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Thanks to hard work, vaccinations, carefully orchestrated safety precautions and many collaborative efforts, we have turned the corner on the pandemic, at least here in the United States.
In education, school and district leaders brought new tools and procedures online to deal with the pandemic. Many of the actions we took were unprecedented and unpopular, but necessary. State and local leaders made tough calls, erred on the side of caution and learned lessons that have redefined our playbooks.
Decisions were made organically, reversed, re-imposed. It was school for all of us, and though exhausting, much was learned that will help us going forward.
Though we are heartened by our progress, the direct and collateral damage has been significant. Teachers, administrators, students and their parents are cautiously optimistic going into the fall term, but still looking over their shoulders, worried that the impact of the past 18 months on students’ and staff’s mental health will present another set of novel challenges.
Related: Lessons learned
As a superintendent of schools for 14 years who is now preparing the next generation of leaders to take on that role, I understand that the pandemic for some superintendents, principals and senior administrators was the “last straw” that sent them into retirement.
It’s easy to understand — the disruption, endless hours, frustration and anxiety have been relentless.
The challenges, however daunting, are not new to us. School and district leaders are an amazingly resilient group of professionals, and nearly all will persevere. If anything, the recent challenges we faced simply reinforced the need to remain flexible, agile and creative.
For example, the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and the subsequent financial distress it imposed on school systems forced many superintendents to cut services to the bone, leading to conflicts among parents, school boards, financial overseers and employees.
On top of money crises, the rapid rise in the number of shootings over the last decade in schools and on college campuses across our nation has had long-lasting repercussions. These unthinkable tragedies caused tremendous emotional strain to families, teachers and support staff as well as to school and district leaders. In schools, already-dwindling resources had to be devoted to security infrastructure, personnel and training.
Simultaneously, superintendents needed to contend with the unprecedented rise of social media, in which disinformation and rumors and threats to students, staff and leaders became everyday occurrences.
By 2020, stories of superintendents and senior administrators taking early retirement or leaving the profession were ubiquitous. While it is too early to tell if these stories are anecdotal or a widespread issue, history tells us that these tales of massive superintendent retirements in the face of adversity are often overblown.
Challenges, however daunting, are not new to us. School and district leaders are an amazingly resilient group of professionals.
A recent book by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), “The American Superintendent 2020 Decennial Study,” sheds some light on this subject. The national study has been conducted since 1923. Notably, this edition was researched and written before the pandemic.
I co-authored a chapter in that book on career pathways for superintendents. For it, we asked superintendents if they intended to remain on the job for the next five years. The same question was asked for the 2010 edition, before most of the stressors I’ve mentioned had taken hold. Yet the percentage of respondents saying they would still be superintendents in five years rose to 59.5 in 2020 from 50.7 in 2010.
While these figures indicate that we will need to replace approximately 40 percent of the superintendent workforce in the next five years, they also reflect the remarkable resilience of superintendents, who, despite all those challenges, were even more committed to the profession in early 2020 than they were 10 years earlier.
And then the pandemic hit.
The superintendent of schools position has always been uniquely stressful. The survey for the 2020 edition indicated that job-related stress, excessive time requirements and social media were the three most pressing issues facing superintendents. Those factors are not going away.
It’s possible that the pandemic will cause the turnover that so many have predicted, but history tells us otherwise. The educators who serve in senior leadership roles have learned how to deal effectively with high-stress situations. They know how to make tough decisions, take the heat and keep on doing what’s best for kids.
Superintendent and senior administrator roles are uniquely rewarding. The joy of seeing improved student performance, faculty development and talented professionals moving a school system to a more equitable and just place keeps the fires burning.
The pandemic reinforced something else that superintendents have known for years: A productive, collaborative school board and community can mitigate some conflict and contribute to growth and success. School boards that are supportive of their superintendents will find that their CEOs will persevere through job-related stress, including the pandemic.
We who prepare the next generation of district leaders realize that we have an important role to play in ensuring that educators who step into these positions have learned strategies for handling a high degree of job-related stress. Superintendents with these skills will carry on the work of improving learning outcomes for all students.
David Title is a professor of educational leadership at the Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University, where he directs the superintendents’ preparation and Ed.D. programs. He served as superintendent of schools in Bloomfield and Fairfield, Connecticut.
This story about school administrators and the pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.