By Rick Hood
Recently, a study titled “Supporting and Retaining School Leaders” was brought to my attention. The report, commissioned by the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, focused primarily on principals, but it could apply to any school leader, or even teachers and staff for that matter.
Being a school leader is a rewarding but difficult job. It’s a job where it feels like you have 1,000 bosses and it’s impossible to please them all.
What makes the Amherst area different, perhaps, is that there is more unrelenting opposition to decisions made that some do not agree with. Three bullet points from the report listed below illustrate that:
- A Culture that Questions Decisions: Respondents all described the unique culture of Amherst as a challenge – even more so for those coming to Amherst from outside the district. Amherst was described as a community that values discourse and consensus, but that also questions or challenges most decisions. In the words of one respondent, “I fully expect that any decision I make will be questioned.”
- Public Criticism Turns Personal: Respondents acknowledged that discourse and dissent are expected and welcome. What was stressful, however, was when public criticism turned to personal attacks — “behind my back,” in public meetings, and in online postings.
- Outspoken Families and Community Members: While Amherst was described as a community that values discourse and dissent, most respondents described an impression that only loud voices were being heard – and getting their way. When a small but vocal group is opposed to a decision, it becomes challenging to move forward. In some cases, parents or community members feel “I know better” and believe, in the words of one respondent, “I have a right to say what I want, how I want.” Leaders find it most challenging when this “how” becomes negative and personal.
I saw this firsthand during my time on the Amherst and Regional School Committees (2010-2016). Committee meetings were often dominated by the “issue of the day,” which could range from budget cutting to racial issues to which math curriculum should be chosen.
Often, the most vocal and “loud” voices did seem to take over. Only those who feel strongly about something actually show up to those meetings, so that’s partly why. It was very important during those meetings to allow people to speak and have their say, but to guide the discussion with rules, including how long someone could speak, and that no personal attacks could be made. We used to say “Criticize the thing, not the person.” I had cards with the rules printed, which I would hand out at meetings.
In my view, a calm but firm enforcement of rules is critical. Those rules are stated in the School Committee’s policy: BEDH School Committees: Public Participation At Committee Meetings.
What makes some of this so difficult is that sometimes not all the facts can be made public, due to employee and/or student confidentiality laws. That makes it hard to discuss the reasons why certain decisions are made. A few of the most contentious issues at School Committee meetings involved this. There needs to be some kind of solution to the problem of one-sided discussion – the neutral ombudsman solution might be one of them (more below). The public needs some sense of whether a decision was a good one or not, but sometimes cannot know the facts surrounding it.
It is worth stepping back to look at the balancing act that exists between two forces. This may get a bit off track from the main subject here, but it is closely related. I will come back to the main subject at the end.
Force #1 is the fact that a school system is a public entity, with highly engaged constituents – parents of school children – many of whom want to have a say in how their kids are educated, and who feel like they have that right, since it is a public body.
Force #2 is that educators are the experts we hire to do this job of educating our kids, and they generally know better how to do it than the constituents do. They are also the educational decision makers, since we put them in charge of education.
Both forces are not wrong. Both have a valid point of view.
In our democratic system, we have collectively made the choice to vote for people to oversee and carry out our public jobs, one of them being the job of educating our kids. So it goes like this: citizens vote for School Committee members, who in turn vote for and hire a superintendent, who in turn hires the principals and other school leaders, who hire teachers and staff.
When an educational decision needs to be made, or an issue resolved, it should go like this:
- All voices should be heard and listened to with as much empathy as possible.
- Those voices need to be reasonably stated. That does not mean they can’t be angry or even a bit loud. Anger is often understandable and warranted. But they cannot under any circumstances include personal attacks. And no one person should be allowed to dominate a discussion.
- Then the decision makers need to deliberate carefully, putting aside as much as possible any bias that exists in their minds.
- Finally, a decision is reached.
- At that point, input and deliberation is over on that topic. Not everyone may like the decision, but they need to respect the fact that the process is over.
Too often in Amherst, Step 5 does not work that way, and the process is never over for some people.
It is, of course, appropriate and expected for those who don’t agree with a decision to keep working on changing minds for the next time a similar decision needs to be made. But it’s not OK to continue to challenge a decision that was made, after this process is done.
(Aside: As a School Committee member, I did continue to challenge decisions sometimes, but privately, not publicly. I recall a scheduling change at the middle school that many, including myself, thought was wrong. I felt so strongly about it that I threatened to resign from the committee in my discussions about it with the superintendent. In the end I thought that resigning would not really do any good, and I lost that battle. It happens.)
Nationally, this problem is most evident in the movement that claims that President Biden did not win the election. Locally, it was evident in those who did not like how the Jones Library vote turned out, and Town Meeting of 2016 voting no on the elementary school building plan (see end note).
I am not sure what the answer is, both for Amherst and for the country. I don’t really see people changing, at least not in the near term.
Coming back to the topic of supporting and retaining school leaders, I do think that all the mentoring ideas presented in the report are good ones.
But the report talks only about mentoring school leaders. What about mentoring the parents?
Perhaps there could be a neutral place a parent could go to first to figure out the best way to present and solve the problem he/she is having, rather than just launching into it with a school leader or teacher.
The RADAR anti-racism group I used to be part of had long wanted an ombudsman to be hired, to create a neutral place to bring complaints to. Superintendents kept resisting it. But one day when I was in Maria Geryk’s office she simply said “I am doing it” and hired Barry Brooks to be the first ombudsman. I see that office still exists, which is a good thing.
Something along these lines, a neutral counselor who could help guide parents on how best to approach school leaders and staff with issues they are having, might be helpful. But that takes staff and thus money, so I am not sure how it would affect the budget. Or possibly this already exists and I don’t know it, and needs to be more publicized.
At any rate, in these times more than ever, we need mentoring and other systems to support school leaders, teachers and staff. And perhaps we should also include the mentoring of parents.
I know how important mentoring is, because I could not have done my job on the School Committee without the mentoring I got from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, as well as from a group of former members who helped me out in the beginning.
End note: In 2016 Town Meeting voted no on funding the elementary school building plan. The article voted on was a bond authorization vote, which was supposed to be strictly about whether the town could afford the project or not, which is why it was the only vote in the process that required a two-thirds vote to pass. Instead, it ended up being a vote on the merits of the plan itself. There was no plan that did not have cons along with its pros. The “loudest voices” would speak on one of the cons and made it seem like careful consideration of all pros and cons had not been done, when in fact it had, by the School Committee and the School Building Committee. And the majority of town voters had already voted yes to raising their own taxes to implement the plan.