Principals and superintendents are sources of inspiration, catalysts for change, and advocates for student success. In your time as a teacher or administrator, you’ve likely come across educational leaders who embodied these ideals—or perhaps you’ve even recognized them in yourself.

Today, we’ll be looking at four extraordinary administrators who exemplify what can be done when the needs of students are valued above all else. They’ve devoted their lives to leading schools and school districts and helping students and teachers overcome familiar and emerging challenges. If you share many of their leadership qualities, it may be time for you to pursue a career as a principal or superintendent.

Michelle Reid, EdD

Dr. Michelle Reid, superintendent for the Northshore School District in Washington, closed the Bothell High School for disinfection on February 27, 2020, after an employee’s family member tested positive for COVID-19. The following week, the Northshore School District announced that it would shift to online learning, becoming one of the first in the nation to do so. Upon reflection, Reid said, “[I]t felt a little like we took our swim lessons that were planned for three months and had about three hours and got thrown in with just our water wings.”

Facing the challenges of online learning and internet inequity, Reid didn’t hesitate to prioritize the safety of students and staff members. She trusted that her community would come together during challenging times. For fostering an inclusive school community, Reid was named the 2021 National Superintendent of the Year by AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “We have more days of remote learning behind us than we have ahead of us,” said Reid. “We are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we must remember, as leaders, to be the light in the tunnel.”

Gustavo Balderas, EdD

We can’t bring up 2021’s National Superintendent of the Year without mentioning the 2020 winner, Dr. Gustavo Balderas. The son of migrant farmworkers, Balderas used his influence as a superintendent to help the Eugene School District in Oregon overcome numerous challenges, including welcoming newly arrived Guatemalan students at a time when political discourse revolved around Central American immigrants.

While a Superintendent of the Year finalist, Balderas spoke highly of his district, describing its schools as sanctuaries and highlighting the training undergone by staff members to better provide for the needs of marginalized families. “I think that’s been my number one concern this past year,” said Balderas, “the impact of kids not feeling safe on our campuses, and how we as building leaders and district leaders provide that safety net for our communities.” Balderas has since been named the superintendent of Edmonds School District in Washington, where he hopes to bring his experience in educational equity to a larger and more diverse school district.

Sharon L. Contreras, PhD

Dr. Sharon Contreras is no stranger to adversity. At a young age, she was told she didn’t belong in a program among other gifted students—students that she had helped tutor. This experience would set her on the path to becoming a nationally recognized educational leader.

Now a superintendent for Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, Contreras has dedicated herself to removing academic barriers facing students in her district. Among her accomplishments is the successful mitigation of disciplinary policies that disproportionally affected students of color. Now, like so many other school administrators, Contreras must contend with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to COVID-19, Contreras coordinated with other city departments to ensure that every student in her district had access to online learning, going so far as to send laptops into homeless shelters. How does she lead during this difficult time? “I’m leading with greater conviction … and courage,” Contreras said to Forbes. “It’s even more important now to secure an education for our most vulnerable children.”

J.A. Gonzalez, EdD

The University of Texas Permian Basin, home to an online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program and an online Superintendent Certification program, is proudly located in West Texas, so we couldn’t finish our list without mentioning Texas educational leader Dr. J.A. Gonzalez.

Gonzalez serves as superintendent for the McAllen Independent School District and has been selected by the Texas Association of School Administrations (TASA) as Texas’ nominee for the 2021 National Superintendent of the Year. Gonzalez is a teacher at heart, believing that every student has a unique learning style and that the responsibility to help them discover their talents rests squarely on the shoulders of educators. “Being an educator and having an influence on people is near and dear to my heart because when you look at it with depth and complexity and from a parent’s perspective,” said Gonzalez, “you start to understand the magnitude of what the field of education is all about.” 

Follow in Their Footsteps

For these four superintendents, being an educational leader is more than just a job: It’s a calling. Our school systems are in desperate need of professionals with the drive to address achievement gaps, break down barriers to education, and show that every child is a learner at heart. For teachers and administrators whose passions align with those of Reid, Balderas, Contreras, and Gonzalez, educational leadership offers a chance to create lasting change. UT Permian Basin offers an online MA in Educational Leadership program and an online Superintendent Certification program for aspiring principals and superintendents. Aligned with Texas’ certification requirements, these programs will empower you with the skills, knowledge, and credentials needed to promote equity in education and step into the administrative role of a lifetime. Apply to one of our online programs if you’re interested in following in the footsteps of these accomplished educational leaders.