Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

When the National Education Debate Is Too Noisy, Look Local

Your local peers can offer a lifeline in tumultuous times
By Christian M. Elkington — July 28, 2021 2 min read
A team of workmen on scaffolding rely on each other.
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“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” With one of the most famous lines in the Shakespearean canon, Mark Antony rhetorically appealed to an expanding audience—from his immediate circle of friends to all the citizens of Rome to everyone in the nation. He started with the locals.

By contrast, at the start of the deadly pandemic, national voices dominated the public discussion about school closings or reopenings. Local leaders—administrators and boards—were left to make sense of a confusing and constantly changing cacophony.

By its very nature, the superintendent’s job is lonely. In the final analysis, no matter how much advice you receive, you are alone in calling the shots. It is naturally insulating. It is sometimes overwhelming. It is never easy. I saw one tough-as-nails superintendent in my state succumb to tears last school year. The responsibilities of the job amid the pandemic’s deaths and destruction overwhelmed him, as it threatened to overwhelm all of us. You want to do the right thing, but you aren’t sure what the right thing is.

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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.

The traditional meat and potatoes of how to build a successful learning organization—create a strong team, bounce ideas around with trusted colleagues, work with stakeholders, and follow a shared decisionmaking model—have been indispensable as our schools have navigated the pandemic.

But these tenets were just the start. As ideological disputes dominated at the national level, I found that a network of local superintendents in Hancock County, Maine, was invaluable. Those of us in the network have supported each other repeatedly, helped to refuel our tanks when they were low, prevented us from retreating from despair, and restored hope and optimism to our work.

The Hancock County network was not new. Before the pandemic, the network met monthly for routine business. The meetings were useful, and I wished there were more of them. But, like others, I would miss a meeting here or there because something else needed my time. When the pandemic started, our monthly in-person meetings became weekly Zoom meetings as problems arrived daily.

During the pandemic, very rarely did anyone miss a meeting. We needed each other—not only for the business of being a superintendent during this crisis, but equally importantly, to sustain ourselves. Over the last year and a half, Hancock County superintendents have become living, breathing people to each other. We have shared our work. We have shared our personal stories. We have sympathized with each other’s needs and concerns. We have mourned deaths in our communities.

Amid this terrible pandemic, the Hancock County network became a more honest and safe place to be in ways we never would have thought necessary before February 2020.

As this school year came to an end, we heard that in our state and nation, many teachers, support staff, administrators, and superintendents may choose to leave the profession this coming school year. I understand that. I also know that by relying on each other, the Hancock County superintendents got closer and, as a result, became better leaders. I hope and pray most of us stay the course.

So, my friends, fellow Mainers, and countrymen, lend me your ears: Look to your local peers. Superintendents, take the time to share each other’s burdens and find a safe harbor alongside your regional colleagues. It’s an important lesson and a good strategy, both today and in the days to come. Superintendents, we must rely on each other.

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Superintendents discuss ideas at a roundtable.
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