My View

Thriving Through the Troubling 5 Percent
By JILL M. SILER/School Administrator, November 2019

I LOVE MY JOB as a district superintendent! I love that there is purpose inherently in what I do as I see young (and not so young) people learning, growing and becoming better versions of themselves every day.

I love that I get to foster a positive culture within our school community. I love that I have seven of the most committed, kid-focused school board members working toward our shared vision. I love being a small part of making school great for kids.

While I relish my job 95 percent of the time, there is that 5 percent no one likes to talk much about, the ever-present and unavoidable:

» a tragedy that harms the community;

» the aftermath when someone makes a poor choice;

» an inflammatory or hurtful social media post;

» the inability to defend oneself in a situation because you are unable (legally or ethically); and

» the weight of knowing the livelihood of hundreds or thousands of individuals rests in your decision making.

Sustaining Strategies
Four words sustain me through these times. I wish I could say they are from deep spiritual truth or a profound philosophical tenet, but the words I cling to are “this too shall pass.” During my first 18 months of the superintendency, I had moments where I contemplated getting out. I didn’t understand this truth: Almost everything appears a little better in the morning and the next morning after that. A 5 percent day or week shall pass.

In difficult situations, I try to gain better perspective. No greater tool helps to de-escalate your own emotions when confronted with an upset parent, student, staff member, board member or community member than to truly try to see their perspective. When we can place the anger of someone confronting us in the big context of life, we can better understand his or her frustration.

I also try to seek common ground and lead toward the best solution. The best solution is often better than your solution. Be open to finding a place to meet so long as it doesn’t compromise what’s best for kids or your integrity. 

One of my mentors, the late James Smith, a longtime Texas superintendent, used to say, “If the decision was easy, it would have been made before ending up on my desk.”

Our job as leaders often is to work in the grey area. When confronted with something messy, don’t go for the quick solution. Instead, try to understand the situation from every angle and lead toward the best solution.

As leaders, dealing with difficult situations comes with the job. Don’t avoid problems. Do not delegate away something that is appropriate for you to lead through. In the same respect, remember to lead. When challenging situations arise, we default to reactionary mode but that is when our leadership is needed the most.

Our task is to make difficult decisions in stressful situations with limited information. Hindsight is 20/20, but it is not a viable lens for operating in the present. Use hindsight as a learning tool for the future but not as an unfair and destructive weapon against yourself.

Brave and Bold
Finally, sometimes the necessary step is to make a change. We all want to make school an incredible place for students, but sometimes there are circumstances that prohibit us from doing that. When you find your ratio tipping the other direction, be brave enough to have an honest conversation with yourself about what change is needed and be bold enough to start taking steps toward that end.

We get to do amazing things for kids, teachers and our school communities, but it is not without cost. Keep doing the great work and remember that the 5 percent is part of it. Know that this too shall pass and thrive through it!

JILL SILER is superintendent of the Gunter Independent School District in Gunter, Texas. Twitter: @jillmsiler. This column is adapted from her blog Values-Driven Leadership.