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An Insider's View: From the Classroom to the Boardroom

Tuesday, October 2, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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By Leah Slawson

 

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Those words from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee were always part of the classroom discussion when I taught ninth grade English at Trinity Presbyterian School.

 

Now in my second term as a trustee, I have had the unusual privilege and perspective of walking in multiple skins at Trinity by serving as a trustee, a classroom teacher, and then a trustee again. Adding to my perspective of the school, as a parent I’ve been room mother, PTO volunteer, team mom, and chaired a few committees. I’ve driven the carpool line and hidden the Easter eggs and called out the spelling words. My husband has served three board terms, been on two search committees for heads of school, and served as president of the board. I guess you could say we love the place and are interested in education. 

 

My husband’s advice to me when I first went on the board was to say very little for a year and figure out who’s who and what their various perspectives and agendas were. Sound advice that I didn’t take. Anyone who knows me knows that being quiet for a year would be impossible. Nonetheless, I did learn quickly that getting things done on a board involves coalitions and conversations and the monthly meeting is not where the real work gets done. He also told me to remember that institutional change is like turning an aircraft carrier around; it happens slowly. (He knew this first hand having lived on one and knew I didn’t naturally have the patience for the work in front of me.) Both pieces of advice have guided me through both terms and helped me understand the pace and nature of board work.  

 

The trustee’s responsibility is mission and money, in short. Theirs is a point of view thirty years from now, which is wildly different from either a parent or a teacher or any other employee of the school. Kids are "in-the-moment” and though a teacher has a curriculum and year-long plan, any good one knows that seizing the moment and flexibility are part of the art of a good classroom teacher. For parents, the school is only as good as their child’s experience that year, or maybe even that week, with a particular class or teacher or coach. For the teacher and the parents, their jobs are relational. Children don’t give two hoots what you say until they know you care about them. When they know that, you can get them to read Dickinson and Frost or balance equations or take out the trash. There is a necessary immediacy in teaching and parenting. 

 

A board must build and oversee an organization and is responsible for the solvency of it. The mission of the school is primary, sometimes at the expense of personnel or programs if cuts have to be made. Good trustees, if they have children attending the school, have to forget their parent ‘skin’ when they walk into a board meeting. The trustee’s job is a corporate one. He is looking at the numbers, the strategic plan and the mission. To get bogged down in the personal and immediate is to fail to do the job entrusted. 

 

One of the difficult parts of a trustee’s job is dealing with friends and neighbors who are parents with complaints about the school. Most of the concerns they bring are actually below the decision-making level of the board. This is probably due to a lack of knowledge about what boards do and a perception that individual board members have power that they do not. A board member has no power as an individual. The board speaks with one voice and has one employee, the head of school. Unless it regards him, the complaint usually needs to start at the level of teacher or administrator and move up the chain. Explaining that repeatedly to parents while trying to be an empathetic listener who makes them feel heard and valued is one of a trustee’s primary challenges. 

 

Another challenge as a trustee is climbing into the skin of fundraiser and sometimes budget cutter. As a board member serving my first term, I was placed on the development committee. It was a huge learning curve but learn I did. My first year we launched a capital campaign. I found myself going over potential donor list, learning about capacity and inclination and learning how to sell a vision to others. I became the cheerleader on the board for a chant one consultant taught us, “Give, Get, or Get Off.” This is part of the job that many don’t quite understand. Parents already write big tuition checks to the school and teachers won’t ever get a check big enough for the work they do, and yet the board has to continue to raise the funds to preserve and grow the school, as well as raise tuition and sometimes cut positions and programs to keep budgets in balance. 

 

When I joined the faculty after my first board term, I often found myself trying to explain these distinctions to my fellow faculty members. Trustees were not nearly as heartless or clueless as they might appear. They simply had a job to do which involves policy and solvency.

 

I’m grateful to have been fortunate enough to have the perspectives of parent, teacher and trustee. I’ve often said that the classroom is by far more fun than the boardroom, and its rewards are certainly more immediate; but serving as a trustee and seeing strategic initiatives become realities and generations of students grow into the graduate profile written all those years ago has its own rewards - even if it takes longer than turning an aircraft carrier around. 

 

 

 

 

Leah Slawson is a former English teacher and current board trustee at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, AL. She is the author of New Every Morning: A Celebration of God’s Faithfulness for Women and blogs regularly at leahslawson.com.  

 

 

  

 


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Annual Conference
October 14-16, 2018 | Charleston, SC
Drawing over 300 administrators from across the Southeast, we delve into hot topics and relevant issues.

Board/Head Retreat
October 14, 2018 | Charleston, SC
Designed to strengthen the communication and partnership between the head of school and members of the board.



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