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Do School Administrators Have Private Lives?

I felt obligated to give him an interview for the high school principal job. He was currently an assistant principal in another district, but his family and his wife’s family were long-time respected residents of our community. He had two children in elementary school and believed that as a district resident and local taxpayer that he had a “right” to the high school position. This was the opinion he laid out in a letter to my school board before his interview, confirming my longstanding belief that he lacked good judgment.

But timing is everything, as George Burns famously pointed out, and about a week before his interview for the job he left his wife and children and moved in with a student teacher 15 years his junior. Still, he showed up for his interview undaunted and confident that we would be lucky to have him.

JudgmentIt was a group interview with about 15 faculty and staff. What he hadn’t counted on was that his wife’s sister, a teacher in the district, was a member of the interview committee, and when it was her turn to ask a question, she went off script. Instead of asking him about his
commitment to the arts, she said, “How would you describe the moral or ethical code a school administrator should have?” He paused, and then said grandly, “What I do as a private person is between me and my God. Just because you’re a school administrator doesn’t mean you can’t have a private life.”

She then stuck a fork in him and saw he was done. It’s all about judgment.

Also done is former Des Moines superintendent Nancy Sebring, who resigned from a new position she was to start next month as superintendent of Omaha schools. It was discovered that Sebring had used district technology to send and receive sexually explicit emails from a lover. The Des Moines Register, in what I would also call a lack of judgment, printed some of the emails from Sebring to her lover. Both are married. Sebring later said, “I want to say that I do think every individual’s entitled to have a private life, even public employees.” That didn’t fly in Des Moines or Omaha any more than it did in upstate New York.

Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators Daniel Domenech called the Sebring story a “cautionary tale for all school administrators,” adding, “Particularly at the school district level, a superintendent should be beyond reproach.” Domenech thinks that the Sebring story will have ramifications nationally. I’m not so sure. Sebring isn’t the first administrator to lose her job over a startling indiscretion, and she won’t be the last. But the great majority of school administrators recognize that their private life isn’t really private. We knew that when we chose the profession, or at least we should have. In Sebring’s case, it’s not so much the affair as the complete lack of judgment that led to her resignation. And as Domenech notes, in the school business serious lapses in judgment are hard to overcome. Fair? Maybe not. True? Absolutely.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.