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Imhoff Exhorts Comraderie for Overcoming ‘the Worst Two Years of Our Professional and Personal Lives’

AASA President Paul Imhoff, right, says leaders must take care of themselves in order to take care of others.

While admitting to his own self-doubts about his capacity to continue on as a superintendent during the tumult caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, AASA President Paul Imhoff called on his colleagues to be a countervailing human force.

His remarks, which touched on his personal and professional challenges, were delivered Thursday afternoon at the 1st General Session of the AASA national conference in Nashville.

 “I have had many days when I have doubted my ability to keep serving and wondered how I could keep moving forward,” said Imhoff, superintendent of Ohio’s Upper Arlington Schools. “The divisions have seemed so deep and the problems have seemed so large. But, like you, I have gotten out of bed each day and put one foot in front of the other and kept moving forward.”

He added: “Many of us have been living through the worst two years of our professional and personal lives. As I have talked to superintendents across the country, many have expressed the sense of fatigue that comes from these constant struggles, and at times, some have even shared feelings of hopelessness and despair.”

He admitted he had no inspiring story to deliver to the AASA audience about how he has overcome these challenges, but he did carry a strong exhortation: Be there to bolster your fellow school leaders.

“Many superintendents have reported that they have been able to keep going due to the support and encouragement of colleagues,” Imhoff said. “I have heard numerous stories of superintendents joining together to support one another when they needed it most. That has been my story too. I am here today, still standing, still serving and still leading, not because of me, but because of amazing friends and colleagues who have had my back.”

He has come to realize that organizational leadership is not an individual sport, but a team sport. “If you are feeling alone and discouraged, please know this room is filled with people who are feeling the same way you are and this room is also filled with the most amazing people in the world, Imhoff said during his 15-minute speech.  “Take advantage of this opportunity — make new friends, reach out, encourage someone and allow others to encourage you. And remember — you are not alone.” 

Before leaving the stage, Imhoff returned to a resonating theme of superintendent self-care, which was central to his speech as the association’s incoming president at AASA’s virtual 2021 national conference.

“We have been taught and we have practiced the philosophy of ‘leaders eat last’ and this is true,” he said while promoting AASA’s Live Well, Lead Well initiative. “But many of us, at times, take that a step further and practice the destructive creed, which is best described as ‘leaders don’t eat.' This just doesn’t work. You see — we can’t lead, we can’t serve, if we are not well.”

He added: “Our teachers can’t teach if they are not well, and our students can’t learn if they are not well. Wellness is foundational. As leaders we can’t just preach wellness and expect everyone to follow what we are saying while ignoring what we are doing.  We must lead by example and that means we must focus on our own wellness. It is not an indulgence — it is a necessity.” 

(Jay P. Goldman is editor-in-chief of Conference Daily Online and editor of AASA’s School Administrator magazine.)

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