Alumni News

James Merrill (A.B.Ed. ’73) named N.C. Superintendent of the Year

James Merrill realized a dream when he became a superintendent. Being named North Carolina’s 2005 Superintendent of the Year, then, was just icing on the cake.

“My only career has been public education,” says Merrill, superintendent of the Alamance-Burlington School System since 2000. “I didn’t have an early goal of being a superintendent. But I saw the position’s potential to affect change and decided to pursue it.”

Merrill began his teaching career as a high school English teacher in Winston-Salem, where he also served as a junior high school assistant teaching principal. From there, he moved into administration in Wake County, including jobs as associate superintendent for administration and finance, and assistant superintendent for human resources.

Meeting Challenges

Like many superintendents, Merrill says the biggest challenge for him and his district is teacher quality, recruitment and retention.

“We don’t have anywhere near the money to apply to supplements that Guilford, Chapel Hill, Orange, Durham or Wake have, and it’s hurting us,” he admits.

So how does he compete? He creates a culture that supports its people.

“We have a reputation as a district with talented, bright people, and that is very supportive of its teachers, leaders and administrators,” Merrill explains. “Our environment helps people feel good and do their jobs well – this helps offset not getting an extra 6 or 7 percent of salary.”
The district offers benefits that aren’t monetary, yet still carry a lot of value for teachers and staff. “We provide a lot of training and nurturing for our people,” he says.

Unlike many districts where the status quo is hallowed ground, Merrill likes to see teachers taking risks, trying new things in the classroom. “I support risk-takers – I trust them to do what’s right.”

Better Communication

One benefit that keeps good teachers in the district is better communication. Each month, Merrill meets with a teacher group from each school to discuss a variety of topics. “Sometimes I have some of my staff sit in, other times I close the door and it’s just us. I hope it helps them develop trust in me. If so, they’ll really talk – and that’s helpful.”

One reason people trust him is his dedication to the truth. “The most important lesson I’ve learned in my career is being honest with people – with a capital H,” he asserts. “Whether it’s the board of education, teachers, parents, principals, anybody.”

Keys to the Game

Merrill attributes his success as a superintendent to three key principles:

  1. Recognize that the superintendent and the staff serve as the education content experts when working with the school board.  It is the responsibility of the superintendent, when necessary, to teach, convince and guide the board on key issues.  “If the board makes a poor decision then it is because the superintendent and staff have failed at their jobs.” 
  2. Hire good people and trust them to do their jobs. “Assist them or get out of their way – but offer whatever kind of support they need.”
  3. Find ways to get information from your blind spots. “You’ve got to get honest feedback (and accept it) and never assume all is well.”

He also advocates keeping a low profile. “I prefer unseen and unheard leadership,” he says. “It’s like leading from behind.”