The Last Word September 2011

By Mary Broderick

A simple exchange made a number of years ago has stuck with me as an example of good leadership and personal empowerment.

“Hank,” our new assistant superintendent, was mulling over a question posed by “Charron,” an elementary principal. He wasn’t sure what advice to give and asked for the superintendent’s opinion.

Hank was astonished by the superintendent’s reply: “Charron is paid big bucks to make that decision. If you make the decision for her, whatever happens will be your fault. Help her think through the various options, but she needs to decide.”

“Francis,” the superintendent, lived the brilliant concept of pushing decision-making as close as possible to those affected by the decision. He always asked himself, “At what level should this decision be made? Who is affected by this decision? Who should have the final say? What should be the process for making the decision?”

During Francis’s tenure, student achievement climbed through the roof, and innovative approaches to problems permeated every corner of the system. The board and community were robustly and appropriately engaged in driving the district toward excellence.

What I learned from Francis’s leadership was the importance of true empowerment of others. He cared deeply about the humanity and growth of each staff member and student in the district. He had a wild sense of humor. He inspired a wonderful culture for exploring ideas and reveling in learning and daring to take risks. Though test scores soared, they were a by-product, not a focus of what happened in the schools and classrooms every day.

Why do I tell this story? Because Francis is all too rare in American public education today. It seems that those elected or appointed to office, whether at the town, state, or federal level, want to control what happens between children and their teachers. And those in the trenches are growing too compliant and allowing dictates from above to drive what they do, sometimes even when they know better.

We should know better. Motivation studies for years now have shown that adults have three innate needs for learning: We need to feel competent, we need to feel a sense of belonging, and we need to feel autonomous. When we demonstrate confidence in our teachers’ knowledge of our children and their learning challenges, we enhance teachers’ innate needs to feel competent and autonomous. When we encourage them to work together with their colleagues to solve learning dilemmas, teachers feel a greater sense of belonging.

Unless teachers are fully engaged in determining the best way to teach Johnny in the third grade, they will not own the solutions. Identifying root causes and generating local solutions is hard, time-consuming work. But the time and investment are well spent. When solutions are imposed from above, teachers aren’t fully invested in them and consequently may grow disenfranchised, resentful, and bitter. When our teachers are engaged, on their own and in professional learning communities, in identifying problems and exploring and selecting solutions, then provided with the necessary resources, our students flourish.

This is why our advocacy as school board members is so important. Locally elected school board members are the most likely governing body to understand and respond to the needs of children in our communities. As we kick off this school year, we must remember that our effective advocacy at local, state, and federal levels is critical to the success of each child in our districts. We must advocate for resources to ensure equitable learning opportunities, but we also need to demand that decisions about learning are made as closely as possible to that teacher-child relationship. Remember to convey this message as Congress considers reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

So what is the takeaway? As school board members, we should recognize that decisions are appropriately made at different levels to enhance the effectiveness of the teacher-child relationship. The federal government, state legislatures, and departments of education have important roles to play. We should expect that their actions enhance appropriate local decision-making and don’t diminish the local role.

And when issues come to our boards, we should ask whether we are the right body to make the decision. As demonstrated by Francis, let’s honor the professionalism of our staffs by ensuring decisions are made at the proper level -- not to play “gotcha,” but rather to ignite the potential of all in our districts.  n

Mary Broderick (mbroderick@nsba.org) is the 2011-2012 president of NSBA and a member of Connecticut’s East Lyme Board of Education.