Dena R. Cushenberry
Superintendent, Warren Township in Marion County, Indiana
The Center for Appreciative
Organizing in Education
I find myself operating under such circumstances; my time as a superintendent is ending, and I will be retiring next June. So I have, then, to ensure that my successor is ready to take on the responsibilities and challenges of the job. Succession plans thusly need to be well-thought-out, thorough, and exhaustive – because the future of the district is literally hanging in the balance.
The beginning of succession planning comes with the acting superintendent informing the board of his or her intention to leave. Quickly, it becomes the board’s responsibility to decide both when the succeeding superintendent is to take over and what the district’s goals are going to be under that new superintendent. And this, actually, is where succession planning sometimes fails; the process can be rushed and truncated, leaving the board members little time to reach an agreement on district-wide goals or initiatives. What the board needs is a long lead time, one that leaves them space for thoughtful and deliberative decision-making.
Personally, I’d recommend that the board appoint a deputy superintendent who spends a year learning the nuances of the job before fully assuming the position. The to-be-successor needs that time to learn and to simply be exposed to the job, and what better mentor is there than the outgoing superintendent? The deputy superintendent has that extra year to build relationships within the district’s administrative team and with the district’s teachers, support staff, and community. They have that extra time to ask the sorts of questions that any good leader is always asking: “Why does the district function the way it does? Are we offering our students the best education and educational opportunities we possibly can? How can we change to better ourselves – and at the same time, what are we doing well? What are our greatest strengths?”
They have to come to know what they don’t know; for example, a high school administrator now in the role of deputy superintendent gets a chance to hang out in elementary schools and to see the joy of learning in the faces of young children. They also get to visit middle schools to see how students’ peer learning works to accelerate their intellectual growth.
The superintendent-to-be, after all, has to learn the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the district they’re going to be running. They have to become known to the community at large, to the state department superintendent, and to the district’s state legislators whose decisions will impact the district’s schools. They have to build up a peer group of other superintendents and have to get to know the county and statewide organizations which lobby on behalf of schools and school administrators.
Taken as a whole, then, building a solid succession plan is like knocking down a long line of dominos: every moment and every choice affects what’s to come. The succeeding superintendent’s roles, responsibilities, and skills are all determined by how they are trained and how they are positioned to affect change in the district. Superintendents determine whether the district’s schools are the forefront of educational innovations or riding in the backseat. Superintendents provide stability for principals, teachers, students, and parents. And new superintendents breathe new life into ever-changing and evolving districts, cleaning out the cobwebs and warming the boilers for new initiatives and greater strides forward.
I know this because I have been privileged to lead a district that has achieved a great deal in a comparatively short amount of time. I have been supported and buttressed by wonderful schools led by enthusiastic and hard-working principals and teachers. Together, we merged technological advancements and demanding instructional strategies. We personalized learning for both our students and our teachers. We built a stronger, more unified, more organized district, and my successor and his team now have the helm and the duty to polish our twenty-first century schools to an even finer shine.