Jay S. Stroud
Most trustees likely know by heart the ancient advice to share their “time, talent and treasure” or, phrased with an altered alliterative admonition, to bring to their school “work, wisdom and wealth.” In a rough-hewn way, such phrases sometimes actually help boards balance their membership and assess their strengths.
The NEASC/CIS Governance Standard, not as pithy but considerably more thorough, aims to assure that boards “remains true to mission” and possesses the “necessary resources to support present and prospective operations.” Through careful planning, supportive relationships with the Head of School, manifest integrity, clear communication and thoughtful internal organization, a Board of Trustees forges an effective alliance with its school. And, when they do, the gifts of an effective board of trustees extend far beyond their time, their talent and their treasure.
In our work with schools, we find effective boards bestow four strengths on their school: confidence, perspective, support and inspiration.
Functioning boards – boards that meet regularly, plan thoughtfully, talk openly, support the faculty, the school head and the administration in word and deed and who are very clear about their responsibilities and their limits and about the school’s opportunities – provide confidence to their school community. A board clear about its role to set direction not meddle in daily operation, steadfast in its commitment to the school’s fundamental values not swayed by an intense personal school dynamic, a board holding broadly inclusive discussion when called for and circumspect about decisions when necessary helps every person in the community, younger and older, understand and abide by the respect, high standards and care at the heart of a great school.
Confidence, in short, enables the school to be honest and principled, knowing both that good decisions will find support and error will be treated wisely. Genuine confidence sets a school free to create, to experiment, to stand thoughtfully by their values, to assure parents, students and faculty that the school truly believes in their mission and does, in fact, live out that belief. Importantly, genuine confidence empowers humility. It is the truly confident person – and school - who can put others first.
Good boards provide perspective. They possess a sense of history – both the school’s and the bigger world – distinguishing between what is likely lasting and what short-lived. They are neither swayed too much by events of the day – a victory or a defeat, an individual faculty member’s coming or leaving – nor too blasé to miss the joy of spontaneity or humor. A board is educated enough in the school’s traditions to recognize something original and experienced enough with school life to appreciate something – or someone – steadfast. A good board constantly researches trends and possibilities and has enough context to exercise good judgment. A good board understands both “school” issues – those faced by many schools over time – and local concerns.
A good board almost reflexively seeks context, broader landscapes and information but is not paralyzed by an impossible desire to predict every nuance of the future. As one wise board member commented: “It is not necessary to know the final destination to take a step in the right direction.”
Financial support – the wealth part – is terrific and many boards provide crucial resources to their schools. But good Boards support their schools by listening, by embracing the joys and sorrows of school life, by simply “being there” for a school head and school community. The board supports their school by encouraging, by cheering, by celebrating the accomplishments of faculty and students, by, regularly, showing up. When the acapella groups sings at a board meeting, when the art teacher guides a group of trustees through a student show, when the plant director brings the operations committee to a newly renovated space, when a board asks the admissions director thoughtful questions about demographics and marketing – the board imbues these events with importance and value. It isn’t interference for the school to know the trustees are genuinely interested and care about what goes on.
Working with the school’s head, trustees can further faculty careers and professional development by working together on curriculum and planning committees, by asking for faculty presentations and by their respect for the often remarkable accomplishments of faculty and students. Being sure, over time, to pay attention to every department in the school, the board helps insure the essential sense that “my work and my life are valued” for every person in the community. Knowing “the board cares about this” is a potent force in school life and, used judiciously, can be enormously helpful.
Schools are endeavors of the heart and soul, however these forces might be defined, and good boards recognize the importance of lifting spirits. When a board publically honors a long-time faculty member, or, working with the Head, helps bring a musical event or speaker or program to campus or encourages student performance, they infuse a necessary vitality into the school’s life. Kids and faculty who experience together the human words of someone who has overcome – or just learned to live with – tragedy, or enjoy people who accomplish truly amazing things, or who see a soaring performance realize what inspired people can do. Good boards encourage their schools to seek out inspiration and to do so as frequently as possible. Boards who recognize that exceptional expressions of joy are the lifeblood of great schools find their own boardrooms more rewarding places to serve.
The Standards for Governance are something like instructions for putting together a stirring orchestra: hire a great conductor, audition fine musicians, provide excellent acoustics, market the program. But good boards know, too, the real point of it all is the music. And that making music is their true gift.