School superintendent is the highest and best paid job you can get in educational administration. You will interview in front of a panel consisting of board members, the same people you will report to in the job. As you can likely imagine, you won’t deal with typical questions at this point, such as “What are your weaknesses?”, or “What motivates you the most in work?”.
The interviewers will focus on three key areas while talking to you:
- Your experience with leadership roles. You have probably worked as a school principal for years, or had other leadership position within or outside of the district.
- Your vision for the school district. What you would like to improve and change, your plans for the next few years.
- Your attitude to various tricky situations that can happen in your daily dealing with different stakeholders from the district. They will test this with behavioral questions.
Let’s have a look at the questions you may face on the big day.
Can you point out the major successes of your career so far?
They’ve studied your resume carefully, they know exactly where you worked and what you did. They are aware of the chairs you sat on, but they wonder what you achieved from your position.
I suggest you to go through your previous roles, one by one, and identify one or two biggest tangible achievements. It can be anything from improving the overall reputation of a school, leading a successful promotional campaign which led to 50% increase in student applications, getting excellent teachers and counselors onboard, redesigning the educational process, eliminating bullying at the school you led, and dozens of other things.
Of course, it is better if you can backup your claims with something. It can be some report, some internal study conducted at school, or anything else. Try to focus on the successes you achieved for the school, and for the students, not some personal recognition and badges, such as a best principal of the year award…
Have you ever failed as a leader? Describe the situation.
Each leader has failed at least once. And it is important that you can admit your failure–and don’t blame your subordinates or ill-luck for the eventual result.
You can even describe more failures at this point. The key is to clearly explain why you failed–what data you misjudged or misinterpreted, how it came that you made a bad decision, simply what happened. Then you can elaborate on it, explaining the lessons you learned in the process, and how they actually made you a batter leader.
Only he who does nothing spoils nothing. It is important to admit that you make mistakes. But you learn from them, incorporate the lessons into your decision process, and move on, doing it better next time.
How would you describe the situation in our school district? What challenges do we face right now?
Obviously it is crucial to do a throughout research before your interview. Talk to your acquaintances and connections from ranks of all stakeholders–administrators, teachers, counselors, parents, students, sponsors.
Try to understand what bothers them, and how they feel about the educational process. Then look at it from the leadership perspective. Are there any policies you can change, or implement, in order to address this or that issue? Is there any area in which you can allocate the funds more effectively, in order to address this or that problem? Or perhaps a staff member you need to hire?
Do your research, and do not hesitate to be critical. If the board members were satisfied with the status quo, they wouldn’t be looking for a new superintendent (unless the old one is retiring due to old age).
What is your vision for our school district?
It is better if you prepare something in print, or even a presentation (in a program like Microsoft PowerPoint) you can show in the interviews. The key is to clarify a few principal areas you want to focus on.
Again, the more numbers you include, the better. Maybe you want to increase the number of para-educators and special ed teachers, or work out a better system with substitute teaching, or make the financing more transparent, and effective.
Another idea is to summarize, in one sentence, what school district you hope to spearhead in two years for one. Maybe a district where “everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive and maximize their potential”, or a district “free from bullying, nepotism, and pointless internal conflicts”.
Of course, similarly to the previous question, you need to do a good research and think about it in advance, so your answer makes sense…
If we hire you as our new superintendent, what will be the first thing you will do?
Safe bet is saying that you will have a one on one meeting with key representatives of different stakeholder in the district, to get to know the people, and understand what bothers them. Then, based on these meetings (and of course the meetings with the board), you will set clear goals for your first year in job, and a plan how you can achieve them. Then you will start working on the goals, while taking care of your regular daily agenda.
A better answer (not a safe bet though) is pointing out two or three changes you will try to implement as soon as you start in the office. It can be hiring someone or firing someone, introducing new policy, or even conducting a wide-scale internal audit… If you opt for one of these options, make sure that you have an explanation ready, that means why you want to take this or that action, what goals you follow with it, etc.
Tell us about a time when you had to make a decision without all information you needed.
Try to talk about a situation when you eventually made a decision. Good one or bad one isn’t the most important thing at this point. Superintendent is a leadership role, and they expect you to be able to make a decision, even if you lack some piece of information. Let’s have a look at one sample answer:
I remember a conflict I had to solve between a teacher and a student. It was a specific situation, because there were no witnesses to their encounter, and each of the conflict parties had their own version of the story. I didn’t want to simply say that the teacher was right, because in such a case I might lose the trust of the student community. But I had to follow the procedures, and take a disciplinary action against someone. I consulted school psychologist, counselor, parent of the child, and also their classmates, as well as other teachers. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the student was telling the truth, and I took the disciplinary action against a teacher. I did not have the information initially, but found my way to get some information, and eventually I made an informed decision.
Tell us about a time when you had to fire someone you liked. How did you deal with it emotionally?
They say that everyone deserves a second chance, but certain mistakes cannot be tolerated. If there was a case of sexual abuse, or violence, or if one of the teachers came drunk to school, you had no other option than terminating their contract. Effective immediately.
Ensure the board members that there’s no place for emotions in an effective and fair management. You do not fire people for no reason–or because you may not like them personally. If someone breaks the rules, however, and if it is a case of a serious breach, you will fire them without a blink of an eye. Regardless of whether their name means nothing to you, or the two of you have known each other for twenty years…
Other questions you may face in your school superintendent interview
- Tell us about a time when you demonstrated leadership.
- Imagine that a parent calls you and complains loudly about the level of education in one of the schools belonging to the district. How will you react?
- What is your experience with forecasting and budgeting?
- In your opinion, how has the covid-19 pandemic impacted the education in this area, and what can we do about it from our position?
- What do you consider your most outstanding contribution to your present school district?
- Please give a situation where you have been a Manager, a Leader and a Boss. Rank them in importance.
- What strategies have you used in the past to confront and manage bullying?
- How will you measure your success after the first year in this job?
- What are your expectations on the principals, and on the board members?
Final thoughts, next steps
Interview for a job of a school superintendent belongs to tricky interviews, because it isn’t easy to estimate what exactly they will ask you.
In some cases you may spend an hour discussing you working experience with them, explaining what you did in this or that situation, and why. In other cases they may have a long list of behavioral questions ready, and simply ask you one question after another…
The difficulty of your interview depends also on the number of competitors. In some extreme cases you can be their only candidate–which makes your situation easier. But it can also happen that you compete for the job with five or six other highly experienced administrators, and things get much more complicated.
Anyway, do a good research about the district. Identify their strengths and weaknesses, and have a vision ready for your first year in job, explaining what you’d like to change for better. Think about your career, pick your greatest achievements, and prepare for a variety of behavioral questions. That’s likely the most you can do to succeed…
May also interest you:
- School principal interview questions – some of them may overlap with the questions for superintendent.
- Guide on how to overcome interview nerves – get rid of anxiety and show them your very best on the big day.