Q: I’m a member of a school board in a town in Massachusetts. I was in a grocery store last week when a woman confronted me. She got right up in my face and practically spit at me as she asked, “Why wasn’t Mr. Hull’s contract renewed?” I was taken aback. I said, “I’m sorry, what?” She said, “Mr. Hull was the best teacher in my child’s school, and everyone loved him. What’s wrong with you people? No one on the board of education cares about kids or teachers — you just want your fat paycheck.” Leaving aside the fact that I make very little money for this work, or that BOE members don’t hire and fire teachers, her rant reveals the contempt some people have for school boards in general. I’m tired of people assuming we’re ineffectual or incompetent. OK, maybe some are a little out of touch with today’s realities, but come on — the majority of us are doing our best. People are so rude. And don’t get me started on how people behave online when they can hide under cover of anonymity. Is there anything I can do about that? Mostly, I just want a way to keep my cool in these situations, explain what I do, and then walk away peacefully. I don’t want to shut them down. I want to change the whole tone so I don’t spend the rest of the day totally aggravated.
A: You have a few different goals. You want to educate your constituents and help them understand what you do (and don’t) do. You want to figure out a way to cope with the negativity online, and you want a way to de-escalate in-person confrontations. I’d handle all three differently.
Let’s start with the education piece. You could write a letter — perhaps with the superintendent — explaining everyone’s responsibilities. At “town hall” meetings at local schools, you could explain what everyone does, from board members to principals to the superintendent. You also could devote time to talking about everyone’s role at one of your board meetings, then post a taped recording of the discussion on your board’s twitter and Facebook feeds. Your school system could share a link on their social media platforms as well.
I spoke to a school board member in another town in Massachusetts who shares some of your frustrations. She said it helps when she breaks it down for people very simply. In her town, for example, the school board does the “what.” They set policy, negotiate union contracts, oversee the budget, hire and fire the superintendent, and determine priorities. The superintendent and other educators take care of the “how.” For example, they might make decisions about how the curriculum is delivered, what happens in classrooms, and which teachers are hired or fired. This school board member told me that everyone on her committee visits all 30 schools in their district twice a year to check out classrooms and engage informally with curriculum coordinators, principals, teachers, and other educators. They want to know what’s happening on the ground, but they also want every stakeholder to better understand their role.
Which brings me to the anonymous chatter online. Your best bet is to ignore it, not view it as an opportunity to explain yourself. You’d be attempting to engage with a hodgepodge of reasonable people, trolls, sock puppets, political opponents, people with an ax to grind, and supporters. If you have a thick skin and want to hear the buzz, go ahead and read the comments, but I’d only do that if you’re self-accepting, self-confident, and have strong coping skills. Anonymity doesn’t bring out the best in people.
And as you’ve discovered, some people are combative in person, too. If your goal is to change the tone and build understanding, you could start by validating the person’s feelings. In this case, you could calmly say, “I’d be upset, too, if my child’s favorite teacher wasn’t coming back.” You could then ask questions to build rapport. You might ask, “Where does your child go to school?” Or, “What made this teacher so phenomenal?” Then listen. Once she feels heard and you sense that she’s letting down her guard, explain that you don’t play a role in teacher contract renewals. You could offer to pass along her concern or suggest a more appropriate point of contact.
Many school boards have rules of engagement to discourage aggressive confrontations, and some even set anti-bullying policies that extend to all members of the community, including parents and school committee members. You deserve to be treated with respect. If the hostility doesn’t subside, be direct. Say the conversation is unproductive, then walk away. You can’t please everyone.
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