The desire to make a difference in the lives of children with unique needs was what originally brought me to the field of education. I loved being in the classroom and the seeing the light in a child’s eyes when he or she understood an idea for the first time. It was through teaching special education that my work became my passion. As a special education teacher I had the opportunity to create my school’s first program for students with behavior and emotional needs. Prior to that time, identified students had been sent to other sites. We created a program staffed by a multi-disciplinary team that met the needs of a wide range of student in regular education classrooms by consulting and collaborating with regular education teachers and offering many student support services to boost their ability to function in a typical high school environment.
I loved my work and I was a teacher who vowed never to leave the classroom until the fateful day when the superintendent called me at home and asked me to consider a leadership position. My first experience as an administrator came when I served as the interim Director of Special Education during a medical leave of the regular director. It was there that I learned through leadership, we impact the lives of many students by working together to create supportive programs and structures. Serving as a Director of Special Education also taught me the importance of teaming with parents so that they are essential partners in our work rather than outside observers.
Over the years, I was offered and took a variety of roles with in education including Dean, Assistant Principal, Associate Superintendent and finally Superintendent. In each of these positions, the districts were small and I was able to work very closely with our special education leadership and teaching staff to ensure that our programs reflected the growing body of research regarding best practice for serving students with special needs. In my most recent district, we commissioned a study of our entire program and worked to change our services to a more inclusive delivery model. We also added wellness centers that benefitted all students but were also to be an intervention for special education students when appropriate.
Given my background and passion for special education, I was elected and served as the chair for the Marin County (California) Special Education cooperative from 2011-2015. This was the governing body for our shared special education programs within the county. In this role, I worked very closely with the Director to develop policies, fiscal allocation plans, programs and procedures to efficiently and effectively operated programs for a variety of K-12 students.
by Laurie Kimbrel, Ed.D.
According to the California School Board Association, the purpose of a locally elected board of trustees is to ensure that school districts are responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of their communities. School boards are empowered to carry out several important oversight and direction setting functions but in order to be truly effective; a board must have a unity of purpose.
Unity of purpose of the governance team (which includes both the board members and superintendent) include a common focus, agreement on priority goals, and shared values about students, the district and public education that transcend individual differences and fulfill a greater purpose. A unity of purpose exists when the commitment to achieving these goals becomes the guiding principle of the board members and superintendent.
Achieving unity of purpose requires a deliberate, thoughtful process. After all, board members are elected as individuals, but govern as a group. Any action or direction to the superintendent requires a vote of the majority of the board and so an individual with an idea not shared by the group will not get very far.
Oftentimes, unity of purpose is expressed as a mission statement. For example, the mission statement at Tamalpais Union High School District where I served for seven years as a superintendent was developed by the board in collaboration with the community and served as an ongoing reminder of the purpose of the district.
“The Tamalpais Union High School District is dedicated to the development of creative, passionate, and self-motivated learners. Upon graduation, students will be prepared for engaged citizenship and able to contribute individually and collaboratively in order to address the challenges of a dynamic and diverse world. To these ends, all students will demonstrate mastery of core competencies and will be offered meaningful learning experiences to enable them to access and critically analyze information, pose substantive questions, and communicate effectively.”
Although this statement is rather long, it is student focused and can be distilled to two essential components:
- All students will learn at high levels
- All students will graduate ready for life in the twenty first century
This mission was annually reviewed by the board and included in the unity of purpose section in the governance handbook. In fact, the board updated the entire handbook, which also included protocols and norms, annually and each member of the governance team signed a cover page indicating their agreement to adhere to the agreements within.
Having an articulated unity of purpose is of great benefit when difficult decisions need to be made. An agreement about the purpose of a governance team and school district transcends political leanings and personal biases. The role of the superintendent is to continuously ask the question, “will this action or decision move us closer to or farther from our stated purpose?” Although the superintendent is a member of the governance team, he or she does not vote and so, in these moments, is appropriate to provide an expert opinion and then to remind board members of their own purpose.
Overall, it is important to remember that school districts are not governed by a single board member but rather, by a board as a whole. The governance team, including the superintendent, assumes collective responsibility for building unity and creating a positive organizational culture in order to govern effectively. As leaders, the governance team sets the tone for organizational culture and a board without unity of purpose, often leads to dysfunction within the larger culture.
by Laurie Kimbrel
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
Another essential component of leadership for women is empathy or the deliberate act of reflecting on the situation or thoughts of another. Some theorize that women are more naturally empathetic than men, although relying on stereotypes never accurately reflects reality. In an organization with a robust strategic plan that calls for continuous improvement, we need to recognize and understand that different groups of stakeholders will experience change differently. We should take time to listen and understand these experiences and work to understand how it feels from their perspective.
One strategy for gaining empathy for our students is to shadow a typical student in your school for a day. We see their experience from the outside, but what does it really feel like to sit still all day? How difficult is it to understand the differing expectations and systems of different teachers? What does it feel like to wait in line in the lunchroom and to eat your food in 10-15 minutes? As you shadow one student, take the time to ask other students a set of specific questions:
- What is the learning outcome or goal of this class today?
- Where are you in terms of that learning goal?
- What are your next steps to make progress on that goal?
These are questions that I ask when I’m in classrooms and I’m continuously surprised that the learning goal is not always clear to students. This certainly gives me empathy for the difficulty of learning in a system where goals are not explicit.
Empathy requires information and time to listen. Another good strategy to gain information about a particular stakeholder group’s perspective is to set up advisory councils. As a superintendent, I had parent, student and staff advisory councils that met four to five times per year. The first meeting of the year was always without a specific agenda so that I could gather general information about how they experience school and our system. The meeting was organized in terms of three general questions:
- What is going well?
- What could be going better?
- What questions or issues would you like to see addressed at our future meetings.
The final question always brought great ideas for future agenda items.
It can be difficult to set up student advisory councils at the district level. Students identify with a school rather than a school district. As a superintendent, I asked principals to set up school based student advisory councils that I attended. These councils included a wide variety of students from every social group rather than relying on a leadership class or student council. The idea was to get many perspectives rather than the student voice most often heard. As a superintendent, participating in student advisory councils allowed me to understand trends and patterns of thought across the district as well as issues specific to one particular school. I then shared then shared these trends and patterns with the district senior leadership team as well as the school board.
Although there are many different strategies to develop a pattern of deliberate empathy, the most important strategy is to be reflective and thoughtful of how others feel about their schools and the district. Empathy takes time but it may be the best time a leader spends and can drive the pace of innovation and change. Modeling empathy can also move others toward more empathy for our positions as leaders as well. What other strategies do you have to increase empathy within your organization? I would love to hear from others on this topic.
by Laurie Kimbrel
An effective school board collectively understands that their communication sets the tone for communication and culture in the district and community. The board members are the elected educational leaders in the community and therefore, others take their cues from the board. Once a school board has determined that they share a common vision, also known as unity of purpose, their job is to communicate that vision articulately and with consistency. Even if the vision statement is a few sentences and has a locally appropriate tone, it should boil down to the absolute fact that schools exist to cause learning for students. Schools do not exist for the comfort or convenience of adults and therefore, a good statement of vision or purpose is student centered.
Problems occur when a rogue board member or two agree with the vision or purpose statement in a meeting of the board but then contradict it during subsequent small group or individual conversations. This obviously causes division among the board because these types of contradictions almost always make it back to the larger group, often through the superintendent. It is appropriate, and healthy to debate how we will achieve our purpose, but it creates or contributes to a toxic culture when board members disagree with the purpose of the organization to which they previously publically agreed.
When individual board members publicly contradict the board’s stated purpose, it is the role of the board president to gently remind the member that he or she agreed to the stated purpose, and many cases, signed off on the stated purpose, in a public meeting of the board. Most often, board members are well-intentioned and good- hearted individuals who don’t understand the problems with these types of statements or even that they made such a statement.
There are many examples of board members who either intentionally or not, make a statement that goes against the grain of the board’s stated purpose. Suppose a board member has an individual conversation with a teacher who complains that some students are too difficult to teach. If the board member responds that he or she agrees and that some students are just “slackers” that “don’t want” to learn, then he or she was now just made a statement that directly contradicts that board’s stated purpose that we ensure that all students learn (not just the ones for whom it comes easy). Similarly, the board member who is in conversation with parents who are complaining that “those students” should not be in the same class with “my child” because it makes it too difficult for “my child” to learn. If the board member agrees that some students can’t or won’t learn, then again, he or she has directly contradicted the board’s vision of all students learning at high levels.
Again, it is the role of the board president to have a conversation with a board member who communicates in this manner. There are really two options to proceed. The board can re-visit its purpose and alter it to accommodate dissenting views or the individual board members can monitor their own communication so that they do not publically disagree with the previously agreed to direction of the board. If this sort of communication continues, it erodes the effectiveness of the board and the ability of the administration to lead the district.
Effective school boards operate openly, with trust and integrity. Board members should express their opinions, openly and without reserve at the board table, during public open meetings. These meetings are the opportunity to share opinions and to shape the direction of the district. All too often, I have seen board members agree at the meeting and then have conversations later that contradict their public statements. The subsequent erosion of trust with staff and the community is very difficult to repair.
In conclusion, the superintendent and board president must regularly include discussion of organizational purpose on public board meeting agendas so that all members, as well as the community, have an opportunity to weigh in and created a purpose that truly everyone can stand behind, both in board meetings and in conversations after the fact.