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The Importance of Listening in Educational Leadership

This week, Andy Saultz will be taking over the guest blog to discuss the real stuff of when and how policy gets made, and to share lessons he learned during his time as a school board member. Andy previously taught high school social studies before earning his Ph.D. from Michigan State. He is currently an assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University.

Prior to my job as an assistant professor at Miami University, I was elected to the Okemos Public School Board in mid-Michigan. This experience taught me many lessons about educational policy, leadership, and community, and I think back on my time on the board often. More than anything, I learned the complexity of running a district. I knew budget decisions would be challenging, but didn't anticipate the emotional drain of expulsion hearings, contract negotiations, and many of the school board meetings. Overall, I am thankful to have served on the school board, and encourage everyone to get involved in local politics. Today, I'd like to draw on one specific board meeting in 2010 to analyze how leaders should work with the community.

The school board realized it would be a tough night. We were in the midst of the Great Recession in Michigan, and knew that the budget decisions would be contentious. This particular night was dedicated to discussing and deciding on whether to privatize the custodians in the district. It was easy to predict the arguments in support of and in opposition to certain cuts, but we did not anticipate the public comments going the way they did that night.

Public comments are always the first thing on the school board agenda. The first speaker of the night started, "I have never been so embarrassed in my life. Last night at the swim meet, my friends were there, and I am just so embarrassed. Last night at the swim meet the speakers went out and we could not hear anything at all. The whole meet. I just cannot believe the district has deteriorated to this level." The parent filled the rest of her time with more of the same: The district should be embarrassed about the lack of technology at sporting events.

I remember being confused. The first speaker, and a few subsequent speakers, came to the school board meeting where we would be voting on privatizing the custodial service to talk about a speaker system? I remember looking out and seeing many of the custodians and their families in the audience. They were confused too.

There was an obvious contrast between what we planned to discuss during the meeting and what some in the community wanted to discuss. This disconnect led me to think about how school boards, and educational leaders, have to balance the business of the day with providing opportunities to learn from the community.

There are a few takeaways from the aforementioned school board meeting. First, as educational leaders we need to serve as conduits of information to the public. People are busy and most don't pay close attention to what is going on in the policy world. Part of your job as an educational leader is to communicate what is going on to people so they can understand other parts of the community. The parents who came to the school board meeting that night to speak about the speaker system had no idea what was on the agenda—they just wanted to be heard.

Second, timing and tone in messaging are as important as substance. Many times the tone is heard more than the message. When you want to make a point, carefully choose your words, strategize about what tone will be best, and make sure the timing is right. Many on the board that day were so caught off guard by the outrage and timing of the parents' complaints that they missed the point altogether.

Lastly, policymakers should encourage dialogue. Was this parent unreasonable? The district recently had a technology bond and the community had invested a lot of money in improving technology. Thus the request was not unreasonable—the timing was the problem. When things like this happen, the temptation is to shut down the conversation altogether. That is a mistake. Educational leaders need to continue to prioritize community feedback, even when it is uncomfortable. Many of these citizens had never been to a board meeting before, and if we shut them down, they would have left thinking that their feedback was not welcome. There are few examples of healthy civic dialogue at the federal level. Do not let that prevent you from creating space for all ideas locally.

Andy Saultz

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