The Essence of a Support Network
Four female superintendents in central Illinois lend their ears and best thinking to each other’s professional lives
BY KRISTEN J. KENDRICK-WEIKLE/School Administrator, March 2020

From left, Amanda Geary, superintendent in DeLand, Ill.; Kristen Kendrick-Weikle, superintendent in Warrensburg, Ill.; DeAnn Heck, superintendent in Moweaqua, Ill.; and Sheila Greenwood, superintendent in Bement, Ill., at the Illinois Association of School Ad-ministrators’ annual conference.
All superintendents know the loneliness of working in the top position of a school district. It can be even lonelier for a woman in a role that for decades has been considered a man’s domain.

This feeling was particularly strong for me when I became a superintendent in 2011 and was the only female member at a two-county regional meeting in central Illinois that involved leadership of 13 school districts. I learned there was another woman superintendent in the large region, but unfortunately our paths didn’t cross much. Being the only female superintendent who regularly attended meetings was lonely. I knew I could call or e-mail the male superintendents in the region for work-related questions, but I didn’t have the type of relationship with them in which I felt I could share my worries or be vulnerable with them.

In 2013, another female superintendent, Sheila Greenwood, joined the region. Soon after, DeAnn Heck and Amanda Geary became superintendents nearby. I quickly became friends with each of these women as they embarked in their superintendent roles. Each of us was in her first superintendency and all were the first female superintendent in our districts.

DeAnn, Sheila, Amanda and I committed to each other’s success both in our professional and personal lives. We typically communicate with one another on a weekly basis, and it’s not uncommon to reach out to one another with questions, concerns and professional/personal news to celebrate. We often lend an ear to one another or can be the colleague who challenges one another’s thinking.
I am grateful for my friendship with these women. I know that we are there to support each other without judgment.

Being First
In most areas of the country, female superintendents remain in the minority. AASA’s 2016 survey of the field showed approximately 24 percent of the nation’s superintendents are women. In Illinois, about 28 percent of the 864 superintendents are women. All of us were the first female superintendents in our respective districts.

It should not be a big deal what gender I am if I can do the job. While many people believe this, each of us was told our school districts never had had a woman superintendent previously.

I always strive to do my best but felt more pressure being informed by my board that I was the first woman to hold the top leadership position in my district. My fear was this: If I wasn’t successful as a superintendent, might people assume that women should not be in this role? I doubt men think about themselves this way, but I think it is true of anyone who becomes a “first” in his or her position.

Strong Women
The top district leadership role in a rural community means more than just serving as the face of the schools. Superintendents often double and triple as the transportation director, head of human resources, financial director, curriculum director, program evaluator, food service director and school law expert. The superintendent also must be keenly aware of student, faculty, administrative and even community needs.

Couple all of that that with keeping home lives running smoothly as wives, mothers, grandmothers and daughters and the job of superintendent is not for the faint of heart. While many of our male colleagues have families, some responsibilities tend to fall on us as wives and mothers. We arrange carpooling for extracurricular activities, schedule and attend doctor appointments with kids and parents, ensure supper is on the table, make sure laundry is done and plan birthday parties — all while serving as superintendents.

Up until five years ago, I was a single mother while serving as a superintendent. I am thankful that great friends and family helped me with running kids here and there when I couldn’t do it myself. I feel extremely blessed to have a husband and children who understand my passion and support my work. I have been fortunate to work with strong leaders who modeled effective leadership while still balancing their work and family life.

Each of us is at a different stage of life. Sheila has two small children and is nearing retirement. I have a high schooler, five adult children and one grandchild and am several years from retirement. DeAnn has three grown daughters and nine grandchildren, is a caregiver of her mother and is nearing retirement. Amanda has two grade-school children and is at the beginning of her superintendency.

In spite of — or maybe because of — our life-stage differences, our camaraderie is strong. We respect the experiences that each of us has had and the challenges we may be facing. Our support for one another is never in question. We look out for each other and know we can count on one another for advice or just to listen when things get rough. We are not afraid to ask hard questions of each other and to ask for help and guidance.

A couple of years ago, DeAnn and her husband were out of town visiting family when her husband experienced a medical scare. She texted the rest of our group, and we quickly asked how we could help on a personal level and with her school district. I know we all are there for one another regardless of the situation.

Professional Growth
Despite busy lives, we find time to further our education. Completing an advanced degree can be difficult while working full time and can be especially challenging while raising a family. Each of us who completed a doctoral degree recognizes she wouldn’t have been able to do so without the support of our families and school districts.

DeAnn completed her doctorate before taking her superintendent position while working as a principal. Amanda is applying to a doctoral program. Sheila and I completed our doctorates as superintendents. In my case, the doctoral program enhanced my knowledge base and provided me with the opportunity to learn from others in my cohort. I would not have been able to participate in the doctoral program without my family’s support. My husband often accompanied the kids to a fun activity while giving me time to complete my dissertation.

In additional to earning advanced degrees, each of us has participated in the Illinois School for Advanced Leadership, or ISAL. This is a two-year commitment beyond formal education, which focuses on leadership, personal and professional goal setting and development. ISAL is sponsored by the Illinois Association of School Administrators. All of us also participate in the association’s Superwomen workshops, focusing on women in the superintendency.

Lasting Friendship
What makes this group work? “We have insight, experience and heart,” Sheila says. The first two ingredients are important to complement the knowledge base to survive as a superintendent. But it’s the heart that makes this friendship work. This is not your typical bond. Our friendship will continue as our professional lives change.

KRISTEN KENDRICK-WEIKLE is superintendent of Warrensburg-Latham CUSD 11 in Warrensburg, Ill. Twitter: @WLSupt and @kendri57. This July, she becomes the superintendent of McLean County Unit District No. 5 in Normal, Ill. Contributing to this article were DEANN HECK, superintendent of Central A&M CUSD 21 in Moweaqua, Ill.; SHEILA GREENWOOD, superintendent of Bement CUSD 5 in Bement, Ill.; and AMANDA GEARY, superintendent of DeLand-Weldon CUSD 57 in DeLand, Ill.