My View

Embracing Firsts
By DONALD E. FENNOY II/School Administrator, November 2018

DECIDING TO APPLY to become Palm Beach County, Fla.’s superintendent was not a hard decision. I had been serving as the district’s chief operating officer for two years, had enrolled my children in local schools and, frankly, had fallen in love with the community. Palm Beach County is full of diversity and boasts a generous philanthropic spirit and an engaged business community.

I had been preparing deliberately to step into the superintendency for several years. It did not occur to me, if successful, that I would be the first African-American superintendent in the district’s history. In fact, until a reporter posed the question after accepting the school board’s appointment in March, I had not thought of this distinction. It became the most frequently asked question during my first month on the job.

My instinct, when asked, was to downplay the color of my skin — that is, until a young Haitian boy asked to have his photo taken with me to “capture history.” Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the gravity of the designation. If a 7-year-old recognized the importance of the moment, I needed to reflect on what it meant not only to me and my family, but to the people experiencing it with me. The moment was afforded to me on the shoulders of those present and past, who broke through racial, gender and socioeconomic boundaries to clear the path for my dreams. Coincidentally, I took the oath of office on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Surreal symbolism.

A Personal Symbol
I have come to understand my appointment as a personal symbol for all kinds of people. I am excited our black students have someone else they can look up to who resembles them. Women of all colors have shared with me the hope that seeing someone attain a “first” gives them for their own aspirations of leadership roles. My promotion of two women in my first official personnel action as superintendent, including that of chief operations officer, was not intended to inspire others, yet I underestimated the meaning people drew from what I considered just good staffing moves.

Young school leaders relate more to my age. As the county’s youngest-ever superintendent (I was 41 at the time), I believe my appointment challenges the historical philosophy of having to “pay your dues” in a certain number or type of roles for an arbitrarily defined time before reaching for the superintendency. When young leaders look at my path, I hope they see my commitment to children and a deliberate focus on diversifying my skills.

I thought I was just applying to be the superintendent, but as people openly shared their hearts and minds with me, I was reminded that the ordinary events in our personal lives can be inspirational to others.

Authentic Sharing
My advice to educators preparing to apply for their first superintendency is twofold.

First, be prepared to let go of yourself and authentically share your leadership story.

As a genuinely private person, I foolishly believed people just wouldn’t be interested in my military upbringing or my trajectory from high school band student to teacher to principal or care about the finer details leading up to my oath of office. Wrong! I was overwhelmed with the interest and learned quickly to identify the parts of me I’m OK sharing with others.

Second, take a moment to enjoy whatever “firsts” come your way.

You only get one first oath of office, one first day as superintendent, one first school visit as superintendent and one first school board meeting as superintendent. The pace is intense enough that you can easily forget to allow yourself a moment to pause and appreciate these moments. Don’t let them slip away without enjoying them.

DONALD FENNOY is superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools in West Palm Beach, Fla. Twitter: @SuptFennoy