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School & District Management Opinion

Superintendents Have Weathered a Lot of Vitriol This Year. What Have We Learned?

There was no good playbook for running a district during a catastrophe
By Matthew Montgomery — July 16, 2021 2 min read
A person walks from a vast empty space towards a team of people.
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As I reflect on leading during the pandemic, I am reminded of a scene from the historical drama “The Crown.” In a fictionalized exchange between Queen Elizabeth II and then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the queen cautions Thatcher about making enemies. The prime minister responds with the following poem by the 19th-century Scottish poet and journalist Charles Mackay, the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, an early study of crowd psychology:

You have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes!
If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

I’ve let the words marinate in my mind. Of course, we all like to see ourselves hitting traitors on the hip and dashing cups from perjured lips, but what did Mackay’s poem mean in the midst of the extraordinary COVID-19 crisis?

About This Series

Over the coming weeks, we will be rolling out 17 lessons from experienced district leaders who spent the last year leading from home. Learn more and see the full collection of lessons.

I was fortunate to lead a small district that returned to full-day in-person classes in August 2020. What about my colleagues?

Have district leaders ever experienced the level of vitriol we have seen this past year from opponents of school building closures? Some certainly did during the desegregation wars in the second half of the 20th century. But in the years since, I’m not sure we’ve seen the scale of bitterness that superintendents and boards have faced when dealing with COVID-19 school reopening decisions. I have heard of fellow district leaders who have been verbally attacked, physically threatened, and harassed. Colleagues across the country have weathered hurricane-level storms throughout the year as they fought in the best interest of their students.

What became clear to me was that whatever the merits of Mackay’s measure of courage during normal times, it could not hold up during large-scale, life-and-death crises.

As we faced a 21st-century version of extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds, our measure of success was not the enemies we made but the fellowship we created. Superintendents found we needed to collaborate with trusted colleagues. We had to acknowledge there was no “playbook” for running a district amid a nationwide catastrophe. We quickly realized if we were not taking care of ourselves through friendship, family, exercise, and mediation or prayer, we were not going to make it.

Although none of us volunteered for it, we served as pioneers. And I would argue that the painful lessons we learned daily as we struggled to put one foot in front of the other offer a future text on leadership. Superintendents have banded together locally, regionally, and nationally to troubleshoot problems of practice that none of us could have imagined a year and a half ago. While the discussions of pragmatic approaches to the pandemic and its impact on schools were invaluable, the social-emotional support among our peers was perhaps the most useful of all.

There’s no doubt about it. To lead, we must make courageous decisions. We must “hit the traitor on the hip” and “dash the cup from perjured lips.” But in life-and-death situations, district leaders must lean on the best counsel available. We must collect the best data we can find and remain focused on the public purpose of our institutions and the values that sustain us.

Complete Collection

Superintendents discuss ideas at a roundtable.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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