The Superintendents’ Network, established in 2002 by Connecticut Center for School Change (now Partners for Educational Leadership), is celebrating 20 years of providing leadership guidance, support, mentoring, coaching, fellowship and extraordinary professional development opportunities for superintendents across Connecticut. Still going strongly, the Network continues to attract new superintendents while retaining experienced leaders. Though its focus has evolved to meet today’s educational challenges and current realities, its foundation and core mission remain steadfast and unchanged.
Originally founded with support from the late Richard F. Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Network was designed as a space where educational CEOs struggle with the leadership issues of education’s core business – teaching and learning in the classrooms. The Network was one of the original beta sites where Instructional Rounds was piloted and refined, and the Center was profiled in the original book by Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman, and Lee Teitel (a long-time facilitator in the Network). The Network continues today, comprising 30 superintendents representing diverse backgrounds and districts but sharing a commitment to self-development and systemic instructional improvement.
Here to reflect on the Network’s growth and professional value, and to share some personal memories, are four distinguished Network veterans, just a few of the many who have benefitted from this creative and respected professional collaboration.
I have been affiliated with Partners for Educational Leadership for 19 years, most of those years as a superintendent who was very fortunate to be a part of the Superintendents’ Network. I was a novice superintendent when invited to be a part of the Network. Having been selected was the greatest professional gift I could have been given.
The Network’s primary goal was to develop us as instructional leaders. Initially I felt like a duck out of water, but through the Network sessions, readings, interacting with experts in the field, problem-solving with colleagues, engaging in Rounds and wrestling with problems of practice, my thinking and leadership around student learning shifted dramatically. I came to understand the essential intersection of the student, teacher and the curriculum as well as the imperative of coherence in our beliefs, goals and actions.
Those leading the Network pushed me out of my comfort zones, demanded that I reflect on my own practice, challenged me to see the flaws and strengths in my work – all within a supportive climate. We had advance readings for each session, but it was the questions I was prompted to consider – and the sharing with colleagues – that deepened my understanding, my learning, my practice. Moreover, that I was expected to share my work, my thinking, my challenges and fears within the Network made me humbler, more open to learning, more resilient, more focused on what was of most importance. Without question, I became a far better superintendent as a result of the Superintendents’ Network.
– Elizabeth E. Feser, Ed.D.
Betty Feser is now retired and serves as a staff associate with Partners for Educational Leadership
I’ve been in the Superintendent’s Network for seven years and, reflecting on its many valuable strengths, I’d say this cohort’s ability to help participants push our individual and collective boundaries has been a tremendous asset.
Ours tend to be highly isolated positions. Having a dedicated peer network is invaluable – we can call on one another any time with any issue, share thoughts, concerns or challenges, and find empathy, understanding and support no matter the topic.
Nationally, the average lifespan of a district superintendent is 3.9 years. In our cohort, we have far more longevity. Each of us is driven, in our own way, to personal, team and district success, and our shared learning helps us develop skills, experience and insight that we put to work throughout the coming year. I return from our Network interactions refreshed, reinvigorated and stronger.
I’m a social studies teacher at heart, so I study and understand the lessons of the past and how important it is to plan and observe, yet to remain flexible, passionate and focused. The Network helps me achieve these goals.
— Dr. Joseph Macary, superintendent, Vernon School District
Joining a strong, progressive and creative group of thinkers has helped make me a better superintendent. There’s a biblical passage that states, “iron can only be sharpened when hot,” and I can honestly say that in this job, we’re always under fire. In fact, most of us learned to crawl, walk and run while under fire . . . it’s the nature of the assignment.
The Network helps us build relationships as well as leadership skills. It has always been a safe place to fully express my thoughts, concerns and doubts. While we are like-minded in terms of our pursuits and visions, we’re not always like-minded on issues and solutions. We are able to respectfully challenge one another, agree to disagree, debate, find common and different solutions that work for our districts. These interactions sharpen us as individuals and as a team.
Though I’m surrounded daily by strong and talented district leaders, there’s nobody else there in my role. In joining the Network, I came with the expectation of finding good support for head stuff, but found heart and soul stuff, as well as life-long friends.
— Dr. Anna Cutaia, superintendent, Milford Public Schools
For the past 20 years, the Superintendent’s Network has been a core product of the Partners for Educational Leadership, bonding like-minded, open-minded and extremely talented and dedicated educational professionals linked by their commitment to superior hands-on learning and to continuously improving the classroom experience for students, teachers and administrators.
I was a superintendent in Farmington until 2009. Our first meeting, facilitated by Andrew Lachman, then executive director of Connecticut Center for School Change, was originally planned for September 11, 2001. Andrew understood how important it was to provide sitting superintendents a forum to speak candidly with one another, for sharing issues, solving problems and talking about teaching/learning in ways that would really have an impact in their district classrooms.
The challenge then, and now, is how best to effectively talk about teaching and learning in ways that truly have an impact in the classroom. Observing classroom experience firsthand wasn’t common when we first started. We’d visit our own classrooms, then classrooms in other districts, as a precursor to instructional rounds. That practice was suspended during the pandemic, but has started again.
We all needed a way to connect with peers. The Network provided opportunities to go far deeper than just discussing budgets, staff management challenges and brick and mortar requirements. We studied with Richard Elmore, truly a guru in the field, started using his lexicon and related language. We all were experienced leaders, but lacked the proper lenses to see beyond the immediate challenges of keeping our districts running effectively, and the core work of superintendents’ practices.
We’ve reshuffled our work to reflect changing needs and times, but our core mission continues, 20 years later. Left to our own devices, it’s easy to get caught up in the many pressing management needs that can consume district leaders. The Network changed my professional life early on, and gave me somewhere to grow, a place to listen and to be heard. It’s greatest benefit, from my perspective, is that it trains us as better leaders while also helping participants remain closer to the classroom, which is why we originally got involved in education.
– Robert Villanova, Ph.D.
Robert Villanova serves as a district leadership consultant for the Partners for Educational Leadership. A charter member of the Superintendents’ Network, he now works as a facilitator/consultant in support of the Network and other PEL leadership-development initiatives.