Recently, while attending a conference in Texas, I ran into a former colleague who was having a conversation with several of her peers, most of whom were principals. The topic emerged regarding a new math program that one of the principals was considering for use on her campus. This was a typical conversation among colleagues, and the principal had properly vetted the program, pitched it to the assistant superintendent of instruction, and had a lot of confidence in its potential impact on student achievement.
Despite the excitement and confidence in this newfound math program, the principal’s emotions quickly turned to concern and uncertainty, as she expressed her fear of taking the program before the board. In most districts, programs that meet a certain monetary threshold requires board approval, and it is customary that the individual requesting the purchase be asked clarifying questions, by the board, if necessary. What made this scenario noteworthy was the reasoning behind her fear. It was due to previous observations of board member exchanges with the superintendent and other principals, which were described as negative, humiliating, and likened to an interrogation.
As the conversation continued, several other principals and former principals chimed in citing instances where board member actions slowed or totally derailed their decision to move forward with campus programs. I was both baffled and concerned as to how this could happen, especially since many of the board members I have met would not intentionally want their actions to have this type of counterproductive effect on instruction.
Could the perception or actions of a school board have a more direct impact on student achievement than initially thought? While there is a wealth of literature documenting the relationship between a school board and superintendent, not much has been explored in terms of how a school board’s actions influence the decision making of school administrators and staff. In fact, based on this scenario, board interactions with district personnel could very well have unintended consequences for instructional programming. In this context, I use the word “unintended” strategically, because, as previously stated, and from my experience, I do not believe that any board member sets out with an agenda of intentionally sabotaging the academic success of students.
As the discussion continued, I began to interject and inquire about each individual scenario and how these instances led to the point of considering the removal or non-submission of a board agenda item. During this inquiry, I was able to discern several points for board members to consider, in order to reduce the likelihood of sending the wrong message to instructional leaders and other staff.
Team authenticity is keyMany school boards consider their superintendent as a part of their team. This is usually a natural fit, and an excellent start to creating team synergy. The symbolism of this concept can have a profound effect, especially when coming from the top of an organization. However, if not properly cultivated, this well intended move can have negative effects. Many staff can sense when a team is not in sync or doesn’t have mutual respect, which can put into motion feelings or perceptions of distrust or deception. This was the case with, at least, two of the principals in the discussion mentioned. Both noted that they did not feel comfortable going before the board with any significant initiatives, since it was obvious that the working relationship between the board and superintendent was strained (despite what they expressed), which appeared to extend to other executive and campus staff members of whom he hired. No one wins when the team is in turmoil.
How you respond to hot topics mattersBoard members encounter many controversial issues or hot topics, many of which are discussed in a public forum. As a board member, it is important to be cognizant of your audience, and the potential impact that your responses and disposition may have on those around you. This is not to suggest that one should hold back their opinion, however, there may be consequences to an overly emotional or heavily opinionated response, depending on the context. Visible emotion that emerges in communication can have a negative impact on employees, and potentially sets a bad precedent for communication throughout the organization. One principal mentioned that he felt it wasn’t a good time to introduce one of his initiatives, due to the board’s recent response to other issues in the district. The principal further stated that he did not want to run the risk of his program failing to pass the board, so he decided to delay his item submission. As a result of this decision, by default, the principal delayed implementation of a quality supplemental program, which was intended to help prepare students for state mandated tests. Those in education know that time is of the essence, when preparing students to perform at their best.
Interactions with campus and district leadership has impactIt is certainly fair to question district leaders or other staff members when it relates to a district initiative or other high cost purchase. Such dialogue is often encouraged, as needed, since it provides board members with additional insight to guide decision-making. However, board members should do their best to refrain from questioning that can be interpreted as an intent to interrogate district staff, and instead employ a more constructive approach. Actions interpreted as negative can prove to, indirectly, impede instructional programing, by having staff members avoid such interactions, at the cost of program implementation. Remember, their reasoning for being present is to enhance board understanding, despite the outcome. Even if the initiative doesn’t pass, creating a fail-safe environment will increase the likelihood that staff will be open to presenting the board with a revised proposal or future initiatives. All principals encountered or observed a negative board interaction with campus and district leadership and cited this as the number one reason they have a fear of board interactions. In fact, one principal stated that, in her community, students even created a mashup of videos where they highlighted principals being embarrassed in board meetings.
Think beyond yourself
School boards have very limited power, outside of the collective body. Given this, it is important that all members consider the impact of their actions, and how this reflects upon other board members. The actions of a few members can distort the perception of the entire board. This is vitally significant, in the case of the principals mentioned, because there were only one or two board members in each group who contributed to how they felt, and their actions (or inaction).
Considering my conversation with this group of principals, the way a school board acts or is perceived, can heavily influence the academic programming decisions of district staff members, leading to unintended consequences.
Johnny O’Connor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor at Lamar University, Channelview, Texas.