Board-Savvy Superintendent

Your Board’s First Teacher, Nurturer and Guide
BY KAREN G. RUE/School Administrator, November 2020

A BOARD MEMBER REMARKS, “What’s all this project-based learning? My kid just wants to do the assignment and move on.”

Your thought: He doesn’t understand the why.

Harvest the potential of a well-informed board of education. The board-savvy superintendent recognizes she or he holds responsibility for serving as board members’ first teacher, nurturer and guide in developing an understanding of educational practice, sup-porting them as they develop an ability to navigate complex issues in educational policy.

John Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership explains that Level 5 leaders create Level 5 organizations. They are about building relation-ships, focused on results and unleashing the leadership of others through people development. In a school district, that includes nurturing those who serve as members of the governing body. They set the direction for the system and adopt policy that stays the course.

Nurture Knowhow

What does it mean to be your board’s first teacher?

Nurture the members’ understanding of transformed classrooms and serve as their guide to deepen that understanding. Deliberately spend time in deep dialogue with board members about what it takes and why transformation is needed.

Your board sets the direction of the district. Board members share the story and, with your help, can be strong advocates and speak with purpose when asked questions by community members and staff.

How do you teach them? Weekly updates are an excellent way to provide board members with new concepts for them to ponder. Use updates to include short articles for their reading, along with your thoughts on how that article applies to the vision/mission of the district.

Board presentations tied directly to the district’s goals can reinforce board members’ commitment to transformation. Consider including a cover page that lists which district goal the presentation supports.

A deeper understanding of societal change can take shape through an old, familiar approach: book studies. Understanding why change is needed goes deeper than staying informed. During board book studies, the flowing conversation and deep dives into learning serve as a powerful message of continuous learning for teachers, staff and community.

Our book studies took place at the end of board meetings as an agenda item. A public message that we all were committed to becoming a learning community made a powerful statement. The first book study, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, made an impression on the board — so much so that a few years later, the board president selected Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us as that year’s book. We did one book study a year.

Add open, transparent communication and a purposely developed sense of trust and a superintendent and board can accomplish so much together.

Pushback Averted

Second-order change is not easy. Boards hire superintendents to lead needed improvement, but during the transformation, many board members find it difficult to stay the course. All is good until people get pushed out of their comfort zone.

The value of serving as the board’s first teacher became clear as we moved to digital platforms in schools, including designing learning experiences through the lens of the student. A board member received a call from a teacher who had been in the district for years. Unhappy with the direction we were going, he complained loudly.

Subsequently, I received a call from an obviously concerned board member. After reminding him of the work we had done together — the strategic summit, the revised mission and goals, the book studies — he relaxed. His teacher friend was looking for a champion who would honor the status quo. It was a heady moment when the board member recommitted to staying the new course.

The board savvy superintendent knows the value in serving as the board’s first teacher. When board members understand the why, they coalesce around the how.
KAREN RUE is superintendent-in-residence for Texas Association of School Administrators in Austin, Tex. Twitter: @krue810