May/June 2022

Leadership Letter

A Lesson for School Board Members

By Thomas E. Bertrand

Over the past two years I have often turned to reading to find meaning in what was happening in our world and to understand the challenges of school board service.

In his book, The Hero Code, Admiral William McRaven recounts the story of the Boston Massacre. How can an event that occurred over 200 years ago offer a lesson about school board service?

On March 5, 1770, a mob of 300 colonists surrounded and threatened a group of British Redcoats. When tensions escalated the soldiers fired on the mob, killing five colonists. Bostonians demanded justice and threatened to hang the soldiers. A trial was ordered but there was one problem.

No one would take the case and defend the British soldiers — fearful that they may be hung along with the soldiers. No one, except John Adams.

Despite the potential consequences for his personal and professional reputation, John Adams took the case and defended the soldiers in court. He believed that by honoring the rule of law, Americans would prove themselves worthy of self-rule.

In the end, the jury found the Redcoats not guilty by reason of self-defense. It was Adams’ willingness to put the interests of justice above his personal interests and reputation that solidified his reputation as a man of uncompromising integrity.

The lesson of John Adams lives on today. School board members are frequently confronted with situations that put their own self-interest and preservation in conflict with doing the right thing. Following what you know to be right is hard. It is hard to go against herd tendencies and take a position that may cost you your seat in the next election. It is hard because you are human. You are forced into untenable positions because good and evil, right and wrong, are always in conflict.

But you do it. We are grateful for your service, for your integrity, and for your steady hand at a critical time.

I know that we have more challenging days ahead as we emerge from this pandemic and focus on academic recovery and mental health support for our students and staff. But I have hope that tomorrow will be better than today. That hope is due in large part to the leadership of so many dedicated public servants serving on school boards at a historic time.

Thank you for your service to your communities, schools, and students.
Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.