January/February 2020

From the Field: What Type of Cheese is Your Story?

By Dee Molinare

We have been hearing about the importance of telling “your story.”

In fact, the Illinois State Board of Education has provided school districts with a guide to assist in the telling of your story. Without a doubt, the popularity of “the story” telling has gained the attention of us all. 

So what is the story? Your district’s story should be clear and concise. You could say it should be firm like a Parmigiano-Reggiano, with a vigorous, robust flavor. That full-bodied flavor would inform your community of the progress the district is making toward the district’s goals.

Goals? Yes, goals. If you have not as a district taken up the work of strategic planning/goal setting, with stakeholders, this would be an ideal time to begin the process. The strategic planning process involving stakeholder participation provides the board an opportunity to engage in two-way conversation that is purposeful with your community. The planning process ensures the values and beliefs of the community are represented in the strategic plan. 

Once the strategic plan is determined, finalized, and adopted by the board, the conversation then becomes ongoing as the district communicates the progress back to the community towards the goals. The monitoring of the progress to the goals utilizing data provides factual information to share with your stakeholders. You are telling the story of how you are spending the community’s money, their tax investment. And then what exactly is their return on that investment. This is the story. Firm, full of flavor, and vigorous!

As you strive for your story to have a rich umami flavor profile, it is also important the story is succinct. As Jeffrey Goelitz, attorney for Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn LLP, emphasizes, “In communicating with the community, the board should aim to have a united story. A board that is telling different stories to different constituent groups causes fractures, confusion, and mistrust in the community and among its staff.”

It takes effort and time to repair the fractures, confusion, and mistrust. By having a unified story that is content-driven by the district’s strategic plan, this can be avoided. 

If your story is more like a Swiss, (noted, nothing against Swiss cheese), the holes could cause questions from your all stakeholders. Those holes allow the opportunity for the gaps in the story. Those gaps will be filled in by others. These types of holes, or gaps, allow for your district’s story to be told in a way that may have inaccuracies. Inaccuracies could lead to rumors. It can be challenging and time-consuming to dispel rumors and inaccuracies. 

Therefore, it is best to be proactive with the story rather than reactive. Open, honest communication while telling your story will go a long way toward building trust among all stakeholders. Inform your community of opportunities for areas of improvement. Highlight the plan to be implemented that provides progress toward the goal of improvement. Is there any way to involve stakeholders? Building partnerships within your community not only increases the trust but builds the ownership of the community in their community school.

Brett Clark, communications director for Maine Township THSD 207 states that “One of the core tenants of any public organization, especially schools and school districts, is to ensure that information provided is transparent and accurate. This is true when things are going well and it is especially true when things are not going well. This approach engenders stakeholder trust and positions the district or school as the accurate and trusted information source in all situations.”

When there are those times of difficulty within the organization, whether it be not meeting goals or public scrutiny over some action of the district, it is critical the story be told accurately, succinctly, and timely. The worst is to wait for the story to be told by others. The delay in the information can create skepticism and lack of trust by your stakeholders. The goal would be to get “in front of the story” with honest ownership of the problem and most importantly the plan to address the problem. 

Another pitfall is to not tell your story. Make sure the story you are telling is your district’s unique story. Avoid a manufactured or processed story like you would a processed cheese. It is not healthy for anyone. Also, be sure to share the history of your district. Those old-aged stories are interesting, consumable, and palatable just like a moldy Gorgonzola or Stilton. 
The exciting aspect of storytelling is that it parallels to three of IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance, which are in essence the board’s job description. The three principals addressed are:

1. The board clarifies the district purpose. 
2. The board connects with the community. 
5. The board monitors performance.

You can be confident you are fulfilling your role as a board member when you are “storytelling.” As a servant leader of the district, you are the cheerleader for the district. Enjoy telling your district’s story along with a flavorful cheese of your liking.
Dee Molinare, Ed.D. is Field Services Director with the Illinois Association of School Boards for the DuPage, North Cook, and Starved Rock divisions.