The entry experiences, challenges, and mediating strategies of public school superintendents

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
David M. Sutton (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site:
Meagan Karvonen

Abstract: The public school superintendent's role has changed substantially over time, and the work of superintendents is more complex, demanding, and challenging than ever before. Recent studies indicate that 70% to 80% of the nation's superintendents will leave their positions over the next five years, suggesting the imminent entry of many new superintendents in the wake of widespread vacancies. Existing literature has examined the organizational dimension of leadership succession; however, only scarce research has explored the lived experiences of incoming superintendents during their entry into the position. Consequently, relatively little is known about how they experience entry, about challenges they face during entry into the position, and about strategies they use to mediate them. This phenomenological study addressed those knowledge gaps by exploring the lived experiences of 20 incoming superintendents in 4 southeastern states. Its sample reflected the national distribution of superintendents with regard to gender, race/ethnicity, age band, locale, and point of entry into the superintendency. Participants led school districts ranging in size from 1,000 students to 150,000 students. Data were collected through semi-structured, individual interviews with participants. Iterative analysis of interview transcripts revealed challenges across 17 experiential categories ranging from the purely occupational to the deeply personal. Most prevalent were challenges associated with school finance, time, and personal costs associated with the role; least prevalent were challenges associated with a sense of isolation, organizational deficits, and personnel administration. The frequency with which participants experienced several challenges varied considerably across personal characteristics and organizational features, most notably gender, locale, and point of entry into the superintendency. Participants applied 9 types of mediating strategies toward overcoming challenges. Most frequently, they leveraged communication and collaboration strategies, typically by applying them in novel ways to match specific contextual features of challenges they experienced. Participants frequently developed formal entry plans to guide their entry activities and often leveraged them to mediate specific challenges emerging during entry. However, they largely lacked either general or specific mechanisms for mediating personal costs they associated with the superintendency. Participants commonly offered positive appraisals of their mediating strategies' effectiveness, but emphasized the particular value of formal entry planning, professional counsel, and communication to their successful negotiation of emergent challenges. Implications for practice among incoming superintendents, school boards, and universities and professional organizations concern expectations and structures for formal entry planning; mechanisms for communication and time management; cultivation of effective board-superintendent relationships; recognizing and overcoming personal costs associated with the role; field-based university partnerships to support incoming superintendents; professional advocacy; and, other topics. Future research should explore the varying prevalence of experiential challenges across demographic variables to explicate the ways in which they manifest differently for members of those subgroups. It should also further examine personal costs associated with the superintendency and specifically seek to identify effective mechanisms for mediating related challenges. Grounded theory research should seek to define a robust, comprehensive conceptual model for contemplating the various sources, intersections, and contextual underpinnings of challenges facing incoming superintendents to clarify and inform the long-term direction of research in this field.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2012
challenges, entry, leadership, phenomenology, succession, superintendent
First year school superintendents
School superintendents

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