A few years back, Yvonne Caamal Canul got a postcard in the mail. The message on the card, neatly written in cursive script, was to inform Caamal Canul that her hairstyle was not “appropriate or befitting for the position she held as superintendent of the Lansing School District.”
“You don’t get to this position by being mealy mouthed and thin skinned,” laughed Caamal Canul, after she explained what had occurred.
Anyone who has met her knows that this eccentric superintendent certainly doesn’t carry either of those attributes, and it shows in her work. In the four years that she has been in this position, she has reconfigured the entire district, creating 12 elementary schools, five middle schools and three high schools, moving over 100 classrooms, and more – you get the picture.
With over 40 years of experience in the education industry, working in a multitude of settings including teacher, principal, curriculum director, state department of education official and as a corporate executive in the private sector, Caamal Canul has seen and worked in almost every setting an educational professional can. She’s won numerous awards including a Certificate of Leadership and Achievement from the Hispanic Latino Commission of Michigan, the National Educator Award from the Michigan Education Association and she was chosen as the Michigan Superintendent of the Year in 2015.
With all of her accomplishments and experience, it only seems fitting that she holds such a high position in the school district, however, her role in the community and as a business woman speaks to a different side of the job.
Many people don’t think of school districts operating as an organization or company.
“I don’t know about many businesses with a $150 million budget,” said Caamal Canul. “There aren’t a lot of companies around here who have 2,000 employees or 12,000 clients, our clients being our students. And that doesn’t include the parents!”
While the job is a huge undertaking, Caamal Canul says “it’s all about our core mission,” that being, getting kids to self-actualize and helping them to become who they dream of being.
As superintendent, Caamal Canul holds a number of responsibilities, including setting a vision for the district, developing coherence across the district, managing a budget, labor relations, working with the board of education, dealing with real estate (the schools and the property it sits on), and much more. One of the biggest parts of Caamal Canul’s job, according to her, is relations with the public.
“We are stewards of the public money, which gives additional pressure because you have to answer to the public, not just a board of directors and shareholders,” she said, noting that every decision she makes requires multiple layers of planning in order for it to be effective. Admitting that she’s obsessed with data, Caamal Canul is very careful when making decisions in her job; saying that she wants to be able to back up the decisions she makes with valid reasons for why she’s doing it and why it will benefit the district as a whole. Her perspective is neatly summed up by a saying that she uses frequently in her office – her staff knows it like a mantra – vision without implementation is hallucination.
“The public always feels, and rightly so, that they have ownership of every decision you make,” she said
With public relations being one of the most important aspects of her job, Caamal Canul goes back to the idea that her job as a superintendent in the Lansing School District isn’t for the weak, and while she certainly isn’t that, many are surprised to hear her call herself an introvert.
In fact, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing her speak, sitting in on board meetings that she attends, or seeing her interact with people in the community, it would be difficult to say that she is an introvert. Her witty, welcoming personality is infectious, but spending time in the public and talking to people is not the easiest part of her job.
“I’m an introvert,” she said. “The distinction between introversion and extroversion is where you get your energy from. Extroverts need to go out and get energy from people, which is why they’re always out extroverting. Introverts get energy from themselves and quiet spots and under a blanket,” she said, explaining that this position is the most extroverted job she has ever had.
“Even when I was consulting and traveling all over the world, at least I had 15 hours back from Shanghai to be
While Caamal Canul did get a chance to travel for work, she has also done a lot of traveling in her personal life, her entire adolescence was extremely diverse. From age five until her mid-teen years, Caamal Canul and her family lived in Latin America due to her father’s job as a cultural attaché with the U.S. Foreign Service.
“That culture is totally who I am,” she said. “When you move to a country where a language other than English is spoken and [everyone is] visually diverse from yourself, you grow up not thinking there is a difference between anyone.”
She learned Portuguese as her first formal language, then Spanish and then English. Caamal Canul’s multicultural upbringing was not just a result of living in Latin America during her formative years, her parents were extremely multi-cultural as well; her mother was brought up in an Italian speaking home and her father was born into a French Canadian, French speaking family.
“We’re polyglots,” Caamal Canul joked. “I know how to sit down and shut up in five languages.”
She said that she was fortunate enough to grow up the way that she did – speaking multiple languages, so that she was able to meet and converse with her partner and love of her life Victor Caamal Canul, a native of the Yucatan Peninsula; the two just recently celebrated 24 years together.
“He’s a wonderful guy. Everyone on the board calls him St. Victor,” she joked. “Apparently I’m difficult.”