Parent and Trustee? Tread Carefully!
Vol. 15 No. 3
You’re at the grocery store, in the park, or at church. Another parent from your child’s school walks up and says, “What do you think of the way the Board is handling the dress code issue?”
Of course, as a tuition-paying parent, you have an opinion. Your first thought is to respond, “It’s really disappointing. I can’t imagine what’s gotten into them!” However, you’ve just become a Board member. Now what?
When parents serve on the Board, conflict between the two roles often occurs. What to expect and how to handle various situations should be included in the Board orientation.
The Board President ensures that all Trustees—parent and non-parent alike—are trained in dealing with this issue. Board members may face similar conflicts due to their profession (e.g., business owner, lawyer, public school teacher). Build your training on these points.
1. Once you join the Board, people’s perceptions of you change.
While you may still think of yourself as a parent, no one else will. Every statement you make will be treated as the Board’s opinion, and will be used by both those who are dissatisfied and those who are supportive to shore up their own positions. You cannot allow yourself to gossip about individuals or situations; what you say will have more weight because you are “in the know.”
As part of the training, role-play scenarios. You might practice:
- politely deferring school-related topics to the School Head or another appropriate school official;
- turning the conversation to topics that do not involve Board policy or personality; or
- in a social situation, explaining that you’re attending as a guest, not as a Board member, and would prefer not to address the issue now.
2. You must support the Head.
As a Trustee, you will be scrutinized carefully about your opinion of the School Head. It will be difficult at times, but it is critical that your public assessment of the Head’s performance be relentlessly upbeat. Your support of the school and its personnel is a litmus test for other parents of the confidence they have in the school’s future. Whatever your private feelings, and however you express your thoughts at Board meetings, in public, the Head is above reproach.
The Board’s Head Support and Evaluation Committee is responsible for working with the Head to set and achieve goals. Should it become clear the Head is not capable of serving the school, the commitment to the Head would change—based only on a full-Board decision.
3. Be aware of the power of perception.
While you have no real individual power as a Trustee, people think you do. You are part of a group that has the ability to close the school, fire the Head, make financial decisions that can affect the careers of individuals, or change the school’s mission.
Whether you recognize it or not, the dynamics between you and people in the school will change. Have sympathy for teachers who appear a little less certain in their dealings with you. Recognize (and appreciate) the care administrators take in approaching you and the way they conduct conversations.
Also be aware that parents and others may see you—their friend, neighbor, business associate—as the powerful Trustee who can get their particular issue or complaint addressed. Be clear about the Board’s role and your own, and about the problem-solving and communication processes in your school.
The Board exists to ensure the school’s viability for future generations; it does not get involved in day-to-day operations. As a result, Board members do not step in, for example, to resolve a parent’s complaint about a teacher or carry a message to the Head.
The Board operates as an entity. Decisions are made to benefit the school as a whole. There may be disagreement in the Boardroom, but once a decision is made, all Trustees support it by word and deed.
Take responsibility for the power that comes with serving as a Trustee. Never use your position as a way to exert influence in internal school affairs.
4. You’re still a parent.
As a parent, you need to be able to advocate effectively for your child. When you want to talk with a teacher or administrator about your son or daughter, clarify your role. Make the person as comfortable as possible by saying something like, “I want to talk with you about Isaac’s progress in mathematics—as Isaac’s parent, not in my role as Board member. I want you to know that our conversation will stay between you and our family.” Some Trustees prefer to have their spouse or significant other make advocacy approaches.
Your new role as a Trustee is an important one to the future of the school. As you take on these responsibilities, keep a sense of proportion—and a sense of humor. You joined the Board not for power, but to serve the school with your wisdom, experience, energy, and wealth. Enjoy this opportunity to exercise leadership!
Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Trustees Vol. 14 No. 6 When a Parent Approaches You in the School Parking Lot
Additional ISM resources for Gold Members:
I&P Vol. 40 No. 14 Board Confidentiality: A Cautionary Note