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].
Guest column by Dr. Andy Underwood, superintendent, Belton School District – Mo.As new school leaders begin July 1, there are many new aspects of their lives that will change, the least being a new mailing address. I think back to lessons I have learned from other colleagues in my first years and realize how many of those ideas have stayed with me even today.
Be a leader. Be a visionary. Be a champion for children!
- Have an open-door policy and mean it. Share office hours if needed.
- Be a good listener, and remember, listening doesn’t always mean taking action.
- Take time to investigate concerns and give expected times for a follow-up conversation.
- Be a learner and observer, especially in the first year.
- Research strategic plans. Talk to staff. Review notes from your interview to follow up on the Board of Education’s suggestions.
- Learn the Board of Education’s preferred mode of communication and recognize it may not be the same for every Board member.
- Communicate regularly with Board members; perhaps even pick a specific day they will be certain to hear from you. There will be other communications, but they will always hear from you on Wednesday, for example.
- Remind yourself: Anything sent in a text or email can end up on the front page of a newspaper or on social media.
- History repeats itself. Look back at the last three to four years of Board agendas. Utilize these as a guide to help you understand how the district has operated, and they may give you ideas to expedite Board meetings, such as adding a consent agenda.
- And finally: Do what is best for the kids and be able to explain why you are doing it. The response should not be “because the Board of Education made me do it.”