July/August 2019

Leadership Letter: Transitions and Talking

By Thomas E. Bertrand

Summer is a time of transition in schools, with the end of one school year and preparation for another. It is an exciting time as we look forward to the possibilities that accompany the transition to a new school year. 

With the addition of approximately 1,200 new school board members in April, many school boards also experienced a transition. This transition, coupled with the start of a new school year, presents an opportunity to welcome new board members, to hear new ideas, and to reflect and reset as a school board.

I often quote Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk. She states “We must learn to talk to people we disagree with, because you can’t unfriend everyone in real life.” Headlee cites a recent study that indicated that most Americans now believe that people who disagree with one another demonize the other person so aggressively that it is impossible to find common ground. This represents a troubling trend. 

School board members must be intentional about board practices that contribute to a high functioning team and to relationships with one another built on mutual respect. As Headlee suggests, the missing ingredient from so many of our conversations today is empathy — the ability to sense someone else’s feelings, to be aware of their emotional state, and to imagine their experience. 

As you prepare to welcome new members to your board, remember, there is no one with whom you have nothing in common. Remember that powerful conversations occur when people are willing to listen to and learn from one another. There will be disagreements. Don’t avoid the difficult conversations. Remember that respecting another person’s point of view is often more important than finding common ground on an issue. Respectful disagreement leaves the door open for the next conversation, one in which you may find agreement. 
Our students are counting on you to advocate for quality public education for every child. They are counting on your school boards to model civil discourse, respectful disagreement, and the ability to come to consensus around important issues. 

Elvis Presley once said, “Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave ‘em all over everything you do.” Make a commitment this year to leaving your mark in a positive way on your board work and on your relationships with your fellow board members. Your students will benefit from your commitment. 

School board service is a calling. Thank you to the approximately 6,000 school board members who answered that call and to the new board members who have stepped up to board service. The staff of IASB looks forward to serving you.

Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.