With almost 30 years working as a superintendent in Missouri, Dr. John Lawrence thought his experience and job flexibility would enable him to be an effective president of the American Association of School Superintendents (AASA). Lawrence recently discussed his goals, including recruiting and training new administrators, and having the AASA be a player in fine-tuning the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Lawrence knows he is an anomaly in his profession. Most superintendents spend years in the teaching ranks before moving up to administration, and superintendents rarely stay more than five years in one district. Helping to build and expand systems for recruiting and training administrators are among his goals as AASA president.
Lawrence recently talked in an e-interview with Education World about his plans for his one-year term and his views on being an administrator.
Education World: Why did you want to be president of the AASA?
John Lawrence: My longevity and flexibility provide me with an opportunity many people would not have to do a good job with the AASA. I felt I had a skill set to do a competent job. I do have a sense of duty; a sense of responsibility. I have the dynamics that allow me to do it. I have a good relationship with my board of education. There probably are about 14,000 to 15,000 superintendents in the U.S. who probably have skills to do it [be AASA president], but probably dont have the dynamics. Ill be traveling about 40 days a year. Technology will help [me stay in touch with my district].
EW: How can the AASA help administrators do their jobs better?
Lawrence: I think we are and need to be a continuing voice for public schools. If we have a chance to speak more globally about school issues, thats [and opportunity to be] a strong voice. We are talking about best practices, helping with data collection, and explaining the No Child Left Behind Act on our Web site. Were also trying to influence the rule making [for No Child Left Behind]. The spirit of the law is good; the devil could be in the details. We are trying to make sure that the rules and the language of the law are such that it can be done.
We are also lobbying on behalf of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and we are trying to influence decisions on vouchers, because the AASA opposes school vouchers.
EW: How is the AASA helping superintendents understand and meet the
requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act?
Lawrence: This is benchmark legislation, and I think well stay on top of it and inform the base of our membership. We believe the fundamental tenets of this law are very good. We want to be at the table [working on it] rather than on the outside looking in. Do we like every clause? No. There are a lot of areas we have serious concerns about. Those are the areas we are looking to improve. Let us help add value to the intent of the law by crafting implementation that can help children.
It is the law and we do recognize it. We teach our children that the law in this country is pre-eminent. Or we change it. We have to be role models [by adhering to it.]
EW: What are the most pressing issues facing administrators right now?Lawrence: No question, its finances. Last year, 44 out of 50 states reduced funding to education. The number this year could be 100 percent. Our revenue comes directly from the vibrancy or lack thereof of the economy.
But you cant address areas you dont control. The AASA is trying to influence federal policy, to protect federal sources that do exist and prevent unfunded mandates.
EW: How long have you been an educator?
Lawrence: Twenty-nine years. I started my career as a social studies teacher, then moved to another district where I was a social studies teacher/principal in a K-12 school. I was 23. [The superintendent was retiring and asked Lawrence if he wanted the job.] I learned a lot and quick. It was a great springboard for me. There were only about 300 kids in the school, and you got to know everyone. It was a turning point in my career.
EW: Who inspired you to become an educator?
Lawrence: The inspiration came from my high school social studies teacher. His name was Billy Jay Sisson. He was young and communicated well. He spoke with us, not to us. He also had a red car I really liked! I said to myself that I could see myself doing that [being a teacher].
EW: What training or courses do you wish you had before becoming a
Lawrence: Training for administrators is best done in the field. Thats what I wish I could have had. Now it [field training] exists for teachers; Im glad it exists more for administrators now, too.
EW: What is your favorite part of being an administrator?
Lawrence: The flexibility of it -- I have a terrific board to work with. It provides me with tremendous flexibility to do my job. And if I dont do my job, they can fire me. I think thats fine.
EW: What is the most complex part of being an administrator?
Lawrence: As a superintendent, one has to be a meteorologist; that is, you have to be responsible [for making the decision to] have school or not. You have to be a lawyer; a negotiator, to deal with contracts; and a financial guru, to deal with budgets. So many varied skills are necessary. On one hand its a challenge; on the other hand, for some people with limited experience its an unfair challenge.
To require really professional execution in so many areas -- especially in the early years [of a superintendents tenure] is fundamentally unfair. There is no way training could prepare individuals for such a broad range of responsibilities. We learn from those experiences, and then get more comfortable [in the job.]
Also, the average time is so short -- the average tenure [for a superintendent] in one district is three years; that makes it difficult to make long-term improvements and sustaining changes.
EW: What needs to be done to motivate more educators to become
Lawrence: [An obstacle to recruiting administrators is that] the pressures are greater and the salaries lower than in the private sectors. I believe programs for aspiring administrators are really important. A few years ago, I threw out a challenge [to district teachers] for anyone thinking of becoming an administrator to meet with me. We met every two weeks. I would offer vignettes, then asked what they would do in those situations and why; and I offered shadowing opportunities. I would ask them to attend school board meetings in our town and adjacent towns, and I provided some lectures. Participation grew from 15 to 30 people and yielded three or four people for openings here. Its the grow-your-own philosophy. It also helps people decide if this [administrative work] is what they like.
Im not doing it this year because of my AASA commitment, so now a local college is providing courses.
I did that on my own time. In a way it was selfish. I love teaching and it reminded me that I did. I also learned from the teachers; I learned their perspectives, which helped me greatly. It also helped me find out who was good for our organization. They provided me with ideas about what was good or bad in the district.
This e-interview with John Lawrence is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.