By Teachers, For Teachers
I had the privilege of serving on the board of education for a small, private pre-school – an 8th grade school in my community -- for the past three years. My term on the board put me in the position of simultaneously being a teacher for one district and a school board member for another, and I learned quite a bit from this privileged, double-sided view of things.
The private school was an extension of the church I had attended for most of my life. The church leadership felt that I, being a teacher, would be able to contribute to the functioning of the school. Even though I had done a lot within the church, I had never really thought about the school. My friends attended it when we were young, but I attended public school. As an adult with no school-aged children yet, the happenings in this private school hadn’t really crossed my mind. I attended church on Sundays -- so what happened there during the rest of the week was far off my radar.
But I agreed with the leadership that maybe I would have something to contribute that was different than other non-teacher board members. They also told me meetings would be once a month, and that was a schedule I could commit to. So after these considerations, I accepted their invitation and joined the board. My first official meeting was in June of 2011.
As a teacher, I always imagined the board of education as some distant, elite body of decisionmakers who were occasionally out of touch with teachers’ needs. I learned quickly that being on a school board of education meant much more than checking a box for the once-a-month meeting. The work as a board member was far different than anything I had experienced from within my classroom, and now I can come away with a more appreciative perspective of what school boards do and how the overall structure of any school system functions as a whole. Here are a few reflections on what I now know from the board perspective that I wouldn’t have known before.
School boards care passionately about their staff and students, but they can often be distanced from them. Our meetings were conducted at night, when the school was quiet. We met as a board officially once a month, and our board consisted of ten individuals: The principal and nine volunteer members. I was the only volunteer who had professional experience in the education system. The decisions we made impacted teachers and students, yet it was a rare occasion when we actually had the opportunity to interact with them. I typically saw teachers when I took time out of my own job to visit them. There were occasional events through the year – such as Curriculum Night, Graduation, Town Hall meeting, and the annual Fun Fair – when we interacted with teachers, parents, and students.
We realized that no matter what policies we enacted or programs we initiated, the lifeblood of the school was the teachers. They are the ground troops; they are where the rubber meets the road. Their passion, skill, and knowledge drove the school forward, since they were the ones face-to-face with students and parents daily.
This recognition led us to trust the input from our teachers more than they realized. Their needs and perspectives truly counted because they were the ones there doing the work and living out the results of our decisions. If a teacher says, “This is what I see!” then we listened intently.
So I encourage you teachers out there to openly share your needs and observations with your board and administration. Don’t merely complain or offer shallow feedback. Be authentic with your communication whether you show up at a board meeting, submit your ideas in writing, or meet privately with an administrator or board member. Also, understand that the needs of the school trump your individual needs – so even if the board agrees with and wants to meet your desires, they might not necessarily have the ability to do so right away. For example, the teachers at our private school often made requests – such as for updated technology tools – but certain budget constraints prohibited us from meeting those needs as quickly as we would have liked.
The success of students depends on their teachers; the success of the school as an organization rests squarely on the shoulders of its leadership. Teachers want to focus on their classrooms and students; not on the larger institution. The leaders need to focus on the institution as whole, and if they do it right then the entire organization can thrive. But leave the wrong individual or a weak leadership structure in place, and cracks begin to form in what may once have seemed a sturdy foundation.
I had a front-row seat to witness the best and the worst that leadership can do for a school. At its best, our board zeroed in on finances and assisted the administration with managing the narrow gap between surviving and going under. We were up front with our teachers about our status, but also asked them to not worry about money and focus on what they do best: teach the students. Hiring new staff was one of my personal favorite leadership roles, too. We got to meet the candidates and find the one that best fit our organization -- and we hired many talented teachers that did in fact help our students and school thrive.
At its worst, we made some mistakes that had ripple effects, too. For example, we learned that communication was critical. Yet there were times when we dropped the ball in getting information out to families as effectively as we needed to. We made a major change to the 8th grade curriculum by eliminating one class and replacing it with another, but failed to adequately talk to parents about it. We also went ahead and made decisions – like giving several teachers expanded department chair responsibilities – without providing them with sufficient support or training to meet their new requirements. Choices like these seemed rational at the time, but when we saw their implementation, we realized that we created a situation where individuals were left in the dark, confused, and even hurt.
It ultimately takes a good, problem-solving set of leaders to identify weaknesses and figure out the solutions. We felt the teachers’, parents’, and students’ enthusiasm rise and sink on the quality of our board decisions, as well as the choices implemented by the administrator. While teachers were responsible for the success of their students, there were innumerable decisions the leadership needed to make to provide a quality environment for the staff to thrive.
Money is like blood, and if you run out of it then you die. As a teacher I didn’t think very much about funding. Talking about funds available for this or that was the responsibility of other people. As a board member, however, one of my chief responsibilities was ensuring the financial stability of the school -- and I thought about money a lot.
In my simple mind, I thought that good teachers would go into classrooms and teach effective lessons, and that’s all that was needed. Right? I soon discovered the extent of my naivety: Everything has a price, and the less money we had the fewer options we were afforded. We had a long wish list of areas we desired to improve in our school, but between paying our teachers and managing the day-to-day costs of operating the school, there was little left over to address our wish list.
For example, our teachers made it clear that they were interested in utilizing more technology. But on a limited budget, providing even small upgrades or new equipment was a challenge. Our computer lab needed updating, the Smart Boards many teachers used were experiencing problems, and we wanted to begin incorporating other tech like iPads into the school. Where would all that money come from? Even updating something as simple as our textbooks proved a challenge: Instead of unrolling new science textbooks in grades 5-8 all at once, we had to purchase new textbooks for one grade at a time for several years. And in other areas – like professional development and even teacher pay rates – our hearts yearned to have more to give.
Although it is easy as a teacher or a leader to dream big dreams, the limitation of funds can often prove to be the limitation of those dreams. Patience, understanding, and creative problem solving are the necessities all parties need to overcome potential limitations.
As a teacher I have occasionally thought, “Our Board wants us to do what?!” The decisions our leaders make can seem, well, ludicrous, especially if we aren’t part of that decision making process. But after being on the board side of things, I now realize that these policies are not haphazardly put into place.
In addition to managing finances, a board’s major responsibility is to set policy. As a board we carefully considered the recommendations and requests from staff, teachers, parents, and administrators, and equally considered what our legal obligations were.
Grueling hours of research were conducted in the development of a new policy proposal: We examined local comparisons and precedents, crunched the numbers to determine financial feasibility, studied the issue, considered our own school’s culture, and talked to interested parties like the staff and parents about what they thought. Just revamping our school’s dress code – a relatively minor decision in the spectrum of educational priorities – took hours of research and conversations, multiple proposals to the board, and thorough discussion within the board and across the school.
After initially supporting the effort, the board ended up tabling the new dress code anyway. This was true whether we considered dress code, textbook publishers, painting hallways, staff evaluation, program revision, staff hiring, and everything else.
After the policy proposal made it to the agenda, the board reviewed and voted. These conversations were rarely cut and dry. Our room of ten thoughtful, engaged people worked to make sure we were making the right decision the first time. Meetings typically lasted three hours, but often far longer. Sometimes our discussions were heated. Sometimes we struggled for hours over what was “right” versus what was “fair.”
I can look at boards of education across the country and sympathize with their work. Their decisions in large part are not rubber stamped or flippantly made. Rather, boards that represent the interests of students, teachers, and the community must wisely navigate a treacherous path to ensure their school thrives.
Now, when others teachers ask, “Why would the Board do that?!” I can see the board’s perspective and explain the meaning behind their decisions. Their decisions are made with the whole organization in mind -- not my little niche of personal concerns.
As much as teachers focus on their students, no teacher operates in isolation. There are departments, colleagues, administrators, school boards, and entire communities devoted to the success of their students. Now I know that the more I can view my teaching within the broader scope of the leadership’s perspective, the better I understand what’s taking place within my school and my role in it.
How does thinking about your school from a different perspective impact your understanding of it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.