Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 11


When Board Meetings Go



Ryan Donlan

As much as we consider our board of education meetings official forums to conduct the public’s business, at times we encounter something eerily reminiscent of reality television shows gone awry. Hot-button issues do not bring out the friendlies.

Effective superintendents recognize their roles in protecting boards from public pushback while simultaneously creating more support for their schools, not less. This is not easy, but it is doable.

When meetings go south, board members typically expect the superintendent to offer guidance or a direct response to the public challenge. Whatever the issue (the “what”), a common formula for a superintendent’s response (the “how”) can best ensure that communication will be received and accepted by the public in the way superintendents intend and boards expect.

The formula consists of these elements: listening, shifting, targeting, affirming and leading.

Five Factors
How do these components apply to the school board meeting room?

Listening. Throughout the entirety of public testimony, as a superintendent, you can capitalize on connection opportunities by listening intently, observing the public’s words, tones, gestures, postures and facial expressions, and listening to their side conversations to gather information that will help you respond. Ensure your response is directed toward the public’s concern as members define it, not necessarily as you would do so. Be in their moment.

Shifting: It is not so much what you say in response to the public as how you say it. Superintendents must be perceived as one with the community. Your goal is to become more like your constituents rather than for them to become more like you. Speak in a language they can understand. Stephen Covey once said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Shifting allows this.

Targeting: Distressed persons attack others by criticizing them for their thoughts or for their convictions. They even may blame or attempt to manipulate. Those distressed may even self-denigrate, make mistakes or build walls to conversation. These behaviors, according to the work of Taibi Kahler, a clinical psychologist whose personality theories have been used to tailor presidential campaign speeches, indicate that psychological needs are not being met.

Savvy superintendents understand the concept of targeting and recognize they must meet the psychological needs of others by recognizing their work, their convictions or their personhood, as well as offering opportunities for risks with payoff. Weaving these into our responses to public concerns is critical, such as when a superintendent might say to someone who claims the school just doesn’t have any commitment to [this group or that]: “Mr. Jones, we trust that you will help us recognize inequity when it exists, and we respect that. Thank you.” This is recognition of conviction. A superintendent must be watchful for symptoms of psychological need and respond accordingly.

Affirming: People in distress need affirmation — board members, as well as the public. Superintendents can accomplish this by publicly articulating the authority of school boards while affirming the community’s power to elect those who conduct the school’s business. Mindful comments go well to soothe a delicate situation, as people in distress often seek affirmation.

Leading: Superintendents must get people to go places they often would not travel by themselves. During board meetings, this is a job-specific must. People want to believe in something and, more importantly, in someone. True leaders are able to bring together seemingly disparate points of view, encouraging all who are invested in a problem to contribute to a win-win outcome. That is what the board expects. That is what leaders do.

Superintendents get meetings headed back in the right direction by recognizing their roles in protecting school boards from public pushback, while simultaneously creating a community more invested in a district’s success when it leaves a board meeting than when it arrived.


Ryan Donlan is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind. E-mail: ryan.donlan@indstate.edu


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