As long as the school district seems to be going along smoothly and staying off the front page of the newspaper, they focus on the other worries in their lives.
If that’s the case, what’s the big deal about cornering them, until they give you their opinion?
There are several reasons why the silent majority has to be nudged into speaking up. One of the most important times where their opinion matters – whether they think so or not – is during your strategic planning process.
While your playbook may be somewhat different, the typical strategic planning undertaking is typically led by a committee consisting of business and civic leaders, perhaps members of the faith community, and staff from your district. District leadership plays the role of subject matter expert, or SME, whenever the committee has a question.
Mixed in with this group process is often a series of focus groups, and interviews with Board members, the district cabinet, and community thought leaders. All this data gets put into a meat grinder of sorts, trying to determine what this cross-section of humanity wants for the district for the next five years.
The problem with these being your only sources of data is they are waist-deep in the district – if not at the beginning, by the end. What about the typical resident? What does he or she think?
To solve this problem, collect the data to the point where you are beginning to really narrow the focus and conduct a brief telephone survey of your community. Let them be the spot-checker on your thinking – what sounds good and what you may have forgotten in your zest.
Camdenton School District in Missouri followed our strategic planning process with the outcome being a well thought out five-year plan, created by “the people of this district.” View the district’s plan on our website.
Guest column by Sue Givens, superintendent, El Dorado Public Schools – Kan.
The phone conversation from more than two decades ago is as fresh in my mind as if it were this morning. No principal looks forward to a call from their superintendent reporting a complaint. Even though I was an experienced administrator, I was immediately defensive.
As the superintendent shared the parent’s concern, I offered factual rebuttals, trying my best to remain professional, while fighting a growing anger at what seemed an unfair attack. Finally, after relaying the complete complaint, and after my last argument, the superintendent was silent. Crickets.
After a few seconds that felt like hours, he asked quietly, “But what if you’re wrong?” I was speechless. I had expected his advice, support, even admonition, but I hadn’t expected this question. He closed the conversation, before I could respond, with a simple, “Think about it.”
It caused me to reflect from a different perspective, from the possibility that even though we’ve researched, processed, surveyed, and piloted, maybe we missed something. Maybe we could improve. Maybe we could rethink. And God forbid, maybe we, in all our wisdom, were wrong.
That simple, quiet question haunted me. I’ve found myself applying it throughout my career to concerns that are voiced from students, parents, teachers, colleagues and Board members. As leaders, we assume much ownership for our actions, decisions, procedures and programs. We apply our professional expertise, training and experience. We take it personally, when we are questioned, and we don’t expect to be wrong. But we can be.
As superintendent, I often pose this question, in both individual and group discussions. Asking, “What if you’re wrong?” always requires humble reflection and sometimes requires courageous correction in our constant quest for leadership with integrity.
We have seen it all too often, and maybe you have experienced it in your district: The mystery of the vanishing Citizens Advisory Committee (or whatever you call your formal feedback group of constituents).
The first meeting bristles with excitement, as citizens pile into the meeting room and carry on a structured conversation about the committee purpose, discuss future meeting dates and aspirations, and maybe even tackle a topic that’s a “low-hanging fruit.”
The next meeting draws 25 percent fewer attendees, but it still has a pretty good turnout and discussion. Then the ball really starts to roll downhill, in terms of attendance.
How to get around this? Conduct Virtual Citizens Advisory Committee meetings. Here’s how they work:
- You have the traditional first meeting, but with a twist – that’s the last time.
- You announce, instead, the group will be asked to make a one-year commitment to answering brief online surveys (either quarterly, or six times a year). The surveys will take 10 minutes, and 100 percent participation is required. Pass around a sample survey to show you really do mean 10 minutes.
- An email with key details will precede the surveys.
- Ask the group members to sign up before they leave. Also, tell them they will be asked to provide their name on each survey, in case follow-up is necessary.
Patron Insight has successfully assisted several schools districts with Citizens Advisory Committees. If we can help you get one underway, contact Rick Nobles at (913) 484-0920 or [email protected].