Good Governance: Educating the Community

Our economics teacher recently invited me to speak on the topic of governance, as the class was learning about corporate governance. There are indeed differences between school and corporate governance, but the basic tenets of strong governance are often new to high school students. I invited my school’s chief financial officer to join me, and talked about fiduciary responsibility, the link between financial and strategic planning, and misconceptions about the head’s and board’s respective roles.
To make the conversation relevant to students, I suggested that they will likely lead for-profit or nonprofit organizations and serve on boards in the future. As we engaged, I realized our students were ready for real conversations about how our school works. For example, one student commented that the cannon shot off at Founder’s Day must have cost too much money. That led to a discussion about philanthropy, in-kind gifts (such as the cannon display), and the budget.
Next time I speak about governance to a class, I could even invite my board chair to help our students see a “live” dialogue about what good governance is all about. There are important nuances, built on a foundation of trust, transparency, respect, and clarity. It’s important for our students to see and feel the strong rapport between the head of school and the board chair and to understand that governance is not just a word or jargon we use. It’s based on open and honest human dialogue, and modeling this for them in class is the first step to their understanding.
Over 13 years, I’ve served as head of school at two schools and have served on multiple boards, including my current college board position, and I consider myself a continuing scholar of strong governance. It’s not always logical, as I explained to the students, and it takes thoughtful practice. Transparency with various constituencies, including students, faculty, parents, and the broader school community, about the tenets of governance is the key to building strong practices.  

Governance 101

There are small but impactful ways to expose students to what happens around a board table. By doing so, we give students the knowledge about how a governing body operates—which is key to the success of any organization in a variety of industries—and we begin to plant seeds. As we help our students grow into the world of tomorrow, it’s important to think about the tools they need. They’ll need to understand what makes a good leader, how to manage budgets, why to plan for the future, and other abilities that come from practicing good governance.
Parents also can benefit from refreshers about the role of trustees, board, and head of school. A parent might think that speaking to a board member about a teacher they don’t like is the right thing to do; a teacher might think that complaining to a trustee about an administrative decision they don’t agree with is what governance is about. Trustees might think they are helping by listening to gripes from parents and teachers, and while these actions may seem natural because of close relationships over the years, they can backfire on a school, cause distraction, and ultimately take away energy that deserves to go to students in any school community.
Good governance is surely the backstop in a time of crisis, and it enables the business of the school to happen smoothly on a day-to-day basis. By having open communication about roles, functions, and clear expectations, the full community can be aware of what is going on and feel confident that the school is in good hands. Most of this distraction happens when expectations for strong governance are not clear or when there’s not enough buy-in about what best practices in independent schools are and why they are critical to a strong school. 

In the Halls

As part of my work to publicly practice good governance, I try to connect the community with trustees as often as possible. I make a point of explaining the role of trustee, sharing that they are my bosses, they come from near and far, they hold our school in trust, and their role does not include selecting math books, hiring teachers, or making lunch-menu decisions. Rather, they are responsible for the long view. Trustees are fiduciaries of the school, and their job is to ensure the mission of the school is delivered, protected, and enhanced over time. I explain that trustees are not paid to do what they do. Serving as a trustee is a labor of love, and they give of their time, talent, and treasure.
I remind our students to introduce themselves to our trustees on campus and to thank them for their service. One way I make the introduction is to invite our students to speak at each board meeting—sometimes about student government, an entrepreneurial project, or a proposal for progress on an environmental stewardship initiative. When our students are able to see trustees around the table caring about school life, taking the time to come to meetings, and serving as a collective group, there’s great opportunity to open doors. We arrange for students and trustees to eat meals together on campus, and after each board meeting, we typically have a reception to which all faculty and staff are invited.
I have observed that students, faculty, and trustees are better able to appreciate their respective roles in a school community when we speak openly about the importance of each. Trustees enjoy a window into student life and issues, and they are impressed with the incredible dedication and caliber of our faculty. In turn, faculty members enjoy the chance to witness how much our trustees truly care, and our students’ understanding of what the role of a trustee is—and is not—is broadened. 

Staying Public

Recognizing the need publicly for more practice—whether in letters to constituents; a governance nugget shared in student assemblies or faculty meetings; or a governance session for the board—is what I’ve found to be most important. There must be a willingness to debrief and analyze without blame, in order to determine how to do better when an issue arises. As long as there is a spirit of growth, and the success of the school remains front and center as everyone’s primary focus, heads and trustees together can show the community that they want to achieve amazing things for a school.
School communities, probably more than many other organizations, pride themselves, and rightly so, on the strength of community. We know, respect, and trust each other. And yet, this is exactly why strong school governance, if not practiced on a regular basis, can fall apart. Informality and the assumption that personal relationships can replace the need for clear expectations and accountability are often the beginning to a slippery slope. The very interwoven relationships that make us so successful as schools are sometimes the reason schools can get confused about governance. So it’s even more critical in schools that we hold ourselves accountable and keep our focus on what matters most—the students.  
Elizabeth Speers
Elizabeth Speers

Elizabeth Speers is former head of The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut, and currently the head of Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware. She is a trustee of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. 


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