It was a sunny, hot day at the end of May last year when officials from the Indiana Department of Education paid a visit to a middle school in Seymour, Indiana, to watch students attempt to launch a balloon almost as tall as they were into space.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz was surrounded by teachers and staff who were vying for her attention, recalled Rachel Davidson, a former Indiana Department of Education staffer who was in charge of programs for English-learners and migrant students. But instead of chatting with the grown-ups, Ritz made a beeline for the students and began peppering them with questions about their project.

“The people she cared most about at that moment were those students … regardless of all the chaos that may have been around,” Davidson said.

Although Ritz has been Indiana’s top education official for nearly four years, people close to her say she never stopped being a teacher. And as she prepares to run for re-election this year, fending off a challenge from Republican Yorktown Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, her ties to teaching are both her greatest strength — and one of the reasons she might have difficulty convincing voters to support her again.

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

Ritz’s teaching background makes her popular among educators. She’s gained a reputation for understanding the boots-on-the-ground teaching experience, making her a “darling of teachers and proponents of public education,” said Sherry Watkins, a retired teacher from Washington Township and longtime friend.

That has driven much of her policy agenda in the Department of Education where she’s pushed for teacher recruitment and retention programs as well as state exams that would help teachers keep better tabs on how their students are learning.

But as a teacher who’s spent her career in classrooms in Washington Township, Ritz had relatively little management experience until she came into state office. That has opened her up to critics who say she’s a bad communicator and is unwilling to collaborate or engage in conversation.

“These very basic administrative fundamental parts of the department aren’t being done well,” said Betsy Wiley, CEO of the Institute for Quality Education, an education advocacy organization that supports school choice tools like vouchers and charter schools. “It’s negatively impacting our classrooms.”

She’s also gotten heat for administrative snafus such as problems related to the distribution of Title I poverty funds, a potential error that has left some schools without adequate support for needy students, and delays and technology glitches that accompanied the 2015 ISTEP test.

“There hasn’t been a year of any superintendent’s (administration) that has not dealt with challenges regarding the pass-fail approach to the test that we have,” Ritz said. “I have to make sure that I’m not getting drawn into (the politics).”

As Ritz goes up against McCormick, who has 12 years of experience as a school administrator in Yorktown, she must defend her leadership of a department that has weathered four years of political turmoil and controversy.

Ritz has spent much of the last four years publicly clashing with Indiana’s Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Mike Pence, even as she implemented policies imposed by lawmakers, such as the state’s rejection of the Common Core standards and its decision to pull out of the Common Core-aligned PARCC test, as well as when she spoke out for months about a move to spare schools and districts from lower A-F grades before Pence got on board to make the fix.

The bickering and power struggles that have also taken place at state board meetings don’t inspire confidence in Ritz’s ability to stay out of politics, some say. One such example is when she famously walked out of a state board meeting because a conversation on A-F grades for schools devolved into a battle over who controls the board’s proceedings.

Ritz has lamented the political clashes, but she has also been quick to say she doesn’t necessarily need lawmakers’ approval to act on her plans.

“I don’t need permission from anyone to actually serve children,” Ritz said.

As superintendent, Ritz has made a name for herself vocally opposing Indiana’s widening voucher and school choice programs, but unlike four years ago when she could run just on her policy positions, voters now have a record in office to review.

Davidson said Ritz is a leader who empowers her staff to carry out her vision, and her background as an educator first and foremost informs her policy agenda.

Read: She treasured books as a child, and now Glenda Ritz sees literacy as Indiana’s most important education goal

Ritz last month debuted plans for how a universal statewide preschool system could work and has offered a specific vision for how to solve Indiana’s testing crisis by using “computer-adaptive” tests, which adjust question difficulty as students answer right or wrong. She’s also introduced plans to attract more teachers to Indiana schools and support them so they stay in the classroom.

“She has been doing what I think she needs to be doing in terms of getting out and promoting whatever it is what she wants to make happen for the kids of Indiana,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Ritz is no longer the underdog who stunned political observers four years ago by unseating popular superintendent Tony Bennett. While she is so far leading in campaign funding this year, she’s facing a challenger who could go on to raise large sums of money from supporters of vouchers and school choice programs who would like to see Ritz toppled. Her experience will definitely be dissected.

Ritz is a licensed special education teacher who is also certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and has served on their national board of directors. She also played leading roles in both the Washington Township teachers union and in Indiana’s largest teachers union, where she worked on contract negotiations and teacher evaluation systems, among other policy issues.

“I tell superintendents this: ‘I don’t want your job,’” Ritz said. “Policy work and making sure kids are getting what they need is my forte.”

Watkins said Ritz hasn’t wavered despite the roadblocks thrown in front of her, and she’s been clear from the start about how her work has served teachers and students.

“People probably don’t understand her lack of ego and her lack of doing things for her, but very much being motivated by what’s in the best interests of kids,” Watkins said. “It is just amazing to me that is she is able to stay so positive and just keep plodding along.”

Read our profile on Ritz’s challenger, Yorktown Superintendent Jennifer McCormick.