The Courage to Lead, Women in Profile focuses on women in leadership positions in business, industry, government, education, and non-profits organizations.

Bethel Superintendent Virginia Potter was born to be a teacher. She discovered her love of teaching as a young student struggling to maintain A’s and B’s according to her parents expectations. “When I was growing up schools didn’t identify processing and learning disabilities. I didn’t struggle with reading or social studies but math and science were difficult for me. Because C’s were unacceptable, I would go home, lay out all of my stuffed animals, and teach them. Because I am verbal, I had to hear it to see it. By explaining it to them I grasped it as well.” She laughs, “They really liked me and I fell in love with teaching.”

She added, “I had teachers that only taught one way and I couldn’t get it. So, I took good notes and then went home and learned it my way. I realized that there are many ways to learn. That is why I went into teaching.”

Thus began her journey that led Potter to become Bethel Local Schools Superintendent.

Background

Potter grew up in the Pocono Mountain Region in Northeast Pennsylvania. “I had a phenomenal high school teacher that told me I was a good writer. With her encouragement I earned a scholarship to Cedarville University in writing.” Potter earned her Bachelor’s in English Secondary Education.

Potter began her teaching career in private schools but returned to Cedarville and taught English at the university. When her husband accepted a job in Dallas, Texas, Potter started on a Master’s Degree at Texas A&M. She also taught at a public middle school. Her principal approached her and said, “You know you’re not teaching college kids anymore. You are teaching middle school kids.” Potter replied, “Teach me how.” She added, “It changed my life. The school system enrolled 55,000 kids. It was fun. After five years, my family and I moved back to Cedarville and I finished my Master’s at Wright State University. I’m still working on my Doctorate at Liberty University.”

Potter worked as an assistant principal at Fairborn for three years, and then moved to Beavercreek. She finally took a position as middle school and high school principal at Cedarville where she worked for 13 years. She said, “The teachers were great. I loved the small school setting. I fell in love with administration because there were so many things you could do as an administrator. As a principal, I developed programs. As a teacher, the kids are your focus. As a principal, the teachers are your focus. Your job is to make them successful, so the kids can be successful. It is neat to see teachers grow and step outside of their box to try new things, to take risks, and to positively affect lives. When you are a principal it is no longer about you, it is about making your teachers successful. You take a back seat. I learned to work in the background and I loved it.”

The superintendent at Cedarville encouraged her to complete her superintendent license. Potter said, “I fought him for a long time because I loved being a principal. I loved working with the kids. However, early in my career, I made a commitment to sit back and reflect on what I was doing every five years. I would ask myself whether this was where I wanted to stay or whether I wanted to develop further. I was interviewing for another principal position when I realized that the big picture intrigued me. I’m a big picture person. I decided right then that I wanted to go back to school to finish my superintendent license. I turned down the job.”

She added, “I had a wonderful mentor. He told me ‘You do the right thing for the right reason and you let the chips fall where they may. You need to lay your head down on a pillow at night with the knowledge that you did what was best for the students and no one else.”

When the Bethel superintendent position opened, she decided it was time to apply. Potter laughs, “When Board Member Joe Solch called me for the interview; I was on my way to Florida. They wanted to interview me on that Friday. I told him I was sorry because we would be pulling into Florida that evening. Joe wouldn’t take no for an answer so we agreed that they would interview me at six o’clock on Friday by Skype. I got to Florida 15 minutes before the interview. I looked terrible. I thought this is a waste of time and he was ruining my vacation. However, 45 minutes into the interview I thought. These people are great. I was comfortable with the teachers, the principal, and the board. But, I didn’t think it would work out. I hadn’t visited the school, but after five days of negotiations, I accepted the position.”

Superintendent of Bethel Schools

Potter admitted, “The change from principal to superintendent was difficult. When you are a superintendent you see a much larger picture. It took me a while to adjust and to learn and understand the key players. You have to pay attention to multiple sectors in the school, maintenance, secretaries, bus drivers, teachers, principals, everyone, sometimes with conflicting interests. Your goal is to make them all grow in the same direction. It is difficult to measure. I think you have to stay a while to make that happen.”

Potter adds, “I started at a difficult time. The building project had just hit bedrock; I had to hire two principals, and an athletic director; I came into a mess. I didn’t have all the information I needed. But, since then, I have learned what questions to ask. The community wants to stay small; however, it is growing and the world is changing, so as a school we have to respond to those changes. In the three years I’ve been here, I have seen some real growth.”

Biggest Challenges

Potter acknowledged that the biggest challenges that she and the school face are a result of ever changing polities. She said, “Politicians make decisions about what should happen in schools that really aren’t ours to do. When they hear about a problem, they make it their project and pass it to the schools in unfunded mandates. Unfortunately, the schools still have to do it.”

Potter mentioned truancy, gifted students, disciple, and Charter Schools as areas that create challenges for traditional public schools. She explained that truancy used to be a function of the courts and when a student was out too many days the school turned the student over to a truancy officer and he took the student to court. The courts held the parents responsible; however, the courts were backlogged so a diversion program was developed. She said, “We can no longer file truancy until we have created an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to try to get the student to school every day. If you don’t develop the plan correctly then we can’t file unruly charges. It used to be the parents got it trouble, now the school gets in trouble. As a district, we are growing, I need to hire teachers; however, I will have to hire a full-time attendance person next year because the IEP plans are labor intensive and require input from multiple teachers and administrators.. I have to make a choice between attendance and teachers.”

She added, “Meeting the needs of all of the gifted students is also a challenge. The politicians changed the law so that I have to have a gifted teacher for every gifted student. In the past, every teacher could take training on line, but that is no longer valid. I now have to choose between hiring a gifted teacher or another kindergarten teacher. I either get an F on my state report card because I don’t have a gifted teacher or I have large kindergarten classes.”

“In addition, discipline has become an issue because we can no longer remove children from school.”

Lastly, she added, “Charter schools are killing us financially. We are a considered a wealthy district; therefore, we don’t get the full amount of state funding for students. Most schools get $6,000, but we only get about $3,700 per student. It hurts us when a student goes to a charter school. I can’t continue to ride the back of my constituents and their families. We don’t have big business in the district. It would be nice if all of our property taxes came to us.”

Challenges as a Woman Leader

When asked if she felt that she had to overcome additional obstacles as a woman, Potter noted, “Only about 15% of superintendents in Ohio are women. When you attend a state superintendents’ meeting, there is a good old boys’ network that you can enter, but you have to enter it in their way. They don’t think a woman can handle buses or maintenance. In addition, in meetings you can’t be adamant about something because it is interpreted as emotional; however, a man’s heated words are interpreted as passion.”

“I was once told that I would never get a superintendent position because I am a woman. That person was right. I was the token woman interview. It used to make me mad. They would only ask basic questions so they could say they interviewed a woman and hire a man even though the man was no more qualified.”

“As a leader, I have been asked by contractors if there is a business manager to whom they can talk. I’ve learned to assert myself and insist that they explain it to me.”

“Furthermore, contractually women are treated differently as well. I found that men can negotiate salary and benefits whereas most women are offered a contract with no room for negotiation. They do extra things for the males.”

Pulling Others Up

Potter confessed that she makes a conscious effort to help women who are working to achieve positions of authority. She has made an effort to develop leadership skills in her administrative staff. She said, “I tell them not to cap themselves or their abilities. I also encourage my women teachers and administrators to dress and conduct themselves professionally. Young women need to see a professional woman have expectations and goals, so they are not afraid to step beyond predefined paths.”

The Future

Potter said, “This is my third year here. My first year, I was lost. The second year, I was better. This year, I made observations; things will be changing. My goal here is not to make machines. My goal is to made creative thinkers who can think, evaluate the world, and act on that assessment. I love the public school because it is a neat place to work with kids. You can change kids’ lives.”