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Most Superintendents Try to Avoid Politics. This Group Encourages Them to Lean In

When Jennifer Cheatham asked a room full of school district leaders at a national conference here how they felt about navigating political issues in education, the vast majority said they “hate it,” but that doing so was a necessary part of the job.

The result of the unscientific poll of mostly superintendents during a standing-room-only session at AASA’s National Conference on Education confirmed what Cheatham, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has found since forming the Collaborative on Political Leadership in the Superintendency last May.

The collaborative—a combination of superintendents, education politics scholars, and leaders of organizations that train superintendents—aims to establish a shared understanding of the superintendent’s political role and equip district leaders with the skills to confidently navigate political issues that arise, rather than shy away from them.

These skills are critical for current and up-and-coming superintendents in districts of all sizes, who have in recent years increasingly witnessed political debates crop up in their jobs about issues across the board, from the content of school library collections to instruction on race and gender.

Past research has confirmed a reticence by superintendents to engage in politics, and an overwhelming majority of superintendents reported in a national survey last year that politics was the top source of stress in their jobs.

Cheatham was joined at the Feb. 15 session by Carl Cohn, a former California superintendent who helps lead the collaborative, and David Miyashiro, superintendent of Cajon Valley Union schools near San Diego. The trio emphasized the importance of establishing “safe spaces” for superintendents to discuss and reflect on the tense issues that arise in their communities. So members of the Collaborative on Political Leadership in the Superintendency, for example, meet routinely to “sensemake”—essentially debrief about local and national issues and receive emotional support.

“I thought that I was leading well politically with my skillset, my board, and my community, but … I realized there are so many blind spots that I had, just by hearing what my colleagues were doing in different contexts in different parts of the country,” Miyashiro said.

Ultimately, leaders of the collaborative plan to release research about the politics of the superintendency and offer recommendations for professional development and best practices for district leaders.

Some initial research about effective political leadership is expected in the spring, Cheatham said. She previewed the findings during the AASA conference panel, highlighting that political leadership starts with superintendents evaluating and establishing their own political beliefs and perspectives, as well as building up their ability to listen to viewpoints with which they disagree and engage in uncomfortable conversations.

“One of the things that people talked a lot about was, when you want to put your baseball cap and sunglasses on and not be seen, that you have to rally and get yourself back into the community,” Cheatham said.

Political leadership also requires that superintendents be well-versed on what’s happening in education beyond their own district, Cheatham said.

“You just don’t get to be cut off from the world around you,” she said.

Through its work, the collaborative has found superintendents saying they need more access to support networks and executive coaching to be effective political leaders.

Cohn, who was superintendent of schools in Long Beach in the 1990s, said it’s important for district leaders to be cognizant of what’s happening politically statewide, regionally, and nationally, but emphasized that the bulk of political issues superintendents face will be local.

When he was superintendent, Cohn recalled, he “broke a bunch of rules” when he endorsed candidates for the district’s school board—an unusual move by a district leader, who reports to the board.

People sometimes pushed back against the endorsements, accusing Cohn of “trying to pick my bosses,” he said.

But, he countered, his intent was to leverage his professional knowledge to help inform the community about whom he felt would be the best fit for the district.

“The result was a lot of continuity and stability at the board table of a large, urban school district,” Cohn said. “What I’m charged with doing as a superintendent is creating a better life and better chances for the children that we serve. To do that, I have to become the absolute best practitioner of politics if I’m truly going to serve kids.”

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