This post is based on a presentation to school board officers for Alabama Association of School Boards on February 23, 2019.
Being a superintendent is a professionally rewarding experience because you and your team are educating and empowering the next generation of leaders. Most superintendents are experienced educators and have chosen this occupation to make a difference in the lives of young people. In other words, their hearts are in the right place. However, being a superintendent can also be a 24/7, challenging, complex, multifaceted, politically charged, overwhelming, and sometimes lonely experience.
I believe the primary responsibility of a superintendent is to lead a team in creating or advancing a culture of learning. This culture of learning should include a common understanding of the district’s mission. I advocate a learner-centered mission. In other words, the mission should enable the faculty/staff to value and incorporate all students’ unique talents and interests, so learning is authentic and students have ownership of their learning.
Many years ago when I was contemplating becoming a superintendent, an experienced superintendent shared some advice, “A superintendent is only as strong as his/her board.” After 15 years of being a superintendent in three different districts, I now fully grasp this wisdom. For a superintendent to be effective, s/he needs a strong and supportive board. Board leadership is essential in managing the board and setting the tone for how the board communicates and conducts itself.
It is crucial for the board and superintendent to be united in their work. It is hard work in the best of circumstances. It makes more sense for the superintendent to put his/her time and energy into meeting the needs of learners, rather than navigating the board. When the board and superintendent become partners and are focused on students, the district will thrive!
What does a superintendent need from the board?
Understand the Complexity of Leadership
Leading a complex social system is hard work and requires strategic thinking and action. There are many challenges:
- preparing students for an ever-changing world,
- recruiting and retaining the faculty and staff who embrace the district’s mission,
- building a culture of learning in which students are authentically engaged,
- engaging faculty/staff in learning new strategies to meet the needs of all learners,
- supporting children who have experienced trauma, who might have unstable home lives, or who speak a different native language,
- responding to parents who might have different experiences and views on education,
- inspiring your team to work collectively for the greater good,
- building community support for schools,
- safely transporting children to and from school,
- keeping students, faculty and staff safe while at school,
- managing construction projects,
- responding to weather and the flu (recent issues for Alabama superintendents) just to name a few . . . all on a limited budget.
Sometimes there are competing groups with different interests. This needs to be understood and navigated. When board members understand the complexity of a school system and support the superintendent’s efforts (through words and actions), there is a greater likelihood people will work together in unison.
Board members should be careful about wearing their “CEO hat” and offering advice such as, “When I was CEO of xyz, I …” The best leaders don’t tell people what to do, they ask questions, which cause people to consider the possibilities of what is possible. They ask questions like, “What if…”, “Have you thought about…”, or “I wonder…”
The board and the superintendent’s actions impact the next generation of leaders. Board members should partner with their superintendent in leading this complex social system, which touches the hearts and minds of children.
Have a Clear and Compelling Mission, Vision
A clear and compelling mission and vision provide clarity of direction for the superintendent and his/her team. The clearer, the better. (I advocate a learner-centered approach). Having a clear mission increases the likelihood everyone is moving in the same direction.
Below are a few examples, which are clear and compelling.
- Iowa BIG: To assist students in developing their agency, efficacy, and passions while gaining valuable real-world and academic skills so they can succeed in a world of rapid and constant change.
- The MET: To educate and empower youth through a relentless commitment to student-centered learning and personal growth.
- Norris Academy: To strengthen youth and families by providing a circle of care, a continuum of education, support, and treatment availability.
- Pike Road Schools: To create a culture of intellectual curiosity where all students have ownership over their learning and are inspired to think, innovate, and create.
A district’s mission should excite and unite all those involved, including the board and superintendent. There is nothing more exhilarating than working together to achieve something greater than yourself.
A strategic plan or clearly defined goals also help the superintendent and his/her team know how to spend their time and energy.
Be a Continuous Learner
It is essential for the board to be open to the possibilities for students. The world has significantly changed (and continues to change) and it is easy to just replicate the school experience each of us had when we were students. Schools are one of the hardest institutions to change. High schools are designed to replicate a factory model. However, if we want our children to be capable of thriving in a continuously changing world, we need to redesign schools to be responsive to the needs and interests of learners.
This means board members will need to read books, articles and participate in meaningful professional learning. Board members and their superintendent should be learning together and discussing the possibilities of what can be for their learners.
Establish Effective Communication
Communication is essential to the effectiveness of the district. Coming to consensus on how the board and superintendent will communicate helps the superintendent know what to expect.
The board and superintendent should come to a consensus about how the superintendent communicates with the board.
- Is the expectation to provide a weekly update?
- How will the superintendent communicate if there is a crisis (bus accident, student seriously injured at school, the death of a student or staff, teacher/staff arrested, etc.)? Will he/she call or email? (I suggest a quick email so the superintendent can manage the crisis and then follow-up with a call once the crisis is stable.)
The board and superintendent should come to a consensus about how the board will communicate with the superintendent.
- I suggest referring questions and concerns to the superintendent but alert the superintendent of the question or concern.
- How will board members share and discuss different points of view with the superintendent so as to build collegiality? (I suggest private conversations; more on this topic later in this post.)
It is imperative the board and superintendent discuss and come to a consensus on how they will communicate on the front end.
Come to Consensus on Protocols/Processes
Knowing what to expect helps the superintendent plan and respond appropriately, which benefits the district. Hence, I suggest the board and superintendent come to a consensus in advance about the following:
- Board Meetings/Packets
- When to receive?
- How to receive?
- How much detail?
- How to handle questions?
- Managing the Media
- Who will talk with the press? (I suggest this is the responsibility of the superintendent.)
- Who and how will press releases be written and distributed? (I suggest, this too, is the responsibility of the superintendent or his/her designee.)
- Managing a Crisis
- Does the district have protocols in place? In other words, is it clearly defined as to who does what and when?
- Evaluation of the Superintendent and CSFO
- Is the process clearly defined including indicators and timelines?
The board and superintendent should agree on processes in advance so the superintendent and his/her team know what is expected and can plan accordingly.
Follow Protocol on Personnel and Complaints
There is an Arabic proverb which describes if a camel gets its nose inside a tent, his entire body will follow. In other words, what may initially seem to be a minor, innocent act can quickly become a significant issue with grave consequences.
Many years ago, one of my board members complained about receiving so many phone calls from parents and staff and how this was consuming her time. I advised her to stop taking the calls and instead refer each one to the proper person in the system who can help them directly – – the teacher, principal, superintendent, etc. She did this and over time, the phone calls subsided.
If the system is not responsive to concerns or needs, then a board member should talk with the superintendent about making the system more responsive, but it is not the responsibility of the board member to solve the problem. Board members should let the superintendent know, then bow out; they should not be involved in the day-to-day operations. Boards should have and follow board policy which outlines the protocol for receiving and responding to concerns.
In reference to personnel, the board should ensure there is a protocol for recruitment, hiring, evaluation, termination, etc. and let the process work. In other words, let the superintendent, principals, and designated staff manage the process without board interference. Board members should refer employees, parents, and students to the superintendent. They should be careful about what they say, including promises, commitments, etc.
Board members should be careful about friendships with school employees. They should never discuss personnel or make disparaging comments about any employee. The board is an employer and has a legal responsibility and thus board members should be consummate professionals at all times. What board members say and do matters, ethically and legally.
The board and superintendent should come to a consensus about the purpose of board members visiting schools (as parents, attend special events, etc.) and the frequency of school visits. Board members should think long and hard before meeting with teachers, staff, or parents and closely examine their motives.
Be Influenced by FACT, not Hearsay
All people deserve the right to be treated with fairness. Board members should resist the urge to be influenced by rumor or hearsay. This not only creates unnecessary work for the superintendent and his/her team, but it is detrimental to the district and to individuals.
If a board member is concerned about a personnel situation, student behavior issue, or a matter which impacts the district, he/she should ask for the facts from the superintendent and give him/her (or his/her designee) time to gather and present the facts to the board, if pertinent. A board member should never conduct his/her their own investigation; this is not an appropriate role for a board member.
I have seen the reputation of highly effective staff members and innocent students be harmed as a result of board members believing and acting on hearsay. We owe fairness to all those with whom we work and interact.
Be Considerate of the Superintendent’s Time
As a board member, building a relationship with the superintendent is essential for effective governance. However, a board member should ask him/herself before making the call, scheduling a meeting or requesting specific information, is this benefiting the district. No one can manufacture time. Could the superintendent and his/her team’s time be better utilized serving the needs of students and teachers?
Be Courageous and Do the Right Thing
Being a board member can be challenging, especially in small towns in which board members know (or even be related to) employees and students.
Board members might be asked to make a difficult personnel decision that involves someone he/she personally knows. This person may be a good person but may be ineffective in their current role.
It is reasonable for a board member to be assured the person has had ample coaching support and been treated fairly (i.e. ensure the process has been followed). If this is the case and terminating this person is ultimately best for the system, the board member should support the superintendent by voting for this. A board member has a higher obligation to do what is best for students.
This is also an opportunity for a board member to use his/her social capital to diffuse a situation. Even though a board member should not discuss personnel matters with the public or the person being impacted, he/she should defend the superintendent’s actions by generic statements such as, “These decisions are always difficult because we care about people.” or “I cannot discuss personnel, but I know our personnel process was followed.” It can be challenging, but board members should do the right thing for students.
Discuss your Concerns about this Superintendent’s Effectiveness Privately
All superintendents are required to make difficult decisions and as a result, will, unfortunately, accumulate critics and enemies. Board members should not contribute to this negativity. If a board member has concerns about the superintendent’s effectiveness, the board member should talk confidentially with the superintendent. Nothing is gained by disparaging or embarrassing the superintendent publicly and it is destructive to the district.
Manage Unruly Board Members
We all know the famous line by Barney Fife, “Nip it in the bud!” This is what the board leadership should do when a board member is unruly. This behavior is not only destructive to the Board, the superintendent and board relations, but it is destructive to the system. The board leadership should talk with the board member privately and be careful not to embarrass the board member; their behavior may not have been intentional.
The board should not ignore this behavior and should not ask or expect the superintendent to address it. Addressing this behavior is a board responsibility. The board leadership should continue intervening until this is no longer an issue. If needed, the board can seek outside support from their state school board association or AdvancED.
Support, Encourage, and Affirm
The board should help the superintendent navigate the community, especially if the superintendent is new to the community. Board members typically have extensive knowledge of the community and social networks, which can help your new superintendent become integrated into the community.
Board members should remember the superintendent is a thinking, feeling being too and needs affirmation and encouragement. If he/she is working 24/7, encourage him/her to take off, enjoy family time, etc.
Board members should look for opportunities to sincerely thank their superintendent, privately and publicly, for his/her leadership. The result is two-fold. This affirms the superintendent’s hard work and dedication. It also sends a clear message to the community that the board (and board members) appreciate the work of the superintendent.
Be of Good Character
A few more reminders for board members to be of good character:
- Adhere to the role of a board member.
- Don’t “play to the crowd” at public meetings. In other words, don’t use public meetings to promote yourself or propagandize your personal agenda.
- Focus on the 30,000-foot view; stay out of the weeds. In other words, don’t get involved in the day-to-day operations or minor expenditures of the district.
- Be a team player.
- Be transparent.
- Be about the students, not about yourself.
Our core business is educating students – – helping each student become the best version of him/herself.
Being an effective superintendent is a challenging job even when the Board is strong and supportive. For a school system to thrive and meet the needs of all students, a superintendent needs your partnership and continual support.
Thank you to all school board members for your time and leadership to empower the next generation of leaders! This is truly noble work.
What are other ways the board can support the superintendent?
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