ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Some days, you're the windshield; some days you're the bug!
by Tom Salter
Tom Salter is senior communications officer with Montgomery (Alabama) Public Schools.
Don't you love those little funny quips, especially those with built-in life lessons? Here are a few favorites with some thoughts on how they relate to school board members:
If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.
Okay, that one is just funny. Another twist on the same thought is more useful to our discussion: If at first you don't succeed, you are running about average.
While you may not want to try skydiving, when you fail, you have to dust yourself off and jump back in. However, you need to take a minute before you leap in a second (or third or fourth or …) time to find out why you failed and what you need to do differently to succeed on your next attempt. Remember: One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt or leaky tire.
And five minutes after you start, all the kids have to go potty. The moral? Every plan has unforeseen obstacles. If it is a good plan and the results are beneficial, don't let anything stop you.
Never ask a barber if he thinks you need a haircut.
It is amazing that we often ask those who are causing the problem to tell us how to fix it. Often, these individuals benefit from keeping things in a state of discord. They drag their feet and mask their real agenda. Ask yourself: "Is this the best thing for our students?" If not, find the right people to help you make changes.
No one is listening, until you make a mistake.
Unfortunately, truer words were never spoken. Educators are full of ideas and ways to solve problems, and we often succeed. But good news tends to end up on page 46 of the Q section of your local paper or on the editing floor. Mistakes are on page one or lead the broadcast at 5, 6 and 10 p.m.
Communicate the good things that are happening in your district, but don't rely on the media. They don't tell your story; they tell their version of your story. Take your show on the road and spread the word of the positive happenings in your schools to business and community groups. That way, when a mistake is made, and it will be, you will have some "good will" built up in the bank of public opinion. But never make a mistake on a "slow news day."
Never test the depth of the water with both feet.
While it is important to be bold and proactive, it is foolhardy to go blindly into uncharted territory. Take that step into the deep end, but ease into it. Look for signs of danger and, most importantly, know the risks and the benefits of jumping into the pool.
Never kick a cow chip on a hot day.
If you have ever walked through a pasture on a humid summer day, you know how important it is to "tip-toe through the tulips." When you kick one, not only does it pollute the environment (if you know what I mean), it is tough to get if off your boot. So here is the plan: When things are "hot," step carefully and don't make matters worse!
The things that come to those who wait are the things that those who got there first left behind.
You can't rest on your (or anybody else's) laurels. Nor can you be satisfied with the way things are. You must keep moving forward, just make sure you know which way that is and that the entire board is working together to reach that destination.
Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
You are going to mess up. The trick is not to make the same mistake over and over. The best school board members learn not only from their own faux pas, but those of others. To do this, you must read and learn. Attend as many workshops as you can and read articles, magazines and books that offer advice on boardsmanship. Look for stories in the mass media that show "school systems gone wild!" Ask, "How can I keep from making those mistakes?"
Before criticizing anyone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you criticize him, you're a mile away and you'll have his shoes.
Don't be too quick to point fingers. Often when we sound the alarm and try to spread the blame, there is a ricochet effect. Make sure you know all the facts and react in a reasonable, unemotional way. Since none of us is perfect, ask the question: "How can we solve the problem?" rather than asking, "Who can we blame for this mess?"
The absolute worst thing you can do is to dress down a system employee in public. The board has one employee, the superintendent. Everybody else works for him or her. Follow the chain of command. Let the superintendent handle personnel matters. Anytime you have a personal problem with someone, have a face-to-face and work it out.
If you lend somebody $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.
As a rule, people only show up at your board meetings or call you for one of three reasons: you invited them to get a certificate; they are paid to be there (i.e. reporters); or they are angry. The first group is a good thing; the second is unavoidable; but the third, ah, they are the reason the second group is there!
Solve problems, if possible, before they reach the board room. Make sure your superintendent and his or her staff know the importance of customer service. No, you can't make everybody happy, but most of the PR problems we have are because we mishandled something. An ounce of prevention … a stitch in time … you get the picture.
To love what you do and feel that it matters — how could anything be more fun?
Okay, this one isn't funny, but it is, or should be, true for every school board member. Admittedly, not everything is fun. But if you don't enjoy helping people or you don't want to help students, resign today. You hold the future of children and the welfare of your community in your hands. It is a sacred trust.
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