Post Superintendent Life: Working on and Fixing Stuff!
I’ve forever been fascinated with all things mechanical. What a machine or tool did was never as important to me as how it did it – how it worked – and this mindset began at a young age with toys and bicycles and progressed into cars, motorcycles, and equipment. As a teen, then a college student, and later as a young teacher, I had the time to indulge this interest and fixed, repaired, or rebuilt cars, motors, transmissions, motorcycles old and new, our boat, and all manner of mechanical stuff. I guess I was as much an amateur mechanic as I was a professional educator. The balance was good.
As a teacher, time was more available for fixing things than it was as a principal. As a superintendent, time for many pursuits outside of the academic world became pretty much non-existent. Consequently, tool boxes sat idle, abandoned playthings of a bygone era. While we know balance is important, this isn’t often practiced. Like many, the challenges of the job and its time demands dominated, and made many things I’d enjoyed in the pre-superintendent life relics of a forgotten past. That began to change as retirement neared. I’d always enjoyed old stuff, and decided that my post-superintendent life would include a resumption of working on and fixing…stuff.
As many former superintendents have shared, the first retirement months were centered on fixing the many things around the house that had gone neglected. Replacing screens, organizing the garage, fixing leaky plumbing, attending to sticky doors and other projects dominated. I had a job list every day and enjoyed the satisfied feeling of using my hands to complete long-neglected fixes. My wife and I traveled, saw more of our parents and children, and generally did things that the superintendency got in the way of. Most wonderfully, I could finally read again – and not just Ed Week and 18-A.
I also continued a long addiction to classic car and motorcycle auctions, but instead of watching Mecum and Barrett-Jackson on television, began attending some of these events. Soon I had a 1954 Chrysler New Yorker and a 1958 Harley Davidson FLH in the garage. My tolerant wife was initially as chagrined at these acquisitions as I was elated – after all, her car now sat in the driveway instead of in the garage now occupied by old stuff. If men and women are fundamentally different, one personal example is that my wife will always value a new kitchen over an old car or motorcycle. She’s really tolerant, and fine with my penchant for adult toys, and I have really fun stuff to work on once again. And we have worked on the kitchen.
Whoever said, “They don’t build them like they used to” was right – they don’t, thank goodness. Things now are built so much better, the beneficiaries of advanced technologies and engineering. Now we jump in modern cars and pretty much just go without thoughts of equipment failure. Old cars and motorcycles, if used, need constant maintenance, repairs, and fixes, and travel thoughts sometimes include the possibility of leaking gas tanks, a dead battery, or the general fear of things just plain breaking or falling off. If you like working on old stuff, keeping a 63-year-old car and a 59-year-old motorcycle running is a wonderful challenge.
A school superintendent is a problem-solver and a decision-maker, as well as a planner and in general…a fixer. Maybe not of stuff, but of organizations. Think about it. Our lives as superintendent’s centered around responding to what came up on a day-to-day basis – and I recollect a lot coming up on most days – and fixing these. We used tools of the trade to effect solutions and had to practice certain skills to create good outcomes: reaching out to others for practical ideas, using research and data, employing patience and deliberation, and pondering multiple solutions to reach a satisfactory solution. Perseverance was critical. We often used tried and true models upon which we based our decision-making, and monitored the effectiveness of our solutions.
Perhaps being a retired school administrator who now fixes stuff isn’t much different than life as a superintendent. The thought processes seem surprisingly similar. A nagging gas leak from the float bowl of the carburetor on the antique motorcycle was a project I tackled just this week. I knew that the needle valve was probably the culprit, and purchased the appropriate carburetor rebuild kit. Simply removing the carburetor and intake manifold took hours. I used up all my best curse words by about noon, and had to take a break to restock with some new vulgar and offensive verbiage to address increasing frustration as a 30-minute process – I had thought – evolved into a day-long endeavor. I had to call on problem-solving skills of my past life – patience, deliberation, research, and just plain pondering – to get the horn out of the way, remove the clamps on the manifold, disengage the throttle cable assembly, etc. – just as when five or ten years ago the same thinking skills were employed when the district was engaged in privatization of a service, dealing with contract negotiations, or addressing staff evaluation and student achievement.
The old bike runs again, and now I’m monitoring the results of the fix. How did this happen? I used the internet and a manual to research solutions. I forced myself to ponder and to exercise deliberation and patience. I used wait time instead of impulsively moving forward when challenged by a particularly vexing part of the repair. Today, I’ll reach out to a consultant to uncover why the throttle assembly won’t always fully return to the idle position, but the job is largely done.
Fixing the carb on the old Harley Davidson required physical skills never used when working as a school administrator – for example, I can’t recall ever developing a school calendar covered in oil and holding wrenches while on my back on a cold concrete floor and contorted in an awkward position. And yet when viewed from a different perspective, perhaps fixing a carburetor isn’t that much different than working on a negotiated agreement, developing a school calendar, or figuring out why that cafeteria aide can never seem to get to work on time. Whether keeping a 1958 Harley operational or addressing school issues, problems are problems, and solutions are solutions. The thinking involved in solving seemingly disparate problems isn’t really much different.
I’ve observed that as retirees we seem to unwittingly cling to our professional past and allow it to surface conversationally almost automatically – and there’s nothing wrong with that. What we did seems more important than what we’re doing. When former colleagues ask what’s up, I unfailingly recount activities that are education related and part of our shared past: I’m working in this district, or at that college, or I ran into so and so – but I rarely mention the car or motorcycle because these things aren’t part of our shared professional culture. And yet they are.
The next time I’m with other educators and asked what’s been happening, I plan to talk more about the current challenges of fixing old cars and motorcycles than of a career spent fixing school problems. And if I forget that and let war stories of a past life surface, please remind me of this.