Superintendents and teachers share a common purpose: improving outcomes in the classroom and developing the next generation of our nation’s leaders. Even with this shared foundational objective, superintendents and teachers need to continually work to strengthen their relationships and remain focused on ongoing collaboration to achieve the highest levels of shared success. As a superintendent and leader in your school district, your efforts to develop positive working relationships with your school board members must be an ongoing area of focus. To be successful, you must find ways to collaborate, establish clear roles and responsibilities, and stimulate open dialogue.
#1 Establish Regular Times to Check In
Your school board members are well positioned to offer valuable insights into trends, opportunities, and potential issues that should be addressed by your collective leadership. Superintendents should schedule and keep regular school board meetings that include a standing agenda item to discuss new business and topics the school board members wish to address. Demonstrating to your school board members that you value their input, are open to their concerns, and genuinely want to discuss the topics that matter to them will help to develop a foundation for long-term trust and mutual respect.
#2 Shoulder the Hardships and Share in the Successes
The research division of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) and the Center for Public Education (CPE) outlined what it calls the “Eight Characteristics of Effective School Boards.” One identified key to success that emerged from the research stated that school boards must “lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.” Aligning with this suggestion, when issues escalate, your board members must trust that you as their district leader support them individually and collectively, and are capable of leading the resolution process. They must know that if the board’s actions or decisions are questioned by district faculty, the business community, or the media, that you will stand behind them, not defer or deflect blame or responsibility onto their shoulders.
Similarly, when your district achieves success, internal and external parties, such as the media, may turn to you as the champion for the project. Take the opportunity to share the success with your school board members and give them their due public praise. They will appreciate the recognition and feel valued, and will trust that you see yourself as their counterpart—not as an independent leader looking to usurp all the credit for the board’s collective efforts.
#3 Maintain Consistent Communications
According to the NSBA’s research, to establish mutual respect, communications between superintendents and school board members must be timely, consistent, and focused on the needs and expectations of both parties. Whether news is positive or concerning, inform board members as soon as is possible. In between regular meetings, utilize a dedicated channel to communicate with the board, such as funneling communications through the board president, holding regular one-on-one meetings with each member, or distributing weekly email updates to the board. Also, be sure to treat all board members fairly and share information requests equally. For example, if one board member requests test score data from a specific school, send the requested data to all board members. Shared knowledge promotes collaboration, transparency, and trust.
#4 Establish Defined Communication Channels
Make sure all staff members throughout the district know the proper channels for board communications so that members have a clear understanding of who they should and should not speak with about board matters. Similarly, be transparent about the district and community members you are sharing information with as well. This seemingly small practice is essential to avoiding communication misunderstandings that could mistakenly lead board members to feel undervalued or that you are not informing them about important matters.
Another way you can help establish defined communication channels is to make sure all players know who is permitted to speak to the press, answer questions from school faculty, share information and opinions on digital channels such as social media, and communicate policy updates. The CPE study supports this recommendation, stating that “effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals.”
#5 Prepare Board Members for Meetings
It may seem like an obvious practice, but board members will want to feel that they are prepared and informed at all times, especially before meetings and particularly if the meetings will be broadcast live. If school board members perceive that topics, issues, or items for vote are sprung on them unexpectedly, without an opportunity to prepare, it may foster feelings of mistrust or resentment.
#6 Listen First and Speak Last
Ensuring you let each board member share their opinion before you share yours demonstrates to school board members that you value their input, and that their beliefs impact outcomes. At the same time, after every school board member has an opportunity to be heard it will be your turn to establish a resolution. By speaking last, your school board will understand and respect that due to your position, you have the final say as to how efforts will proceed, based on their input.
#7 Work Together to Establish District Goals
Good leaders set goals for their teams. Great leaders collaborate with their teams to set goals together. Set aside time each year to decide as a collective entity what the most critical areas of focus will be for the year, and what steps need to be taken to be successful. According to the NSBA, effective school boards should “establish a clear vision with high expectations for quality teaching and learning that supports strong student outcomes.”
When board members are part of the goal-setting process, they will appreciate having their opinions and advice taken into consideration, and will be more likely to possess a sense of ownership over any identified action items needed for success. An additional benefit of a collaborative goal-setting approach is that when difficult decisions need to be made in districts committed to positive, systemic change, you and your school board will be making those difficult decisions and implementing paradigm-shifting policies, together.
#8 Respect Roles and Responsibilities
While collaboration and open dialogue are essential to establishing trust, creating lines of demarcation between board responsibilities and superintendent responsibilities is equally crucial. When entities come together to share accountability, both parties will be more willing to respect one another’s roles. While school boards are typically elected by the community to identify and accomplish student achievement goals, the position of the superintendent remains, distinctly, different. The role of the superintendent is to identify needs, establish policies, develop regulations, review staff effectiveness, provide leadership, and manage the district’s daily operations. When school boards allow superintendents to lead, and when superintendents enable school boards to influence policy, mutual trust and efficient operations come naturally.
By demonstrating to your school board that you are open to feedback and that you value their suggestions and assessment of your performance, you allow school board members to trust in your intentions and respect your role. The research from the NSBA supports the need for training and assessment. The CPE study determined that “effective school boards take part in team development and training, sometimes with their superintendents, to build shared knowledge, values, and commitments for their improvement efforts.” By participating in an annual superintendent evaluation with school board feedback, you demonstrate your commitment to transparency, open dialogue, and collaboration. To ensure your performance evaluation is actionable and measurable, be sure it offers established criteria for success and an opportunity to identify and track success goals.
#10 Hold One Another Accountable
Mutual respect naturally develops from an environment in which both parties hold themselves—and one another—accountable. From large scale district-wide program success goals to individual meeting follow-ups and action items, every assigned responsibility is an opportunity to prove accountability and generate trust.
As the leader of the district, not only must you complete your responsibilities, you must set clear expectations for what you need from your school board members, and by when. After establishing what is required, superintendents must hold school board members accountable for their assignments, action items, follow-ups, and overarching duties and responsibilities. By holding others to the same standards that you hold yourself, you prove your trustworthiness and earn respect.
The average tenure for a superintendent is approximately three years in urban school districts and six years in rural and suburban school districts. Therefore, you may not have the luxury of hoping a trusting relationship with your school board develops organically over time. Be genuine in your efforts to earn the trust of your school board members—a necessary step as you all work toward your shared goal of improving student achievement. Give your school board members every opportunity to see and experience your shared interests and desire for shared success. Hold board members accountable and to the same high standard that you hold yourself. Stimulate a culture of transparency, collaboration, and two-way dialogue. All of these efforts will allow you to be the type of leader worthy of trust, who leads a group of goal-minded leaders you trust in return.
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