Starting Motherhood and a Superintendency Concurrently
BY COURTNEY L. ORZEL/School Administrator, March 2020

Courtney Orzel, superintendent in Lemont, Ill., with her children Elle and Nolan.
Beginning my first superintendency nine months pregnant was unique, challenging and exciting. Luckily, I had a great mentor who was able to take over for me during my maternity leave and give me support, guidance and encouragement as I began.

About a year later, I became a finalist for a superintendency in another district. When board members called to offer me the job, my infant was screaming loudly into the phone. They immediately said they would call me back, but I was able to calm the baby down so we could talk. Their response to hearing my baby cry was empathetic and caring, and I knew these board members would understand the life of a superintendent with two young children at home.

Guilty Feelings
The superintendency is demanding in many ways because, like any administrative position, it calls for you to be everywhere all of the time. In my first year in my current district, it was the first day of school and my own son had his first day of kindergarten. I knew I needed to be in both places, so I chose to go to my district that morning and welcome our new kindergarteners and their parents while my son got dropped off at daycare and got on the bus for the first time alone.

I felt enormous guilt, but I still felt I needed to be present and visible for the other kindergarteners and families.

Fast forward to Mother’s Day when the infamous “All About Mom” gifts arrived from school. I couldn’t wait to see what my son Nolan, then 6, had said about me in filling in the blanks on his card. I first read, “My mom is … 10 years old.”

“Yes! He thinks I’m young!” I remember thinking.

Then, I read, “My mom loves to … work. My mom loves … working.” And finally, “My mom loves to cook …” It was blank. Blank? Couldn’t the teacher just write SOMETHING in the blank? At that point, the guilt had set in — not only from the first day of school, but now to Mother’s Day.

I needed to reset, refocus and reprioritize.

Trusting Relationships
My son’s 7th birthday fell on a school board meeting day, so I contacted my board president to see if I could bring in Nolan for a mini-birthday party before our meeting. She immediately responded, “Absolutely not!” I then said, “No problem, I just wanted to check.” And she quickly continued, “We’re rescheduling the board meeting. You only turn 7 once, and Nolan should be with his mom on his birthday.”

At that moment, I realized more than ever the importance of the right “fit” with a board of education and the appreciation for them understanding that my own children need me just as much as the children of our school district. I’ve been very lucky to work for a board that values me not only as a superintendent, but as a human being … and one with young children.

The superintendency is what you make of it. We cannot do it alone, although many of us feel the pressure to do so. Opening ourselves up to allow others to help us, trusting in our team and developing strong and trusting relationships with a school board all can help with the challenges we face daily.

And recognizing that we are not alone, that we can support each other and lift each other up instead of tear each other down is essential for us as professionals as we serve our communities.

COURTNEY ORZEL is superintendent of Lemont-Bromberek Combined School District 113A in Lemont, Ill. Twitter: @drorzel. This summer, she becomes associate director of professional development for the Illinois Association of School Administrators in Springfield, Ill.