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Superintendents have always been politicians. Now they have to be diplomats too.

Stephanie Hughes Jul 19, 2023
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Heather Schwartz of the Rand Corp. suggests providing more communication tools to school leaders. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Superintendents have always been politicians. Now they have to be diplomats too.

Stephanie Hughes Jul 19, 2023
Heather Schwartz of the Rand Corp. suggests providing more communication tools to school leaders. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

It might seem like high summer, but in some school districts around the country, classes start in just a few weeks. The people leading those districts are feeling it: In a new survey from the Rand Corp., about 80% of superintendents in the United States say their jobs are often or always stressful. That’s compared to about a third of working adults.

The chief reason for that stress? The intrusion of political issues into schooling.

Being a superintendent means being a politician, whether you want to or not. 

“I don’t think you can know what you’re getting into until you do it,” said Nick Polyak, who leads Leyden Community High School District 212 in suburban Chicago.

During the pandemic, he said, we got used to weighing in on issues that became political, like masks and vaccines.

These days, “that same mentality has persisted. But now it’s on the topics of curriculum, library books, sports,” Polyak said.

He said that on any hot-button issue, he tries to overcommunicate. He also trains aspiring superintendents by having them play out scenarios in which they take tough questions from school board members or the media. 

Heather Schwartz, one of the authors of the Rand study, suggests providing school leaders with a kind of playbook.

“You know, not all superintendents are trained in the art of communication. Simply providing them with kind of common tools could be helpful,” she said.

Because more and more, the job of superintendent means being not just a politician, but a diplomat.

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