Board-Savvy Superintendent
Forgiveness or Permission From the Board?
By ROARK HORN/School Administrator, May 2020

 Roark Horn
CHANCES ARE YOU have negotiated quite a few contracts in your superintendent career, but I am guessing this never appeared in any of them:

Expectation: The superintendent will work non-stop until obvious signs of poor health are evident.

If I’m right, then my question is this: Why do so many of us do exactly that?

Granted, that question may be too rhetorical, so let’s personalize it. When was the last time you took an extended vacation and put work aside to do something for yourself? To engage or re-engage with a long lost passion that always brings you joy but something you have let slide because of your dedication to others?

If you can’t recall such a time, or if you can but the occasion was so full of interruptions that the “get away” goal was not achieved, then maybe you should consider putting that clause in your next contract and formalizing your march to a challenging health situation.

Misguided Notions

Working with more than 250 superintendents in Iowa, I see two leading reasons why they work themselves into health-compromising situations.

The first is they have an internally misguided notion that superintendents have to be those “first in, last out” leaders who exemplify work for work’s sake. They believe they must attend every event so others can see how engaged they are in the school community. They are concerned that if they take a break, others may question their work ethic. They are the highest earners in their districts, and they should be working the hardest and the most — right?

The second reason is because they may be loath to tell their school boards they are taking time away or reluctant to seek per-mission from the board to take a vacation. Just by asking for time off, they may be concerned their board will question their value to the district.

Notice that both of these reasons come from self-directed concerns about how others will react to a request for some time off. But how realistic are these fears? How many people really judge a superintendent’s worth or value on the amount of time spent at work? How do they even know how much time you spend working?

I suggest the most impactful people in your district, including board members, are more focused on district outcomes, accomplishments and results, as opposed to the amount of time it took.

And frankly, unless they have done what you do, no one else can understand the 24/7 pressure you feel to make sure things are running smoothly, that adults are doing their best for children and that children are achieving as a result. Others’ thoughts, opinions and input are certainly valid in many areas, but in this one only you can speak from experience.

Self-Care Attention

If I’m right, the main obstacle to you getting the rest and break you deserve, need and have earned is, well — you.

A close friend who was one of Iowa’s most respected superintendents refused to take an extended vacation for years — until he did. And once he did, he vowed to continue that practice at least once a year. Each time he returned to work he came back relaxed, refreshed and restored. This helped him be even more effective and efficient in his work. 

Furthermore, he set a great example for everyone in the organization, modeling how important it is to take care of yourself so you can take care of others. And he could not have discontinued that practice even if he wanted to because his board was so pleased with his work when he returned from that initial vacation that they required him to schedule and take an annual vacation each subsequent year! He, in turn, began requiring his principals to take extended yearly time off as well, having experienced how big a difference a vacation made in his own personal and professional life.

You know that age-old question: Is it better to ask for forgiveness or permission? Ironically, in consideration of taking some time off from work, both may actually apply. If you don’t give yourself permission to take time away, you may be working your-self into a health situation for which you will need to ask others, including the ones you love, for forgiveness.

 ROARK HORN is executive director of School Administrators of Iowa in Clive, Iowa. E-mail: Twitter: @roarkhorn. A previous version appeared in the SAI Report.