The Superintendent Struggles: What Hinders Them From Getting the Job Done

The Superintendent Struggles: What Hinders Them From Getting the Job Done

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District superintendents have a lot of responsibilities. But when do those responsibilities—working with a board, managing relationships—hinder them from moving their schools forward for the betterment of student learning?

Superintendents Dr. Lisa Gonzales and Dr. Irella Perez both have experience with the ups and downs of leading districts. Specifically, Gonzales was the superintendent of Portola Valley School District before ultimately resigning to take on a different leadership role. Dr. Irella Perez became the superintendent of El Monte Union High School District in Southern California in March 2015, but was placed on administrative leave exactly one year later “without any knowledge” as to why, she says.

Perez and Gonzales both spoke with EdSurge on what it takes to bring technology into a district, but where they feel most strongly comes through in their thoughts about the red tape, politics, and sexism that weigh superintendents down. What are the biggest roadblocks? EdSurge sat down with both Perez and Gonzales in a Q&A to hear about their experiences.

EdSurge: What do you think a superintendent’s role is in bringing technology into a district?

Lisa Gonzales: There really aren’t any mistakes you can’t fix with technology. We’re all learning, and we’re relying on something that isn’t full-proof 100% of the time. I try to bring in a methodical approach to technology. This is not just tech for the sake of tech; when I train, from Arkansas to Hawaii, I don’t want kids on iPads to use apps just like a flashcard. I want them to be on those higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, and the SAMR model.

I think the vision does come from the top, but if it’s not a shared vision, you can’t really implement anything. In any leadership role, it’s balance all the time. But at the end of the day, you have to believe in something like a literacy or math intervention, and know where you can get the support, resources, and critical friends that can help you along the way. I think of Devin Vodicka, for example (of Vista Unified). If Devin has piloted something, it’s probably something that will benefit my students, as well.

Irella Perez: Technology is a superintendent’s responsibility, and a huge duty. Technology is the way of the future—the career of the future—and it’s our duty to make sure that kids are prepared for the future. In those discussions, the board—who is elected by the public—is important. The superintendent carries out the vision that the board contributes, but the superintendent also needs to ensure that the students and the surrounding community is taken care of emotionally, academically.

Q: Balancing the needs of various constituents can be challenging. Both of you have experience in more than one district, so what is the toughest part of being a superintendent, no matter what district you’re in?

Gonzales: You always have to manage the relationships with everyone around you, including your board, because you’re always going to have limited resources and competing interests—no matter how wealthy the district. Communication is critical. If you’re consistent in your message, and consistent in your practices, than it doesn’t leave any wiggle room for preferential treatment. Truthfully, people want the rules to apply to everyone else—except for them.

Perez: There’s a lot of navigating through the political arena. Like I said, the job of the superintendent is to carry the vision of the board, and to do a good job. But when you have five or seven different personalities with different ethics, morals, and beliefs (which are often not in sync with each other or with the priorities of educating children), then problem arise. At that point, it’s not about children anymore—and it potentially becomes about personal interests or political gains. Children then get played by this agenda.

When the board members place you in a place where they challenge your ethics, or ask you to do things that are not within the scope of your work or their work, then it makes it extremely difficult—and yet, extremely easy. I, for one, will never cross a line where I have to do anything illegal or unethical in order to keep my job. It can become a very difficult job when a board member puts your job on the line if you don’t do what they want you to do.

Q: You then must have some advice for new superintendents. What advice would you give yourself as a new superintendent, if you could go back in time?

Gonzales: It’s valuable to find out who those trusting people are, with whom you can vet ideas, and who knows where the skeletons are buried, so that they can tell you when you’re walking on the grave.

Regardless of where kids are, they need everyone’s leadership in order to make for the best environment. The skills that they need from a superintendent and a board member is all universally the same. They need to have decisions that are focused on kids within reason, and the students need to have environments where they can be safe and learn.

Perez: I would do more homework on the history of that city, the history of the district, the profile of the board members. I would not take a job where the board members have a personal interest, or biases. We want to always believe and give people the benefit of the doubt that we are all civil and don’t have prejudices or bias, but in reality, everyone has biases.

Q: Where do you see these biases playing out?

Perez: Some people let those biases affect their jobs more than others. For me, being a female superintendent, being an immigrant, being a Latina, being young… is definitely a challenge in this job. People judge you, doubt you. A woman in this role has to be extremely on and thoughtful all the time, and aware of their actions—we always have to work harder than anyone else. Some people want to place women back in the 1940s or 1950s, but the world has changed—and no disrespect to any women from that era, but the women of today will not be the same as women two years from now.

Gonzales: If a woman comes across as strong, she’s perceived as being difficult. You have to be twice as nice, and twice as positive. You need to find different ways not only to develop those relationships, but to break some of those glass ceilings. Oftentimes, what will happen is that when things don’t go right, the superintendent’s gender or ethnicity comes into play. If a female superintendent goes in, and isn't successful, it’s probably less likely that they’ll hire another female superintendent after that. There’s a major double-standard.

Q: So, let’s bring it back up to that original question, then, to close out our interview. Technology—how do these biases affect what a superintendent can get done?

Perez: Take this scenario. A male superintendent tells you that technology needs to be purchased—and usually, he doesn’t have to justify why it has to be purchased. But if I as a female superintendent says “I have a tech plan,” I have to prove why we need a plan, and everything related to that.

I want to make one note: we also have to be careful that we as women don’t put our own prejudices on ourselves—that we’re not promoting those ideas. We need to be the first ones to not judge ourselves, but we also need to stop victimizing ourselves. Regardless, we need to do what’s best for kids.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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