much divisiveness among families when it comes to school policies, healthy engagement is key to fostering peaceful and clear communication. That extends to relationships with the business community, the media and local politicians since superintendents must often lobby on their district’s behalf on key issues that can positively or negatively affect their district.

Engage with and support their peers in other districts. Whether it’s through organizations such as DA’s Leadership Institute, where superintendent members come together at summits to share ideas, problems, solutions and more, or private confabs with other superintendents in neighboring districts, having the support of others, particularly those with years of experience, who understand the challenges you’re facing firsthand is immensely helpful. After all, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, “This can be a lonely job—and it’s 24/7.”

More from DA