Board-Savvy Superintendent

Board Members Need To See Who Teachers Are

by Nick Caruso

Recently I was stunned to hear one board member state, “We’d have a lot more money to help kids if we didn’t have so many teachers on the payroll.”

Now I’ve heard uninformed community members make comments like that, but to hear a school board member say it alarmed me greatly. (The other remark that made me cringe: “I know we are waaaaay too top-heavy in administration!”)

As all of you will know, the most important connection in a school district is the one between a teacher and student. If the teacher can’t motivate a child to learn, it isn’t going to happen. If a principal isn’t invested in his or her school and leading to learning, it just isn’t going to happen.

Years ago I managed a sales department in a large audio retail chain. Usually within a half-hour on any given day, I could tell just what kind of day my sales team would have just by the way they came in to work that day. If they were excited about being at work, they generally had a great day. If they came in to work complaining and griping about what a terrible day it was going to be, it usually ended up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same goes for a teaching staff — even more so.

Adversarial Tendency
The typical leadership pyramid shows the board at the top with the superintendent followed by the administration and down at the base the teachers. However, for successful learning, quality teachers and building administrators are really the key to success.

Too often, boards of education feel they are put in an adversarial position with the teachers. In some states, collective bargaining and union issues become the main topic of discussion about teachers. Rare are the opportunities when board members, teachers and administrators can talk about education in a laid-back, non-threatening environment.

I’m sure every superintendent has experienced board members who think they are a part of the Spanish Inquisition every time a staff member presents to the board. Even when the board members’ questions are legitimate, a demeaning, patronizing tone of voice can be highly negative and insulting. Often these board members don’t realize they are doing it.

At a board retreat I was facilitating, the superintendent brought up the fact that at a recent meeting one board member’s comments were perceived as a personal attack by two staff members who had been working hard to implement a program that was struggling because the board didn’t have the resources to fund it properly. While the board member was, in fact, bemoaning the board’s inability to get things moving, the staff members felt his comments were aimed at them. That was a real morale buster for the staff.

Team Tactics
If we are ever to truly improve education, it is crucial teachers and administrators be an important part of the team. As superintendent, you need to lead the charge for getting your board to support the staff. These strategies might work:

  • Talk about your staff’s successes. Bring exemplary teachers to the board’s attention. Let them know the quality work that is going on in your schools.


  • Don’t let board members treat staff poorly. Let the board know upfront if members have an issue with something being discussed, they need to deal with you, rather than the staff. Work with the board chair to get board members to understand the proper way to behave at board meetings.


  • Create a collegial environment. Get teachers and administrators involved in helping the board understand the issues. Arrange opportunities for the board to see your staff as the professionals they truly are.


  • Involve staff in goal-setting discussions. Often the best ideas come from joint discussions with staff and board working together.


  • Get your board members to understand how valuable an asset your staff is.


  • Do not be afraid to talk to board members about their behavior when they are acting hostile or treating staff in a demeaning manner. Ask the board chair to assist.

Seeing Differently
In general, the issue is really whether your board understands the role of the teachers and administrators in the education process. They are not the enemy, but rather the part of the team that delivers the goods. Boards of education (and superintendents) need to enable teachers to teach effectively.

Education is changing (Internet literacy and self-directed learning ), and boards and teachers need to change to succeed. You can help your board understand these new practices by including this information in your meetings. Let board members see the way things can be and help them muster community support to embrace these changes.

Nick Caruso is senior staff associate for field services with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, 81 Wolcott Hill Road, Wethersfield, CT 06109. E-mail: