The challenges of raising a family during your time as superintendent
Dr. Andy Crozier was just 28 years old when he accepted the superintendency at Andrew School District in northeast Iowa. Most of his new staff were surprised by his age, but that wasn’t the only remarkable fact about him. Not only was Crozier younger than most of his teaching staff, he also had three young children and spent most of his personal time fulfilling family obligations. “From the beginning, we were a package deal,” he tells SchoolCEO. “My wife is also a full-time educator. We’re not the kind of family where one parent takes care of most of the parenting. For us, it’s all collaborative.”
Like everything else in education, the superintendency is changing. Today’s superintendent, on average, is younger than ever before. They are also less likely to be white, more likely to be female, and more likely to be new to their district. The 2020 Decennial Study by AASA tells us a lot about the changing face of the superintendency. Although the typical superintendent is still a white man, this is slowly shifting. As of 2020, 8.2% of superintendents identified as people of color, an increase from 6% in 2010. Additionally, approximately 26.7% of superintendents in 2020 were women, more than double the 13.1% documented in 2000.
The age of the average superintendent is also changing—according to the 2020 report, 59% of superintendents took a job as superintendent by 45, as opposed to 49.5% in 2010. This demographic shift may just be getting started; anecdotal data suggests that once the dust settles from the pandemic, we could see radical changes in who makes up America’s roughly 13,000 superintendents.
As more professionals enter the superintendency younger, more school leaders than ever are likely to be actively raising children as they work. What does this mean for a job that virtually never ends? Traditional work-life balance may not be feasible for a position that really is, by all accounts, a 24/7 commitment. So what can be done to make the superintendency accessible and sustainable for people with pressing family roles, such as caring for children or elders?
What’s with the gender problem?
When we set out to research this topic, we wanted to explore what it is like to raise a family as a superintendent, no matter who you are. Family responsibilities, including striving to maintain a work-life balance, extend across gender, race, and age. Most of the research on this topic, however, is decidedly gendered. The majority of articles written about work-life balance are either about or targeted toward women.
If family responsibilities are a universal experience, why would this be the case? The answer, unfortunately, is that women continue to be more likely than men to bear the burden of caregiving and other family responsibilities. A recent study found that in 2021, women still take on about three times the amount of child care responsibilities as their male counterparts, even when they both work outside the home. This disparity exists among other types of caregiving as well. In the field of elder care, daughters of elderly parents are more than twice as likely to provide for their parents’ care than sons.
This imbalance in caregiving could play a role as to why fewer women than men ascend to the superintendency, despite the fact that over 80% of education majors nationwide are women. In doing this work, it’s important to recognize that there is intrinsic value in the superintendency being accessible to people with a wide range of backgrounds. After all, the U.S. education system serves a more diverse group of students now than ever—why shouldn’t the leaders of their schools reflect this?
Additionally, although few superintendents would describe their jobs as being confined to the typical 40-hour workweek, we must acknowledge that there is a limit to what one person can do and, more importantly, what one person can do well. People function at their best, both personally and professionally, when they have strong systems of support. More specifically, people thrive when they are afforded time for regular, meaningful interactions with their family members. If the superintendency is a whole-family commitment, as many superintendents express it to be, the role must be crafted with this in mind.
Understandably, many working mothers report feeling burned out by the lack of support for their dueling roles. A similar frustration is felt by fathers, too—it just looks a little different. A 2021 report showed that working fathers said they felt much happier and more fulfilled when they are able to take on a greater share of family responsibilities, including taking substantial parental leave. In fact, working fathers were more likely to be satisfied with their workplaces if they took paternity leave than if they did not.
The truth is this: To be more representative of the education field as a whole, the superintendency needs to become more accessible to people with families.
What is work-life balance, anyway?
Fostering healthy workplace expectations for everyone—from bus drivers to the superintendent—requires intentionally crafted policies. The question of who crafts these policies, especially in a job that varies so widely from district to district, is the most difficult piece of the puzzle.
When young professionals enter the teaching profession, one purported benefit of the job is how family friendly it is. How true is that, though—especially for administrators? Many of the superintendents we talked to mentioned that although their contracts include generous vacation time, it is often hard to take that time outside of major holidays. In fact, although the majority of the 10 superintendents we interviewed had welcomed new children during their tenures, only two of them had taken parental leave longer than a week.
Other school leaders acknowledge that although summers are still busy for superintendents, they can use their vacation time to make the most of long weekends. Superintendent Ashley Groepper of Pilot Grove School District in Missouri says it’s easier to take time off when she acknowledges that there will always be work to do, no matter how much time she spends in her office. “I remember one of my professors telling me that as a principal, you spend your entire day putting out fires. As a superintendent, you know there are always fires—you just have to keep things contained,” she explains.
For many school leaders, teamwork plays a huge role in making the superintendency manageable for families. Multiple school leaders mention having weekly meetings with their families to go over everyone’s calendars and figure out the logistics of the week. Spouses are often key players in making the family dynamics work. Cliff McClure of Paxton-Buckley-Loda CUSD 10 in Illinois says his wife is instrumental in making sure their family’s needs are met even with their hectic schedules. McClure, who has led his district for 18 years, says that he has no regrets about serving in the role while raising a family. “Becoming a superintendent was the best decision,” he tells us. “It gave our boys so many opportunities and made our connection to the district even more unique—I was making decisions that not only affected the families around me, but my family as well.”
Work-life balance is sometimes simpler when your own children attend school in your district. After all, it’s easier to make it to school events as a superintendent if you’re there supporting your kids anyway. Dr. Jeremy Owoh of Jacksonville North Pulaski Schools in Arkansas says even though his son isn’t involved in all of the activities they attend, he loves deepening their connection to the district by going to school functions together. “I bring my family to almost every event,” Owoh explains. “I try to limit our time away from each other. It helps my son understand what I’m doing, but it also lets my district know who I am.”
Superintendents who express the most satisfaction with their work-life balance acknowledge that getting there took a lot of effort. Andy Crozier, now of Central Lee Community School District in Iowa, emphasizes the importance of balance in being a superintendent as a parent. “You really do have to be intentional about how you spend your time,” he says. “Every minute is valuable. Even if you need rest, you have to rest in a way that is really meaningful. I know that if I don’t exercise every day, I will get stressed—so I prioritize that and make it happen.”
Striving to ensure a strong work-life balance for yourself can set the tone for how your staff members regard work-life balance as well. If you foster a culture that values life beyond the workday, your staff will likely feel empowered to prioritize their home lives as well. Now, as we are focusing on students’ social-emotional health more than ever, it is only natural to extend this focus to the educators who serve them.
While plenty of strategies are available to help superintendents build work-life balance, it’s worth exploring whether this high level of commitment makes the role less accessible to people with more demands on their time outside working hours. Accommodating families isn’t the only reason to make the superintendency less burdensome. Burnout affects everyone, and with turnover rates higher than ever, we must address the causes and not just the symptoms.
Does this start with the school board?
Unfortunately, reframing the superintendency is more complicated than it sounds. The practical demands of school leadership still require availability during nights, weekends, and emergencies. After all, a superintendent’s job is really to fill whatever role their district needs, be it bus driver or legislative spokesperson.
Setting expectations and boundaries for your role with your board is a great place to start. While it may be easier to do so at the beginning of a new superintendency, this conversation can happen at any time. In fact, the pandemic has driven many to make their lives more reflective of their ideals, especially parents. School boards who understand this are more likely to support rebuilding a superintendency with reasonable expectations.
As many superintendents know, relationships are a key component of making change at the board level because of both the complexity of the superintendent-board dynamic and the constant shift in school board membership. Not all hope is lost, though. By strategically preparing your board for conversations about work-life balance now, you may be able to open doors for a more representative pool of future superintendent candidates.
When Crozier became a shared superintendent between two districts, he recommended that his school board hire a consultant to facilitate training on how to make the shared superintendency work. “Part of that was logistical, but part of it was helping them recognize my limitations to make sure that they had reasonable expectations of me,” he says.
When a superintendent has a strong relationship with their board, it is also much easier to build a family-friendly culture. Superintendent Beth Burton of Stanfield School District in Oregon credits her school board with making sure she could thrive in the superintendency through the pregnancy and birth of her second child. “They hired me when I was five months pregnant with my first,” she explains. “When my husband and I struggled to conceive a second time, they were supportive of whatever I needed to do to build my family. They encourage me to do things with my family because kids are only little once.”
Supportive school boards aren’t just being nice—it’s actually in their best interest to be inclusive of families. A superintendent who sends their own kids to their district is a powerful endorsement for those schools. After all, they are communicating that their district is good enough for their own children.
There is another reason that school boards should work to make the position of superintendent more accessible to parents: a rapid decline in the average superintendent tenure. In 2006, the average superintendent served in a district for five or six years. There is no recent national data on superintendent turnover, but statewide studies suggest that the average superintendent tenure is now closer to three years. While there have not yet been substantive studies to support this, anecdotal data suggests the pandemic may be exacerbating this problem.
We know that increased leadership turnover can result in a lack of clear direction that trickles down through schools. While the reasons for increased superintendent turnover are complex, it makes sense for school boards to do whatever they can to keep from overburdening their superintendents and ensuring they keep the best people for their district.
What can private sectors teach us about work-life balance?
Although there is limited research about work-life balance for education leaders, the same topic has been well covered for years in the private sector. In many ways, the position of the superintendent functions similarly to that of a CEO; certainly, the visibility and role of the family play out in similar ways in both spheres. It’s not surprising, then, that the same problems of work-life balance and family responsibility exist in the private sector as well.
For many private sector leaders, it is important to build a family-first culture that permeates an entire company. Like several of the superintendents we spoke with, many CEOs prioritize sharing at least one meal with their families each day. While dinners can be difficult for superintendents who are expected to attend school board meetings and other events at night, breakfast may be an easier meal to share. Dave Kaval, president of the Oakland Athletics, falls into this category. “My kids have a delayed start at high school, and I have breakfast with them in the mornings,” he explained in an interview with CNN Business. “It is pretty casual, unstructured time, and that is great, especially to get teenagers to open up a bit about their lives.”
Some private sector executives also advocate for strong limits on technology use at home. Beth Haggerty, co-founder and CEO of leadership training company Declare, limits screen time for her teenager—and also for herself. “It’s important that my son knows there are limits to technology and that he takes precedence over my phone,” she tells CNN.
While the average CEO polled by CNN admits they work long hours, doing so remotely can often make the balance more easily attainable, especially since many choose to work while their children are sleeping. This is true for superintendents as well. Owoh makes a point of avoiding working after hours until his middle school son’s bedtime. “I usually catch up on emails once he has gone to bed, but I want him to know that I am fully present for him during the few hours we have together each day,” he explains.
Many CEOs also echo the importance of making sure that their company’s culture matches the ideals embodied in their benefits. Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com, realized he needed to reconcile the beliefs he wanted to foster in his company with his own choices as a father. “The problem wasn’t my paternity benefits—my company had the right policies in place,” he tells the Harvard Business Review. “The problem was the disconnect between written policy and actual culture. I was contributing to a norm that the company comes first and being a dad comes second. When I took a work call on the day of my twin sons’ birth, I was unwittingly sending a message to other dads at my office that they’d be stigmatized if they didn’t do the same.”
This commitment to being present for their families is non-negotiable for most superintendents. Clay Corley of DeSoto Parish Schools in Louisiana thinks about it like this: “I love my students, but chances are, they have had superintendents before me and will have superintendents after me. My kids, on the other hand, have only one dad.”
How can super families make life better for all families?
In the past year, there has been plenty of discourse about how education should change as we navigate the aftermath of COVID-19. While this has mostly centered around the student experience, there is also some discussion about how to make education a more sustainable, less stressful career choice. Given that 56% of superintendents report feeling “considerable” or “very great” stress related to their jobs, they should not be left out of this conversation. After all, even CEOs, a position infamous for having virtually no work-life balance, report having dinner with their families more than ever during the pandemic.
In the end, the superintendent sets the culture of their district. While hard work should be recognized and rewarded, overworked employees are rarely happy ones. Unhappy employees, in turn, are rarely productive ones. Since productivity in education comes down to the real-life impact of what happens in the classroom, it falls on every superintendent to set a culture where everyone can be well-adjusted.
In some ways, the struggles of the superintendency can serve as a case study of what it’s like to be a working parent in schools in general. Despite paid parental leave being a hallmark of a “good” job, many teachers and school staff only qualify for unpaid leave, including school and district leaders. Beth Burton took unpaid time through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) twice in her career as an educator, once as a superintendent. While she credits her board and staff for being incredibly supportive, she admits that her leave was less than ideal. “I would not say that either leave was free of work,” she explains. “If I could do it all over again, I would have asked for an interim to step in during a full 12-week FMLA leave. That bond you build with your baby in the early days sets the tone for their development and ability to thrive for the rest of their life. It can’t be emphasized enough.”
The superintendency is widely regarded as a position of prestige and power. When superintendents are able to prioritize their families, they make it possible for all of their staff to uphold the same values. While the United States’ lack of universal paid family leave makes it an outlier among developed countries, there are steps districts can take to support educators as they support their families.
If we’re being honest, positions like the superintendency may never be able to model the traditional ideal of work-life balance. Still, that doesn’t mean that superintendents shouldn’t try to work toward that ideal. If school leaders—through a patchwork of personalized, deliberate actions—can reform expectations for a superintendency that is better for families, it will be better for everyone.
Many of the superintendents we spoke with had been in their positions for over a decade and had few regrets about blending their lives to include both parenting and school leadership. All across the country, there are brilliant, hardworking education leaders doing their best to support children in their schools while also being there for their own children at home. There are leaders juggling after-school events and hastily packing lunches each morning. There are even superintendents trying not to embarrass their own kids during site visits. In some ways, the work of a superintendent parent is no different than that of any other parent.
While many of the superintendents we interviewed shared the immense struggle of parenting as a district leader, they all felt the choice had been good for their families and good for their districts. They also hoped that through their own struggle, they could serve as a model for making the path easier for all families.
Corley sums up his experience like this: “Having a clear understanding and expectation for the superintendent to be a family-first leader sets a positive example for everyone in the organization to follow.”
SchoolCEO is free for K-12 school leaders. Subscribe below to stay connected with us!