The Hardest Job in School: The Board Member (Part 1)

It’s been eleven years since I was a head of school. Eleven years since I dragged myself home after a late night board meeting to complain for two hours. Eleven years since my staff and I strategized about how to get a controversial policy adopted over the objections of “that” board member. Eleven years since I fielded a call from a board member with a lot to say about yesterday’s goings on in the middle school.

And in those eleven years, I’ve learned something: Being the board member of a private school is hard.

Boards, though, remain our favorite whipping boys. When a head of school resigns prematurely or is fired, no matter what the circumstances, our professional educator instincts immediately suspect that the board, not the head, is the real problem. We magnify their faults, and we minimize their contributions. We speak of them as “the board,” not as the generous, self-sacrificing individuals of whom most school boards are made. They get much of the criticism, and little, if any, of the credit. I mean, when was the last time someone said of a head of school who thrives in the role for fifteen years, “Man, she must have had a great board!”?

What I didn’t have as a head of school, I’ve gained over a decade of watching many boards go about their business. As a school head, my primary interest lay in accomplishing objectives that stemmed fundamentally from my personal and professional vision of what a school should be. It was easy to take my boards’ agreement for granted, and easier to be frustrated when they disagreed. What I often lacked in those relationships, and what I think I’ve gained, is what one might call empathy.

In addition to my evolved perspective on how hard it is to be a good board or a good board member, I’ve also developed an explanation for why this is so. First and foremost, as I’ve just described, being the board member of a private school is a largely thankless job. It’s a poor fit for people who crave affirmation or who are highly sensitive to criticism, especially the unfounded criticisms aimed at many boards by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

But beyond personality and motivation, there are common structural reasons that make board service difficult. Some are within a school’s control, and some are not. Knowing what they are, however can help boards, their members, and the people who work for them to make better sense of the job and its challenges.

Experience

I’ve observed that many school board members are serving for the first time on a school board, and, in many cases, for the first time on any non-profit board. For schools that tend to populate their boards with a majority or all parents, this is especially likely to be true. A board member whose children are in third, fifth, and seventh grade, for instance, hasn’t had much time to do more than work and raise kids. At the typical age of, say, thirty-eight, as accomplished as she may be, she is twenty or thirty years younger than the likely average age of board members at the hospital or symphony or museum, or even the religious congregation she attends.

Furthermore, she is surrounded by fellow members who have also only served on one board. They came to the position the same way that she has, and they only know the inner workings of one organization. They do things the way they do things, and, if the school’s situation is relatively stable, there don’t seem to be compelling reasons to do otherwise. (Actually, it is not uncommon for boards whose schools are in big trouble to entrench themselves in the way they do things, expecting different results from the same approach.)

This experience deficit can contribute to at least two negative outcomes. First, the longer a board operates with only its own experience to compare with, the more likely it is to accept inefficiencies and indicators of ineffectiveness as normal. Every board has its policy and procedure quirks based in historical precedent, and those quirks, however small, can accumulate over time into major obstructions to vision, innovation, and the school’s vitality.

Second, operating more or less instinctively based on years of un-evaluated habit can effectively embed an assumption that the circumstances of a particular school are wholly unique to that school. A board that is convinced that organizational norms that apply in business or government or even in other schools don’t apply to them or their school has barricaded itself from opportunities to learn and improve. The “that might work for other schools, but we’re different” mentality (and, believe me, I’ve heard that exact phrase a lot) stifles prudent analysis and progress.

Investment

Exceptional schools tend to make exceptional investments in professional development. They adhere to industry standards of a certain percentage of the budget allocated for teacher training, administrative networking, and participation in educational and operational associations.

But the boards that approve these expenditures and encourage their employees to hone their craft seldom make similar investments in their own growth. Whether the need for a board’s professional development is simply overlooked or intentionally set aside to reduce cost, the effect is the same: the people who are ultimately responsible for the school’s health and well-being become professionally malnourished.

So, what can your school do to do make board service, as difficult as it is, more manageable?

  1. Support one another with accountable affirmation. Establish the indicators that define your success, collectively and individually, hold each other to those expectations, and celebrate good work.
  2. Embrace a learning culture. Adopt for yourselves similar expectations for evaluation and improvement as your school has for the employed staff. Make the effort to become better part of your board’s routine, not just an occasional aside.
  3. Give yourselves the advantage of time and money to be trained, to network with other boards, and to explore approaches to governing that prove effective in schools that you admire.

Above all, keep your school’s mission at the center of every decision, initiative, and effort. That’s what makes the difficulty worth it.

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