Chief Problem-Solver - Think About It!
Of all the items on a superintendent’s job description that vie for time, none seem to require more than that of problem-solver. As a matter of fact, a very strong argument could be marshaled that the title Superintendent/Chief School Administrator/Chief School Officer should be restated as: Chief Problem-solver. Think about it. Your organization is labor-intense; it is comprised overwhelmingly of people. And you surely know the old adage, where there are people, there are problems. I am a fervent believer that success as an administrator is centered around the ability to solve problems. In light of this belief, I spend a great deal of my time doing two things: 1) solving problems; and 2) teaching problem-solving skills.
School districts, by their very nature, are magnets for problems. Just as surely as night follows day, personnel are always accompanied by personnel concerns, issues and problems. Because we employ many staff in a wide array of positions, we are guaranteed the full panoply of problems seeking solutions. Your job description provides you with complete responsibility for school district problems. Often, staff and/or parents will bring you their individual personal problems as well. In these instances, you need to be very discerning. If someone comes to your office and metaphorically places a big bucket of problems on your desk, you need to determine if the issues belong to the district. If not, it is important that the person leaves with the bucket in hand. Do know that some folks have reduced to art form the ability to get others to do their work. Don’t be seduced by the flattery, “You are so good at things like this,” that the bucket remains on your desk when the individual leaves your office.
Over the years, I have had the good fortune to work with and mentor many fine administrators. In their formative administrative experiences, I would (and still do) receive calls that included: 1) Can I run something by you? 2) What do you think I should do? 3) I’m not sure what the next step is. 4) Can you help me? It is in these situations that your job becomes that of teacher of problem-solving skills. I’m always reminded of a brief story told in Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now wherein the author describes, in his words, the greatest obstacle to enlightenment:
A beggar had been sitting by the side of the road for over thirty years. One day a stranger walked by. “Spare some change?” mumbled the beggar, mechanically holding out his old baseball cap. “I have nothing to give you,” said the stranger. Then he asked: “What’s that you are sitting on?” “Nothing,” replied the beggar. “Just an old box. I have been sitting on it for as long as I can remember.” “Ever looked inside?” asked the stranger. “No,” said the beggar. “What’s the point? There’s nothing in there.” “Have a look inside,” insisted the stranger.
The beggar managed to pry open the lid. With astonishment, disbelief and elation, he saw that the box was filled with gold.
The author goes on to state…I am that stranger who has nothing to give you and who is telling you to look inside. Not inside any box, as in the parable, but somewhere even closer: inside yourself.
Putting the beggar imagery aside, teaching problem-solving skills to our administrators is critical to their success and, ultimately, our own. So, when I get the telephone call asking for assistance, I try to become the best listener I can. After ascertaining the facts, I always ask, “What do you want to do?” With the response that ensues, I ask that the administrator provide a rationale; tell me why. In shaping the remedy, I always ask the administrator about setting a precedent and whether the proposed solution might create or lead to new problems. So very often when our legislative friends enact a response to an issue, inherent in the remedy is the birth of several new difficulties.
Teaching problem-solving skills is certainly one of the most important tasks that a superintendent can embrace. I liken it to helping someone with a stalled automobile get it started again. Once the administrator gets the engine running, they can continue to their destination of making his/her school or program the best that it can be.
To be a reasonably successful superintendent, clearly, one needs to be a problem-solver. To be a really successful superintendent, one must be able to teach others how to solve problems. So very often, solutions are resident with the administrator that reaches out to us. Helping her/him find that the answer is already in their hands can be as important as the solution itself. Reflecting on our NJASA theme for 2013-2014, Success is a Choice, being a teacher of problem-solving skills is a great choice in assisting our students, staff and schools in becoming the best they can be.