“How does David do it? How has he managed to continue to serve as superintendent for almost 10 years?” a trusted friend asked me over lunch this fall. She knew the past couple of years coming out of the pandemic had been challenging and also understood the pressure I often feel as the spouse of a school superintendent.
A little background: When I married David 20 years ago, I thought I was marrying a high school history teacher and track coach. I was also an educator and excited to begin my career teaching third grade. There were no plans for school administration in his future. In fact, we both thought we would remain teachers for the rest of our careers. We pursued our master’s degrees in education and cherished the days we spent with students in the classroom. We traveled to Ethiopia to expand our family through the adoption process. We were proud of our family and careers.
Shortly after traveling to Ethiopia, we were having dinner at a local restaurant and a superintendent from another school district approached David about an open principal job in her school district. She explained he could enter an administrator licensure program and interview for the job. He got the job, loved serving as principal and began working on his doctorate in educational leadership. Then he got a call to serve as assistant superintendent in his hometown. I was apprehensive about this new role but excited to move back into the hometown community. I helped our children get adjusted to their new schools, accepted a new job as an undergraduate professor of elementary education and pursued my doctorate.
Life was good—until David came home one evening and explained that the current superintendent was retiring and he was interested in applying to be superintendent of Warsaw Community Schools. He wanted my input, as he knew this would be a family endeavor and our family was our No. 1 priority. We longed for stability as a family, yet David’s career goal was to positively impact our schools. I knew this career goal could come with unpopular decisions including tax referendums, human resources decisions, collective bargaining agreements, athletic controversies….you get the point. If he accepted the job, what would be the impact on our family? How would we move into a more public role and maintain stability at home with all the pressure and decisions that come with the job?
Over the past 10 years, I have learned to gracefully embrace the highs and lows that come with the role of being a superintendent’s spouse. I have an inside look into the pressures and the toll that the job takes on a leader of a school system. Yet, over the years one of my goals has been to support my husband and our family in this endeavor while excelling in my career as an educator of future teachers. These three keys have been essential to navigating this unique role:
Family first. I learned very quickly the role of superintendent can be 24 hours a day. The concept of going anywhere within district lines meant that someone was going to desire to speak about an educational topic. There would be weeks we went to church and I left wishing we had been on the absentee rolls. David has a big heart and always wants to make everyone feel valued in their conversations.
This led us to some heart-to-heart talks and an early lesson. There were some weekends when we needed to give all our attention to our children and our family. We found ourselves booking a hotel out of town (at least two hours away) and creating a plan to just be a family. Usually, this meant pool time at the hotel, a fun family restaurant, a sporting event, or just a movie together. We knew the stress and job would be there when we got back, yet the simple time away provided the balance of family and the stress relief of clearing our minds for a few moments.
We also set boundaries within our family time. At our house, dinner is a sacred time without any cell phones. While the kids might complain, David was the worst offender and he knew it. We talked about it as a family and our children requested time with dad without the phone in his hand. Now, the phone sits in the other room unless it is an emergency.
Grace also comes knowing there are emergencies. I clearly remember times when he needed to take phone calls while in lines at Disney World. I also have experienced evenings that were cut short due to emergency situations. I understand how many people depend on his role and there are times he will be called away due to the job.
Forgiveness matters. To be an effective superintendent, you have to be able to forgive quickly. Hundreds of decisions are made on a daily basis. Those decisions are rarely made with unanimous support. At times, criticism regarding decisions impacts me as the spouse. David has a gift of being able to go to bed with a problem and get up the next day to attack it. Meanwhile, I found myself worried sick about the situation the next day. If we connect quickly by text or call, I realize that he has wrapped up the situation and moved on to more decisions.
There are also times I have watched David spend countless hours in conversations with individuals that have not been kind in their comments, social media posts, or actions. I learned to gracefully smile when people who have talked behind our backs approach my husband in public and compliment him. I learned most individuals have moved on after having a conversation about a particular issue or topic. To them, it was not personal, but emotional, and the superintendent or school system seemed an inanimate target. Severing a relationship hurts the schools, teachers, community, and, most importantly, the students. It has been something I have and continue to learn and has led to his success and longevity.
Over the years, I have received many coffee or lunch invitations. Several times during the course of those get-togethers, I as the spouse of the superintendent would be approached—sometimes outright, sometimes in a roundabout way—for help with anything from obtaining a job, a raise, more basketball playing time for their kids, school transfers… the list goes on. I made it a goal to study the school system’s chain of command and to point people in the right direction while inwardly offering forgiveness for the emotion of the situation. Now I am more guarded about the invitations I accept.
Celebrate time. After the first two keys I’ve detailed, one might ask, “Why would someone with a family consider this job?” Years in the superintendency can seem like dog years. But all great things cannot last forever. At some point, David will not be the superintendent of the school system. While the stress may be heavy at times, there is much to celebrate. In the words of the great Ferris Bueller, “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” We have witnessed the hard work turn into incredible academic and social experiences for all students (including our sons).
The superintendent serves in a role that makes the community a better place for all students. On any given day, the schools are hosting 6,800 students in the academic classroom, along with everything from chess tournaments, robotics, basketball, and speech competitions to National History Day events, swimming, and multicultural fairs. All the while, the schools are a safe place for our community’s most vulnerable: receiving skills to succeed and the necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing. Due to these efforts, the school system has gained national recognition including an invitation to the White House. During the pandemic, the schools became the epicenter of hope for the entire community.
I continue to embrace and celebrate our roles by being involved in our community and striving to make it a better place. I volunteer on local boards and serve as a court-appointed special advocate for children in need. These experiences ground me and refocus my energy on the “why,” as a family, we took on this public role in our community. Because at the end of the day, we celebrate this role and the impact it has on the lives of students.
Back to the question of my caring and trusted friend who asked, “How has David managed to continue to serve as superintendent for the past 10 years?” I hesitated a moment, and then explained the keys to longevity in the job have been to put our family first, forgive often, and celebrate this impactful chapter in our lives. Then, I had to add … “He has a spouse who has learned to gracefully navigate and embrace this public role.”