A Survival Guide for Pupil Services Administrators

By Jim Shillinglaw, Trustee

How many times do we hear from other educators, “I wouldn’t want your job”? My guess is many times. The reason for that often heard observation it that being a Pupil Services Administrator is one of the most stressful positions in public education.

We are given the responsibility to educate the most challenging students in our school system from the ages three to twenty-two (this varies from state to state). We are often referred to as the “Director of Mandates”. We must understand, implement and enforce demanding state and federal regulations. The regulations can vary but often include IDEA, Section 504, Title 1, ADA, Safe and Drug Free Schools.

In many school systems, we have the responsibility of managing a large portion of the district budget. In many districts, the Student Services budget can be close to 20% of the total budget. This is also the most volatile area of any school budget. I refer to it as the Russian roulette approach to budgeting. We have little control over many variables that can greatly impact the budget including students moving into the district with substantial needs, unexpected out-ofdistrict placements, hiring additional staff, and assistive technology. Special Education is constantly pitted with general education in competing for funds. Because Special Education is mandated, there are unfortunate scenarios where money is taken from general education to fund unanticipated Special Education expenses.

So, how do we survive, be effective and remain relatively sane? The following are practical suggestions that may be useful:

  • Pick your battles. When we are working within the frameworks of mandates that ensure the rights of parents and students, we quickly understand that there are relatively few battles to pick. Some administrators think, “No issue is too small.” I believe we lose credibility within the community when we are constantly viewed as being adversarial and anti-student. Remember, although we have to be fiscally responsible, it is our role to provide the best programs possible. Balancing the budget and the needs of students is often our biggest conflict. Effectively manage the areas that can be controlled, and don’t worry about those that cannot be controlled.
  • Develop and implement good programs, policies and procedures. This will be of great assistance in establishing consistency throughout the district.
  • Anticipate trends. We are constantly in reactive situations; we need to be proactive whenever possible. The following are examples of good practices that can be developed and in place when the unexpected happens:
    • Crisis Teams
    • Critical Incident Policy
    • District Procedure Manual
    • Eligibility Criteria
    • Alternative programs that will alleviate the need to send students out-of -district.
  • Educate the community. It is amazing how little the public (and many staff members) understand about our jobs and responsibilities. The general public has no idea of the broad range of students with very unique needs that we educate. Take every opportunity to inform the public. This can be done through the School Committee, Special Education Advisory Councils, Community Forums, Public Hearings for the budget, articles in the local newspapers or writing a Student Services Newsletter.
  • Establish a good working relationship with building principals. The effectiveness, commitment and success of district-wide programs depend on the support of the principal. Principals are very powerful people who establish the culture of each building.
  • Develop a support network. Ours is a very lonely job. Principals have other principals but whom do we have? Make a point of establishing a connection with fellow Student Services Administrators. Attend collaborative and cooperative meetings. Establish job-alike discussion groups. Join professional organizations like NAPSA.
  • Delegate. This is very difficult to do, but a very necessary strategy. A Student Services Administrator cannot do everything and remain effective. Look for staff that has potential leadership ability and mentor them by delegating projects.
  • Surround yourself with good people. We are only as good as the people we hire. Once hired, take care of staff members by providing the resources they need to be effective.
  • Never say “Never”. Avoid absolutes as they may come back to haunt you. When we are working with demanding mandates, nothing is absolute.
  • Take the high road. We swim in a sea of bait. Try not to take the bait put forth by advocates, attorneys, angry parents, and classroom teachers. Maintain a professional demeanor and remain focused on the greater good. In the end, the high road will gain the respect of many.
  • Most importantly, take care of yourself. Put parameters around your job. Exercise, take a walk or run at lunch. Use the vacation days you have earned to full advantage. Stress reduction strategies are critical skills in order to avoid professional burnout.