From the Field: Serendipity is the gift of finding good things accidentally

By Larry Dirks

As I look toward the next phase of my life, I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on my time here at IASB, as the Field Services Director for Abe Lincoln, Kaskaskia, Southwestern, and Two Rivers Divisions. There will be no book or movie, “The World According To Dirks” but we all want to leave our mark in some way, so I give you these parting thoughts.

I am passionate that school boards learn about, and come to understand, their role as a governing board. And that they learn enough along the way, as individuals and as a group, to be effective in that role. A school board’s role is governance. That’s it. But of course, most of you know this can be a complex task. IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance, being essentially a job description for school boards, state that as an elected governing body, the board is obligated with the responsibility to 1) Clarify District Purpose, 2) Connect with the Community, 3) Employ a Superintendent, 4) Delegate Authority, 5) Monitor District Performance, and 6) Take Responsibility for Its Effectiveness.

Over time, as I have looked for fresh ways to express time-tested universal ideas like the Foundational Principles, I began to express the six principles in terms of six questions. These questions, I feel, get to the core of what each principle means:
  1. What do we want?
  2. How do we know that’s what we want?
  3. Who will lead that effort?
  4. Have we spoken clearly?
  5. Is it happening, and how do we know? And finally;
  6. How well are we doing our job, as a board, on numbers one through five?

Clarify District Purpose: What do we want?
Boards are responsible for “ends,” which means that their primary responsibility is to articulate what end result the district seeks. This means mission, vision, goals, and outcomes. It is not the “means,” which is staff work. Not that boards shouldn’t be interested and knowledgeable of means. They should. Boards need an understanding of the means — methods and strategies — and further how staff’s methods are accomplishing the goals of the district. It’s just not the board’s responsibility to create and implement means.

Connect With the Community: How do we know that’s what we want?
If “what we want” is mission and goals, then it’s worth noting a quote by author, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl that “you don’t invent your mission, you detect it.” A board detects its missions by asking the right questions, and listening to the community regarding the aspirations it, the community, has for the public education system. This means listening to understand, not just listening to respond. Of course, it has to be filtered through the lens of possibilities and practicalities, but there should be a community engagement dialogue, not a one-way conversation in either direction.

Employ a Superintendent: Who will lead the effort?
Get the right person driving the bus and let that person determine the best people to be on the bus in order to accomplish “what we want” as articulated in district ends. The board employs and holds accountable one person, the superintendent.

Delegates Authority: Have we spoken clearly, and empowered the leader, and staff?
The board expresses, in policy, its ends, operating limits, parameters, and expectations for the system. Does everyone understand who we are and what we are trying to accomplish? Does the superintendent understand the board’s goals, and is the board informed of the superintendent’s strategy, and understand how it will be measured?

Monitor District Performance: Is it happening, and how do we know?
Boards have a responsibility to monitor that the authority given in Foundational Principle 4 is being used appropriately, and that there is evidence of progress toward district ends. Strategy (action plans) and indicators of success should be agreed upon in advance. Boards should monitor for compliance with district policy and for progress toward clearly stated district goals.

Take Responsibility for Its Effectiveness: How well are we doing our job, as a board?
Effective school boards evaluate their own performance, as a governing body, which includes their work within the above Foundational Principles, but also with regard to their own behavior, processes, and norms as a group. The board, individually and collectively, takes responsibility for being effective.

Never-ending ends
Circling back to Foundational Principle 1 (the board clarifies district purpose), it is the first principle for a reason. In my work with boards on setting district goals and direction, I have used John and Mariam Carver’s quote many times: “If you haven’t said how you want it, then don’t ask how it is.”

The work of Foundational Principle 1 is saying how you want it, so that you can ask how it is. Clarifying district purpose is fundamentally and profoundly connected to the remaining five principles. By clarifying purpose and articulating ends the board connects with the community to “tell the district’s story” and to listen to the response (Principle 2). It also defines the skills needed from the educational leader (Principle 3), delegates what is to be done (Principle 4), and states what is to be monitored (Principle 5). Also, ends work is a perfect example of the board taking responsibility for its effectiveness (Principle 6). But it’s not a “one and done” activity. Any district that has worked with me doing goal-setting for the district has heard me say multiple times “it’s a process, not an event,” meaning the ongoing work of the board is to define, articulate, and redefine district ends. It is continuous improvement, and it is the essence of school board work. Never ending ends.

Serendipity is defined as the gift of finding good things accidentally, or perhaps by grace. That would describe me and the Illinois Association of School Boards. After 25 years of production agriculture, and a mid-life crisis feeling I needed to do more meaningful work in my life, I found good things at IASB, more or less accidentally. And in an effort to keep a diverse staff that was somewhat reflective of the school board member population, IASB found what I hope were good things in me, more or less accidentally. I leave IASB certain that I have made a difference, however small. I’m not sure that I can measure it as well as I’d like, but it’s there in the eyes of those who wish me well in retirement. I stand in awe of the commitment of school board members, and administrators, throughout the state for their dedication to what can be a thankless job most days. But they do it anyway. I have tremendous respect and admiration for my colleagues, the IASB staff, past and present, who have mentored me, supported me, worked alongside me, and most importantly, have laughed and enjoyed life with me. Thank you.

Larry Dirks is retiring after 14 years as Field Services Director for the Abe Lincoln, Kaskaskia, Southwestern, and Two Rivers divisions of IASB He did, indeed, make a difference. In the future, you may encounter him substitute teaching, playing music with his acoustic band, and performing as a solo singer/songwriter in Central Illinois.