The Profession of Governing

By Rick Maloney

Upon entering school board service, most of us are anxious to learn all we can about education and management. Because of this, we never seem to have enough time to attend all of the conference presentations on curriculum, instruction, community engagement, budget, and myriad other topics. After all, we reason, boards exercise ultimate authority over our schools and the work of our superintendent, so we should become as knowledgeable as we can about the business of education. When we stand for election, we highlight any knowledge and experience we have in education or management -- or both -- and voters believe we are better prepared because of that background. This all seems quite logical. It is also quite wrong.

Two obstacles that keep us from improving our practice of governance are a misguided concept of the role and our isolation from fellow practitioners. Focusing on superintendent oversight deceives us into preparing for the wrong role, that of instructional and managerial leader, rather than that of governing board member, a role that few people (including many superintendents) fully understand. If we allow our superintendents to guide us in learning our board role, we allow ourselves to be misled; because they see our role only through the lens of an administrator, they “teach” us how to help them do their job, or how to give them cover, or how not to interfere with them doing their job.

Because we practice our governance craft in isolation, or take our cues from those who do not really understand our role, we seldom become more than mediocre at it. We don’t bother to learn with and from our peers. Some of us, through trial and error, become more skilled at governance over time, but we usually do so without the assistance of expert coaching and without models of effective practice.

As school board members, our role demands unique knowledge and expertise that is neither education nor management. Popular notions notwithstanding, a school board’s main responsibility is not to know the intricacies of teaching, nor the latest, most effective management techniques. The specialized field in which we offer a service to society -- our profession, as it were -- is that of board governance. The primary responsibility of a governing board is to stand in for our community, not to act as elevated school administrators. Our unique body of knowledge, for which we alone are responsible to use, and which cannot be delegated to staff, combines our understanding of the community, including its dreams, values, hopes, and expectations, with a willingness to act on its behalf. Rather than trying to assume an impossible role for a part-time actor, that of administrator -- one step up from superintendent -- we ought instead to embrace and fulfill a more authentic role i.e., acting as the community one step down from our constituents, who are the source of our authority. And we should be good in that role.

Harvard professor Tony Wagner urges educators to model themselves after other professions in the way that they refine their practice. In an Education Week article, he asks them to imagine learning how to play a musical instrument, never having heard it played well, and practicing in isolation with no coaches available, all the while expecting to play beautifully. Drawing a comparison between this poor practice and the practice of teaching, Wagner urges them to transform teaching from a craft of solo practitioners into a profession, one whose members form a community of peers working together to improve and enhance their practice.

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