Interview with Stan Schubel


I am here on a beautiful, crisp February morning with STan Schubel, the retiring Superintendent of Sharpsville Schools. Stan is retiring at the end of this school year, having spent his professional career at Sharpsville Area School District. I'm very pleased to interview Stan today and to have an opportunity to put his ideas on tape for other people to hear. I've know Stan personally and professionally for a long period of time. Therefore I am aware, that he is truly the educational leader in this school district. He has agreed to answer some questions here for me today, so that we can share the answers with all of you.

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Q:Stan a great deal of attention has been given lately to the topic of personal leadership and organizational dynamics. Would you please discuss your approach to leadership because this school district has definitely receive its vision from your leadership. So would you describe some techniques that you have involved the district with over you career here.

schubel audio (Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)

A: The organizational direction of the school districts, our specifically, has had over the last fifty years, the fortunate direction that the board of eduction and the administrative staff and the professional staff has gotten direction collectively from and with one another in establishing the direction of the district. So it has been a fairly close knit group, in that the organizational objective of the district were commingled with the professional objective of the staff. I think there was a cognizant effort to say basically when we can get those two plateaus aligned with one another, the district will move foreword effectively. When those objective are in opposition to one another, or going off in different directions at least, then progress from the standpoint of overall organizational success begins to diminish. I can't say that there weren't times when segments of the whole organization didn't start to go off on tangents but I think the leadership of the times were able to bring that back in developing some of the goals and directions. At least having the people, all of the staff, when I say the staff I even extend it to the support staff, trying to share in the direction of the districts, one another being effectively aware of the others' individual goals and objectives. So that when we had staff members who were advancing heir skills, possibly looking into the area of guidance or administration or whatever it might be, there was an awareness on the part of the administrative organization of where those people were hoping to go. Acknowledging that at times and try to give them the opportunity, through professional development, to advance those skills. Knowing that person is truly interested in another area of education, That they may or may not do that within the school district but they are going to be much more contented professionals, if we are working with them even though in the final analysis they may leave our district to exercise their professional skills elsewhere in the advancement. That they will be happier professionals on our staff and work with us in the interim time in accomplishing our goals. So we try to provide a personal view of collectively working together.

Q: I hear your saying that for the fifty years you had the team approach here.

A: Exactly. In a small district you cannot have, well I'm not sure just a small district, but I can only speak that's been my experience. In a small district you can not afford not to have a team approach. Because everybody is critical to the success of the organization. I suppose if you had a very large school district with a high level of departmentalization etc., that maybe the opportunity for success of the organization without everybody being a central wheel in the cog, but in a small school district that's not feasible.

Q: Your success rest on capitalizing the synergism of the team approach. Thank you for sharing that with me, I can certainly see that administrators would want to follow that path. What characteristics do you believe are associate with the most effective schools, in addition to a team approach, a very important one?

A: Well, I think clearly established goals are essential, that's sort of fundamental to all operations. The constant evaluation as to whether you are working towards those goals. The effective organization, I feel, is able to deal with intrusions upon the plans. Whether it be from within or whether it be from, I say again, within the organization within the community and at times state imposed, federally imposed intrusions that end to, in a small school district, where everybody is sharing the load, tend to get you off track out of mandates or whatever they may be, crisis intervention what have you. It's easy for a small school district to get waylaid because of these intrusions and to get back on track is critical. A predecessor of mine discussed the concept of "selective neglect". You must learn what you can put on the back burner in order to keep the organization moving forward. I know in dealing with courses that I have taken for my superintendency than an effective superintendent deals with all of these things and is dealing constantly with everything and not putting anything on the back burner. I have not found that feasible.

Q: I can certainly understand how you as superintendent, business manager, and the only person in the central office, would have a very difficult time if you didn't set your goals, and priorities based upon what needs to be done.

A: Yes, because if you look at my desk and recognize the in basket and out basket content and everything is suppose to be neat, I guess I'm a failure at that. But there are so many dimensions to a single operation like this that I rely on good people, again in my office, secretaries etc., are critical to the success of the organization.

Q: I'm sure that's true and you probably know I'm a firm believer that if a cluttered desk is a sign of cluttered mind what does an empty desk say? I live by that principal. Thank you for sharing that with us. As you take a look at your school district and neighboring school district, the Intermediate Unit and across the state, what do you consider to be the idea size of school districts, bearing in mind, very small ones have problems. Very large ones tend to have their own set of problems. What would you consider to be the optimum size?

A: I believe our current size for instructional activities is to small. We have gone from 2500 pupils to our current, just slightly over 1200. We've had more of a change in our school district percentage wise, than another school district in the county. That's primarily because of being a community of a lot of our people were middle management people. Also, of course, the profile of our demographic population. You have a lot of families that have larger numbers of children in our district and now that's not the case of course across the nation. But I really feel under the current operation that a school district that has under 3000 provides a good opportunity to provide cross section courses. I think one of the things you have to keep in mind when you talk about numbers is the profile of your student body. Ours is fairly homogenous, I say that between the mid- sixties and mid-seventies as far as the percentages of our students go on to further their education. We do participate at the Vo-Tech school and they have altered their courses to try to address the needs of students, who maybe shouldn't go on to college at least the four years, have to do something in a technical fashion. I believe that as we become more proficient in the use of technology as far as delivering courses by way of satellite, that will help the smaller school district. There are some parameters that exist currently with some of the networking that's done that provides some limitations in that use of that. Among those being the restriction with some of the channels that you must use it immediately and you cannot tape it and replay it but I understand the interactive aspect is gone if you don't do it all the time. But sometimes that's really not to practical in our current setup. If that is not feasible to do then I think we have to look at other means of achieving that. We have had dialogue in our valley because the valley could tie together very easily, because we are in a very close proximity. Looking at fiber optics to develop, that's not going to happen overnight because of the expense but if that becomes a play, we can exchange courses very easily and share in that type of thing with an instructor interacting with the class at a time other than the traditional school day. So that they can be viewing a class even with out total interaction and interacting with the instructor on a time that's set outside the framework of the normal school day. That may be the salvation to smaller school districts as far as instruction goes. I think it's critical. There has been a lot of studies that are done as to students having the opportunity to participate in other activities within the framework of the school. I think a smaller school district offers that. All of our students, my mistake, a majority of our students participate in many different activities and it involves them in the "fabric of the school". And, I think that is critical today when the fabric of many homes is tattered. I think that more and more so, I see the school playing a different role, although there are segments of our society that would fight that. The reality of it is that we are playing a different role, I think, we need to provide opportunities for students to express their academic talents and the interests that they have outside the academic area in a positive fashion. I think a smaller school district offers that.

Q: I think small districts provide and research agrees, that opportunities for leadership for you people and gives them the chance to interact with others in a social life. I hope that you would share your futuristic ideas, as you change professions, that our school districts should incorporate in terms of curriculum in the future. I'd like to change views here for a little bit and take a look at quality management because businesses rely heavily upon Deming and business would like schools to take a look at the total quality management. Glasser has been working with quality schools for a period of time. I just would like your reaction to this whole concept of quality management.

A: The effort on the part of the business community to introduce TQM, like many things, I firmly believe that this district has had quality management as long as I have been associated with it. In that, unlike businesses who had to have a revolution mainly that which emanating from Japan, to draw attention you can't be just a top down dictation operation. I believe that and again I have a narrow perspective because my professional career has been only in this district. I cannot see, even my discussion with my peers, that there is a significant difference even in our area, in that the interplay that has gone on professionally by the entire staff, the effect of all the staff members, both in the professional and support staff, having an influence on the direction of the organization in our particular district has always been there, whether you call them quality circles, or whatever you call them staff involvement in the direction, have always enjoyed that! I say enjoyed that in that I did not have any other exposure than that occurring. In that the professional staff has always developed with the administrative staff and the Board of Education, the professional direction of the district and the intervening of the curricular areas, they were always determined by the professional staff. So industry I think saw this as a revelation. Many times goes about education think there is something mystique about business and industry, when we look inside that, if we take the time to that, we find out they should have been doing the things that we have been doing for years and years and years. You know I think Deming provided the structure and he had his disciples, I think, and I've courses and instructors who have used various models, I think that for an educator, and that's our business, we know what is effective in the classroom and certainly that same operation is effective in running the whole organization. That is you have to involve you staff. You have to have objectives, you have to be understanding of things that occur within the organization, when people see the needs, their personal needs, their professional needs changing. You have to be cognitive of that and still keep the wheels going and the evaluation, recycling, establishing new objectives, keeping your community both the internal community and external community aware of where you're going and be willing to adjust along the way. For me-that's common sense whether you put a handle on it with a particular title, that type of thing. I think anybody who starts to manage by direction without being cogni of the staff is manager, the style of management. But I think the effectiveness of that is diminished.

Q: Yes, I certainly agree with that and I do believe that educators are sometimes caught up in a business mystique, because its different terminology.

A: We need to them, folks, we have been doing this.

Q: Yes certainly do because superintendents have orchestrated the group for a period of time.

A: And giving our employees credit for the talents they have then the input is necessary. They have a critical position in the whole development of the organization.

Q: Yes they certainly do. While I'm sure that is one of the techniques that you used, very effectively, in creating the successful school culture. Are there any other techniques that you've used along the way that you would like to share with us?

A: Well, I think in the interaction with the various groups, superintendents sort of exists in precarious position relative to achieving the outcome that he or she would like to bring about in the organization. There are times that you provide direction; but you must be skilled in how you deliver that direction. Whether it be working with the Board of Education, whether it be working with your community, your staff or your office staff. There are times that you must exert to get direction. But you must be effective in doing that without turning people off. I think, that superintendents who take the term Superintendent and feel that they have a need to be recognized, a need to flex in their position, can do so, but they must be cognizant of the peril, that's out the in doing so. I think you must be sensitized to the people you work for and with and still have the ability to lay it on the line. To say at some point, if it's necessary, that this is the way it is to whatever group you are dealing with because you're convinced rather in your own mind that it's the direction to go after had the input of all the groups. It may not be popular with a segment, and everything we do has an unpopularity associated with it. But you must get to the point where you say this is the way it is, this is the direction we're going and we recognize that some of you don't feel that is the way, but by consensus, or whatever it amy be, this is the way we are going. At times, and if it comes to it with your community or your Board of Education say 'this isn't the way you feel we should go, even though it's by consensus then you know, you better look for other leadership." The are times that every superintendent should feel so convinced about the direction that you have to put your job on the line. That can or cannot come back to bite you but I think you have to do that! And new superintendents starting out, I believe should, when you are interviewing, have convictions, and those convictions must be delivered to those potential boards. If they are not in tune with conviction then they don't have to consider you a candidate. I feel you have to feel strongly about that type of thing or you won't be superintendent, you will not be a leader.

Q: I would certainly agree with that. The superintendent has to have the vision of the school while recognize these is a subtle tension between all of the groups that the superintendent worked with, but they do need to have an educational agenda and conviction.

A: And if those two things don't align, if your goals and objective don't align with that school districts goals and objectives you shouldn't marry. Because you'll be at loggerheads and you'll be dissatisfied with you and you'll be dissatisfied with the situation in which you find yourself.

Q: That very good advise to give people going into the superintendency. While I have never been a superintendent, I have had the opportunity to work with 27 to 30 of you, I see that as a real strike. When I first went to the unit I was in awe of the group of superintendents, I've learned to recognize their strengths. I've enjoyed have an opportunity to work with them. How would you describe organizational changes as it has happened. In know that you had started to teach here in 1959. You have been with the school district and you have been one of those fortunate people who have had to see history of all the districts. Would you like to describe that for us?

A: The change that I was part of in the district saw a growth that occurred from the time I entered which peaked from the early seventies. My transition administratively was in the later sixties. When I had a very enjoyable experience because I saw it as a opportunity to work in the trenches, as it were, with the instructional staff. I was very much interested in curriculum development and that type of thing. It was real opportunity to get that very close perspective with the professional staff- working in the classroom beyond what I had experienced personally in the classroom.

Q: Would you elaborate on that for us?

A: Well, I think anybody whose is working in the classroom because at that time while we had dialogue, among staff members, pretty much you see, you think everybody is doing what your doing or better in the classroom. And you're a little naevi, I think, when you begin teaching and into the first five-six years. The assumption is, that everybody is, I think, you're very critical of yourself, evaluative wise. You think that you should be doing better and you strive to do better within your classroom. When you go into the administrative arena, it's like a new vision as it were, and now you are seeing a lot of different techniques and you may or may not find that what you did was on the cutting edge, very good, mediocre or maybe your perspective of yourself was accurate, you should have been doing a better job. So, you do get an eye opener moving from instruction to administration, but I saw it as very enjoyable, it was a real fun time. Because I enjoy working with people in the classroom, bringing ideas and I saw myself more as facilitator because I could have a little bit of influence relative to bringing materials, or what have you. Again at that time, I was involved in charge of all the federal programs in the district so I was able to write the grants and bring some technology in at a time when technology was just beginning. We were, I believe-one of the first districts in the county to have multimedia labs in our elementary schools. We have that type of thing occurring. That would have been in the latter sixties or early seventies. But, my transition again from the administrative to superintendency was at a time when change was occurring because of size change. And actually, I would have to say, that a majority of my time as a superintendency has been a retrenching of staff. I have furloughed and demoted more people than I have hired. So if all of my schooling leading into my superintendency was built around good hiring techniques and organizational growth and that type of thing. My almost my entire experience was dealing with the opposite, I find myself preparing to go into labor relation hearing, arbitration hearings, and things of that nature, that were hinged around furloughing and demotions. So it was sort of, I guess you could consider it a negative factor but it was a realistic for the times in the school district of our size and with what was happening with our student population. At the same tie, I inherited a district where preventive maintenance was minimalized because dollars were going for in the classroom and instruction and that type of thing. It was again a transition where five or four rigs as far as handicap rigs and now the aba rigs needed to be addressed. Our facilities were not accessible. We had one facility that was and the others were not. So the biggest change that fell upon me after again being internal I could see that, where as a new person coming in would take a period of time to assess and that type of thing. But I could see that the dollars needed to be spent on facility upgrading, facility management, energy was a big factor, because our facilities were really poor energy users. I felt that the dollars I could save there in the long run would help us maintain our program offers, which we had been able to do up to this point.

Q: Given the research about the difficulty in handling a school district during downsizing, your career files in the face of that. I believe you should be commended for that. Well to spite my best efforts, there is probably something you would like to share with the people who will be listening to this tape. something that I haven't asked you to share with us, and I'd like to give you the opportunity to do that. Would you like a minute or are you ready?

A: I believe that the best thing anyone has in dealing with the variety of issues that comes before a superintendent of schools is good common sense. You can draw upon all of the models that are out there and the techniques, but, because of the complexity of the office, in that especially in a small school district, but in all districts there are so many different demands at any one time that to say one model is going to give you the answer to everything. If that were the case, there would be only one model. Somebody is out there now cooking up a model that they are going to deliver, that is going to marketable, and they will project to be the salvation. I think anybody who buys into the idea that one model is going to be the answer, you are going to hang your hat. You are going to go into a school board interview for the superintendency and say when I come here I'm bringing this model and this is going to be the salvation of this district. If you believe that, I think you are naive. I think you have to say that if you have the awareness of many different venues to solve problems, but that your strength is your knowledgablility and your common sense to know that in a people business like we are in, it take people to solve the problem. That your success of the district will depend upon your ability to utilize the resources that are/exist within that district in bringing solutions to all problems. The resources of the district can only be tapped if you are sensitized. I think that if your sensitized to the fact that the interaction of your professional staff, you'll bring about the success of the organization and therefore your success. That words of education are as different as the spectrum. In some, we would be looking for a more autocratic--I have the way, the light, the truth. You have to determine in your own mind, whether or not that's the type of superintendent you want to be. If they're looking for that and you can be happy with that, I suppose that's fine. If you are that type of superintendent, you better let the boards know that. Because undoubtedly there are people that's there management style, they are autocratic. They know the answer. They feel they, as being a superintendent and you should know all the answers and you have the direction, singular direction and everybody falls in line. Militaristic type of style, but you know that's fine and if the district is looking for that then you match up well. That's not my style and I don't think that's the most effective way of providing leadership. It might be the most expedient. Because I always caution my own administrators, the more democratic you become, the longer it's going to take to achieve that goal. There are times, and we'll go back to the selective neglect contractors. One of my predessors mentioned, there are times when you cannot afford to be too democratic. Just from a time stand point. So times that you being a administrator or superintendent, you just have to make a decision and that's that. You're not as at risk, its not as critical an issue. Although the more you do that the more you can slip across into the autocratic area and as the demands are there, its a trip you can fall into very easily. To say well, I don't have time to do that, so this is the way it's going to be. ANd all of a sudden you are doing more and more of that and less and less of listening before you come to a decision. So that's a danger, I think the marriage that you make with your districts as superintendent, it is not worth it to go into a superintendency. I know the motivation is who is going to look at you and say, but I think that if you like the concept that misery like company, then sacrifice anything and become a superintendent. I don't advise that. I think that wise and why there is such a transition and in the big city superintendencies. Because typically those people are more mobile they like the idea of and I think I believe that the self-esteem type, they like the idea of I'm a superintendent of a large school district. i think it does something for them which his fine, its a good thing we have people like that or nobody would be in that role. And I think there many times they come in with a single issue selling point, tread water and everything else. Because you must rely, you have a choice to rely on the rest of the staff. You can't have your hand in the pulse of everything. I would think that a successful large district superintendent is likely to have been successful in a small school district first. I think it would be easier, because at least ha or she would have the knowledge of what it is like out there. Because I see that today's era when we are seeing a lot of change overs, I think it's true in our state and other states, because of when most people entered the field. There are going to be more opportunities and I think some young administrators will have the opportunities to move into some larger districts. I think they should waive that in making that transition. They don't have the talent to judge anybody's ability to move in and to do something and to it efficiently. I think we need to walk a little bit in the shoes. I worry about people that go through the educational institution, get a doctorate, and then go right into a superintendency. I would see that as being the most difficult because they are not necessarily sensitized to the other ares. So basically I guess that if I were teaching the final class for superintendents and I would share this with you its not the one I subscribe to. I recall a gentleman who was in one of my superintendent classes said to me, "After you were taught all the democratic ways of doing things and the right way of doing thing, my parting shot was give it to them before they give it to you."

Q: Certainly not your philosophy, Stan!

A: No, no, but creates an awareness that there is a total spectrum out there, certainly the staff your dealing with you need to recognize that you are dealing a professional staff. But they have different motivations and that motivation changes from time to time. You are dealing with unions and things of that nature which tend to distort your perspective. I think its the type of thing that businesses, now they have discovered Deming, who came very distorted and fractionalized because I think that was the big rift between management and labor. We had a different situation, though basically, because in a school district primarily 90% of our staff is professional and the small portion, not nonprofessional, but supportive. We view them as supportive where business unfortunately especially int he fifties and forties, it was them and us. I think the majority of school districts do enjoy the us framework and utilize that.

Q: Ok, well, thank you very much. I've certainly enjoyed your tips to those people who want to become superintendents.

A: Keep your sense of humor!

Q: That's right.

A: Amen. Good common sense and a sense of humor will help you survive.

Q: Thank you so much for taking all this time. I know how busy superintendents are especially in small school district, where you have the superintendents, business manager, instructional leader, the curriculum director, and on and on! Thank you very much and I'm sure that you have provide much food for thought to the people who will listen to this tape and the person will transcribe this tape and analyze it too. Thank you.

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