Surviving State Government: An Underground Guide

Topic: Outcomes

When I arrived at the Vermont Department of Education in 1991 to assume responsibilities as the Early Childhood Education Coordinator, I was eager and well-intentioned – but pretty much clueless. Where do I begin as a public servant leader? What do I do? Who do I need to know? Where do I go to get answers? How do I get into the building on weekends?

Last month’s election will bring new ideas and new people into state government and state education offices. There is no playbook to guide new state early education leaders and little, if any, formal orientation for the position. Roles are typically inherited without benefit of an experienced mentor. We are given job descriptions which help; but quickly learn they simply identify what we are expected to do with no hint of how best to achieve it or with whom.

Even so, the what column in the job description turns out to be only a partial list. Then there’s the last line of the job description – “Performs all other tasks as assigned by supervisor” – which is so broad, you could drive a state highway budget through it. Ultimately, I think that final line is inserted for three purposes: First, it recognizes that work in state government is ever-evolving and defies being written in stone; second, it keeps the door open for unexpected “opportunities” at the department that no one else wants to take on; and finally, it prevents us from heading for the exit before formally accepting the position.

Fortunately, I consider myself a “survivor” of state government, having lasted nearly two decades being involved in exciting, meaningful work. Had it not been for the kind and generous support of my overworked supervisors and colleagues, I may not have made it through the probationary period. These saints were instrumental in answering my endless questions and using “anticipatory guidance” to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself or the department in the process of learning the ropes. If I haven’t said it enough, thank you to everyone who shaped me into a leader.

Beyond my state agency colleagues, one national organization was particularly valuable during my formative stage in state government – the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE). At that time, NAECS-SDE was a small, nascent organization formed by state pioneers such as Harriet Egertson, Tynette Hills, and Susan Anderson to bring early learning specialists from state education agencies together to support one another in our work. It was my lifeline and continues as a valuable resource for veteran and new state early education leaders alike.

More recently, the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) has dedicated its resources to support state early education leaders, offering an annual Leadership Academy for emerging leaders, convening annual National Roundtables for state specialists (and others), sponsoring a Leadership Professional Learning Community for new upper-level directors of state agencies, and developing an online Leadership Toolkit to support state and local leaders.

As I move forward into retirement at the end of 2018, I am relieved to know that new state and national leaders in early education no longer have to rely on transitional approaches akin to “sink-or-swim,” “trial by fire,” or “fake it ’til you make it.”

State government may remain a formidable mountain unto itself, but the paths to successful leadership no longer require solo attempts. Our field will always need to bring along new leaders to best serve young children, and it’s good to know many hands are reaching out to assist them in the journey.

Jim recently compiled lessons learned into Surviving State Government: An Underground Guide for State Early Learning Specialists.

In addition to serving in state government, Jim has researched national early education policy and practices, focusing on prekindergarten through third grade with an emphasis on school readiness. His work at NIEER included serving as a liaison to states for the annual State of Preschool yearbook and providing technical assistance. He also served on the leadership team for CEELO, as president of NAECS-SDE, and as faculty at University of Vermont and other schools.

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