Superintendents — they’re just like us!

February 28, 2017 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief
Report outlines challenges faced by district leaders

They have workload challenges; they struggle to manage complexity; they try to overcome student inequity; they deal with technology issues; and they are daunted by high expectations for reporting and accountability from above and below. They’re stars in our school divisions, but at heart they’re teachers, just like us.

These are some of the key messages of a new report entitled The Role of the Superintendent and the Teaching Profession, published by the Alberta Teachers’ Association. The study examined superintendents’ key roles as well as the challenges and performance barriers they face.

“When we talk about the role of superintendents, we know their work and efforts are often misunderstood by teachers,” said ATA president Mark Ramsankar, who also serves as the PEC liaison to the Council on School Leadership. “But now, as we move forward with a greater understanding of their work challenges and barriers to success, we can build that relationship through understanding.” 

In the mail

The research report The Role of the Superintendent and the Teaching Profession is being mailed out to schools by the Alberta Teachers’ Association and is available for download at  

The study was initiated by a resolution of the 2015 Annual Representative Assembly in order to extend the work of the ad hoc Committee on Superintendents in the Teaching Profession. The goal of the research project was to clarify and enhance the relationship between Alberta superintendents and teachers.

The research project included a review of academic literature on the work of superintendents, interviews with four Alberta superintendents and analysis from a panel of national and international experts on school leadership, including Carol Campbell, Stephen Murgatroyd and Allan Luke, among others.

Luke, a former dean of education in Singapore and ministerial advisor in Australia, said that the research made it clear that superintendents are working under the same conditions of complexity, intensity, high pressure and high workload as administrators and teachers.

“These are not easy jobs,” said Luke. “They’re facing a fresh generation of challenges.”

These challenges include new technologies, a generational transition in the teaching workforce, communities and student bodies that are increasingly multicultural and multilingual, and escalating numbers of young people with special learning needs, Luke said. On top of all that, many Alberta communities are facing tough economic conditions.

The interviews and literature review revealed that accountability is very difficult to manage as superintendents try to manage the expectations of government, trustees, administrators, teachers, parents and the community. Sometimes the interests of parties conflict, and even decisions that seem very positive can end up being contentious. One superintendent spoke about how a decision to reallocate funds from successful schools to under-resourced ones caused a backlash from parents, teachers and some trustees.

“One of the things that people may not understand,” said one superintendent interviewed, is that “they think as a superintendent you’ve reached the pinnacle of all positions where you’re now in charge of everything and you answer to nobody. Never in my education career have I realized that I am now in the position that answers to absolutely everybody.”

Success outlined

The report does outline a number of ways that superintendents are having success in managing the risks and challenges. In terms of managing accountability and outcomes, it says that some superintendents view improvement as a function of “top-down” leadership-driven innovation, but the report recommends less system-driven change and more focus on school-based innovation.

“Teachers and principals are not delivery systems and do not practice ‘deliverology’. They are professionals,” it says.

“Effective superintendents must therefore be advocates for teachers, for decentralization coupled with collaboration and best practice sharing, for a different kind of accountability (different measures, locally determined), and for adaptive systems.”

Ramsankar said the key focus of superintendents is still student learning and education leadership.
“This is also the work of teachers, so at its heart, superintendency and district leadership is still teaching,” he said.

Luke agrees.

“Superintendents are not career civil servants, bureaucrats or politicians,” he said. “Fortunately, Alberta law requires that they have teacher certification and education training.”

In other jurisdictions, like some parts of the United States, superintendents are considered more as chief executive officers and system managers, with some states not even requiring a teaching certificate to serve as a superintendent. In these cases, school boards often look for corporate experience as a key qualification for employment.

“Here, in Alberta, superintendents are important members of the teaching profession,” Ramsankar said. “We want to build the relationship as part of a unified and collegial profession and that starts with enhancing the understanding between teachers and superintendents.” ❚

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