How to Become a School Superintendent

December 02, 2021

Shawn Greiner

Instructional Faculty, Educational Leadership


Today’s school superintendent wears many hats and faces the political arena in new and challenging ways. However, first and foremost, the superintendent must remain committed to serving equitable learning opportunities to every student in the district. This article will discuss the responsibilities a superintendent must carry out, the experiences a superintendent might need and the leadership skills an effective superintendent should have to ensure a successful career.

As someone who has walked the path to superintendentship, I will share my experiences in hopes you’ll find my insights personable, informing and actionable. Ultimately, you will see that serving as superintendent of schools, while demanding, can be both rewarding and fulfilling.

What is a School Superintendent?

The superintendent serves as the chief executive officer of the school district, answering to the district’s board of directors. Responsible for instructional leadership that leads to optimal student learning and outcomes, a superintendent should have classroom experience as well as school-level leadership experience.

In addition to monitoring achievement, the superintendent oversees the district’s budget and overall district operations, including maintenance and construction of buildings, curriculum, policies, transportation, foodservice and extra-curricular opportunities. Today’s superintendents must also be politically savvy, given the rise of school choice and privatization through school vouchers and charters. It is the superintendent’s responsibility to lobby for the district’s best interest regarding such political issues, which means it’s critical to maintain dialogue with politicians and stay involved in professional organizations.

“The most rewarding part of the job is the magnitude of impact a superintendent can have on students.”

Superintendents are often seen as the face of a district. As such, they must keep open lines of communication with the media and remain present on social media. Building working relationships with fellow superintendents can also be key, as together you can work to advocate for the greater good of the students you serve. This becomes even more important in turbulent times brought on by crises or tragedies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The ability to work collaboratively, think on one’s feet and communicate effectively can make or break a superintendent.

The complexity of the position requires a superintendent to be collaborative by nature and able to rely on distributed leadership. And because each district is so different, there’s no standard way to measure success. Thus, superintendents must put in place accountability procedures and the organized systems required to follow up on them. Effective communication is the key to keeping all stakeholders informed and working together.

What is the Typical Career Path for a School Superintendent?

The pathway to superintendency may vary. Most commonly, superintendents come straight from the classroom or from other leadership experiences.

Having an instructional background is critical. That knowledge allows superintendents to remain focused on learning and understand best practices for ensuring instructional equity for all learners. Some aspiring superintendents gain leadership experience within the classroom and then move onto principalship or assistant principalship. From there, it’s possible to move directly into the superintendent position.

Others move from principalship into central office administration, such as a curriculum director or a director of operations. These experiences lead to a deeper understanding of districtwide leadership, providing opportunity to work alongside a superintendent and work closely with a school board.

However, even this experience doesn’t quite add up to superintendency. The learning curve is steep, but there are superintendents’ organizations that offer mentor support, allowing new superintendents to work with and learn from experienced superintendents.

Keep in mind that some states have specific requirements that must be met to be considered for superintendency, including different levels of education completion, which we’ll cover in the next section. Be sure to study the requirements specific to your state so you are prepared with the necessary experiences, education level and certification. Some states also offer alternative pathways to certification but remember that the more well-rounded you are in the classroom, school and district, the better prepared you will be to serve your school board and community.

Just like the pathway, the amount of time it takes to reach superintendency can vary. It’s up to you to decide how much time you want to spend at each level of your career. Because I felt such passion for working with my students, families and community, I was a classroom teacher for 11 years and then a principal for 13 years before moving up to superintendency. While my in-depth and authentic experiences in education have served me well, it’s possible to become a superintendent in less time.

What Degree Do You Need to Become a School Superintendent?

Education requirements to become a superintendent vary by state. However, most will expect a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. A bachelor’s degree with an education-related major can help you step into a teaching role and a master’s degree in education will help you better understand and support all learners.

“It’s worth noting that superintendency is a competitive position, so take some time to consider what will make you more competitive in the job market.”

To hone your leadership skills, consider a master’s degree in educational leadership, which can prepare you for leadership at the school level. Accredited leadership preparation programs can help with this and are especially necessary for states that require the successful completion of an approved preparation program.

It’s worth noting that superintendency is a competitive position, so take some time to consider what will make you more competitive in the job market. You may also want to set yourself up to qualify for opportunities beyond your own state’s requirements. A doctoral-level degree may better prepare you with more comprehensive educational leadership knowledge and experiences.

The Benefits of Being a School Superintendent

Unlike most teachers, who get a break during a portion of the summer, superintendents do not, typically working a 260-day contract. However, there are many benefits to being a superintendent.

Superintendent roles are usually accompanied by robust retirement and healthcare benefits. In addition, superintendents are paid competitively and can negotiate their salary in the initial contract. As of April 2021, reports that the U.S. school district superintendent salary range typically falls between $135,945 and $199,335. The lowest 10 percent of salaries averaged $107,394, while the top 10 percent made $230,409 or more.

“While the teacher impacts students within a classroom and the principal impacts students within a school, the superintendent impacts the community at-large across an entire district.”

The most rewarding part of the job, though, is the magnitude of impact a superintendent can have on students. While the teacher impacts students within a classroom and the principal impacts students within a school, the superintendent impacts the community at-large across an entire district. The superintendent can improve school culture districtwide, ensure equity for a large population of learners and establish shared values of inclusiveness, trustworthiness and approachability. Through the support of stakeholders and the community, a superintendent can set the stage for optimal learning for each and every student.

Superintendency can also lead to future opportunities. Even after retirement, many superintendents choose to consult on curriculum development or assume interim positions as a district looks to fill a superintendent vacancy. Superintendents may also go on to teach at the collegiate level, as long as they have the requisite doctoral degree necessary.

Next Steps for Becoming a School Superintendent

Now that you have learned about all that it takes to become a superintendent, does superintendency seem like the right fit for you? If your goal is to effect positive change on a large scale and make a great impact on students, families and communities, this could be your perfect role.

Once you’ve completed a bachelor’s degree, the best path forward is to pursue a master’s degree in educational leadership. Build on your professional experience by becoming a teacher leader and then moving up to schoolwide leadership roles like principal or assistant principal. Once you have obtained your master’s, consider moving on to obtain a doctorate in education. With a strong foundation, you may be ready make a difference in the educational landscape as a superintendent.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Shawn Greiner
Shawn Greiner, Instructional Faculty, Educational Leadership

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