Legal Notes: Developing High-functioning Boards With Trustee Education

Summer 2023

By Megan Mann

board learningThis article appeared as "Board Learning" in the Summer 2023 issue of Independent School.

Independent school trustees are fiduciaries, which means they have a legal relationship with the school and are bound by their duties of care, loyalty, and obedience. Part of that duty compels trustees to educate themselves and gather relevant data to make the best decisions for the school. That’s a commitment, one that also involves preparing for and attending board meetings and executing the tasks at hand. This is time-consuming, and given that trustees are also volunteers—people with responsibilities outside the school—board education is critical. Thoughtful board education planning, however, often falls by the wayside. To develop a high-functioning board, school leaders should create and maintain a board education strategy that focuses on these often-overlooked steps:

Designate a lead. Consider having one trustee (a member of the governance committee, for example) partner with the head of school and board chair on creating an education roadmap for the year. Consider topics and formats that might best support learning, including resources from NAIS or other related organizations, such as written materials and online content, webinars and other presentations, as well as interactive workshops or discussion groups. 

Create a roadmap. After the initial assessment of topics and types of education, along with potential partners, document a plan. Ideally, this roadmap or agenda anticipates the need for deeper dives into research and learning, while also creating space for smaller moments of growth.  

Embrace microlearning. Education can take many forms, and many of them are time-consuming, such as research analysis and trainings. While these are great ways to learn, remember that even five minutes of discussion about an article or hypothetical scenario can help the board grow together.

Make time. Carve out time at every board meeting for learning, whether it’s a five- to 10-minute report on research or an hourlong training session.

Be interactive. Many boards overlook the opportunity for interactive learning, turning more often to articles or webinars. But running through hypothetical scenarios is a great way to prepare for common difficult situations—ranging from the awkward questions a trustee may face in the car line to situations involving criminal activity.

Evolve the process. Consider what is achievable in a given year and document those goals. At the end of the year, get input from the board, reflect on what worked and what didn’t, then update the roadmap for the next academic year accordingly. Like other plans, your education agenda may mature or develop over time.

And remember that heads need help, too. Great trustees take the time to consider how best to keep their heads of school up to date on matters that might impact the school’s strategic vision.
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Megan Mann

Megan Mann is general counsel and vice president of legal education and support at NAIS.