“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” -Langston Hughes
People are quick to judge when they learn that I left the superintendent position to return to the classroom. That’s fine. I cannot spend my time defending my decisions to people who are only half listening and barely interested in learning my reasonings and truths.
One thing drives me nuts though and that is people insinuating that I could not handle the pressures of the position. Looking at the successes I had over the course of my three years as superintendent would indicate otherwise. The position definitely had unique pressures that separated itself from other positions, but I am not sure I can honestly sit by and say that the stresses I felt were more significant than other positions I’ve held in education.
This has been more than confirmed as I have entered back into the classroom. Oh sure, I no longer have to make the decisions for the entire district that is going to appease some people while it pisses others off. Instead I now spend my school day with 20 eager learners who have suffered greatly from the pandemic.
The last regular, uninterrupted school year my students have experienced was kindergarten. Last year they never went to the cafeteria once to eat, instead eating in their classroom each day with their teacher. School dismissed daily at 1:00pm and their one special (music, PE, and art) they had daily was limited to just 15 minutes.
We have had fall and winter benchmark testing. They’ve all shown growth, but getting there has truly been stressful. I credit the administrators who have had ongoing conversations with teachers in making sure they are taken care of, but I can say with utmost certainty that most still have no clue what teachers are enduring daily.
Being superintendent was more frustration than stress. During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I had a former board member refer to Dr. Christine Ford as a whore on his social media. When I issued a statement separating that personal comment from the school district, I was attacked on social media for being a flake, a liberal extremist, and who knows what else.
I wasn’t trying to rob anyone of their first amendment rights regardless of how stupid they sounded. I issued a statement because I wanted to make sure that the approximately 350 girls who attended my district felt it was safe to report something in the terrible event they felt harassed or assaulted.
Our town of barely 5,000 people had people from overseas commenting on the social media firestorm he had created. The Washington Post called and then submitted Freedom of Information Acts on our policies governing social media standards for board members. I will still argue to this day that it was more frustration and less stress as I had to turn my attention and focus to extinguishing something that should have never happened had common sense been exercised first.
A well-known retired superintendent and mentor-like figure was talking to me a couple of months ago. I think he was poking around to gauge my interest or potential for an open superintendent position for next year. In our conversation, he mentioned that he had looked through my Twitter. Yeah? I asked. He felt it was a little too political.
I went back through several years of Tweets. I never called anyone inappropriate names. I was never belligerent. I was never radical. What my political tweets involved were advocating for education in a vocal manner. Calling out public agencies and figures such as the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and Governor J.B. Pritzker for their lack of action or their overreach while robbing districts of local control.
Illinois is a state of 102 counties, nearly 1300 incorporated municipalities, and just shy of 13 million people making it the sixth most populous state in America. It is unfathomable to believe that we can continue operating as if we all have the same needs and issues. My vocalness that I was being chided for was standing up for my community, and most importantly, my staff and students. I will not apologize for that.
Still, as a superintendent I could not take a stance that would make me look too political. It would ruin my future opportunities. Administrators constantly toe the line to maintain the image that their boards and communities expect of them. While the Tinker decision may have declared that students and educators do not shed constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate, many administrators are still oppressed and forced to conform and lose their identity.
This was clearly evidenced when I attended a professional development gathering of administrators and someone wanted to get a group photo. I watched as every bottle of beer and cocktail was lifted from the tabletop and held under the table outside of the camera’s frame. I looked around and thought, do these people really believe that their communities will think ill of them for drinking? The short answer: yes.
Mind you, I don’t condone intoxication that leads to inappropriateness or doing something illegal, but all educators are human. If someone wants to enjoy a drink at the end of the day, they should be able to do so without the fear of retribution.
I was fortunate enough to be a member of the inaugural cohort of the Aspiring Superintendent Academy. During the same week, news shocked the cohort when they learned about an Illinois superintendent who died at his desk. Ironically, on that same day two states away in Ohio, another superintendent was found unresponsive in his office chair.
Both of these devastating events took me back to a presentation I listened to in which the presenter talked of his own struggles of work/life balance. He stated that his tombstone when he died would never say, “He stayed until 1am working on a tax levy.” I vowed to be healthy and have balance. When insignificant people attempted to rob me of that, I decided then and there that I would not die upon that hill.
People can say what they want about me returning to the classroom. Some will say that my candidness now will prevent me from returning to administration. Maybe. Maybe not. Part of rebranding myself is becoming more trusting in decisions that are out of my control.
I am working in my fourth district and I have never felt as welcomed and appreciated as I do here. And it’s all because I took a trip through all 102 counties. Something neither our current governor or hopeful governor-elects can say they’ve done. So excuse me if I take a stance to defend the rights of my students and community. Because that is a hill I am willing to die upon.