Friday, September 26, 2014

Why am I on the school board?

Every time I walk through the doors of our schools to attend a meeting of the district Board of Directors, I feel myself start to compromise my beliefs. Sometimes I stick my face in my phone as I walk down the halls toward the meeting room, trying to hold on to those principles, as though the phone was my lifeline to them and not just to the people with whom I share them; a tool to avoid losing sight of what I believe and know to be right, as I sit as one of eleven members of the governing board of my school district.

The status quo of any school system is a powerful thing. Familiar, even comforting, it induces a kind of nostalgic haze over otherwise well-honed minds. Never mind that what we see in classrooms now is the result of a twisted, compromised history of education and not the result of a natural evolution of practices intended to bring out the best in all children.

The status quo in public education -- teachers defining what is to be learned and students endeavoring to learn it -- is what we all know.  Most of us believe it cannot and should not fundamentally change.

So as I feel the warm glow that spreads as I listen to reports by administrators, teachers, even students -- how hard everyone is working, how caring they are about children, how they genuinely want to find a way for all kids to be the best they can -- it’s very simple to start to compromise. It’s not that I don’t believe what they say; it’s all true,  even admirable, so I listen and feel the resolve slipping away. How else could we do it? I ask. This is good. It’s not perfect, but it works.

Here are some of the many things I try to hold on to:

  • Learning is a consequence of experience. We all learn, all the time. What a struggling student is learning is that learning is a struggle. Difficulty, struggle, are not bad things if they lie along a path that students have chosen.
  • The basics are learned more reliably while kids develop their own passions and interests than when they are taught in dry, tasteless and disconnected learning tasks.
  • Kids in higher income or educated households do better in the current learning system. They are more likely to move on to more interesting projects and learning experiences while the strugglers stay behind. This can ultimately be called discriminatory. (This is a result of deficit thinking.)
  • If we truly believe all students have an equal ability to learn, we would design our learning systems so that there is no need for failing grades, repeated years, or summer school to make up for what was not learned. While failure is essential to the learning process, a system should never communicate to kids that they are failures. When you give a kid an F or the equivalent, that is what they hear: I Am A Failure. 
  • Focus on kids' strengths rather than their weaknesses, and all their skills will strengthen.
  • Quality of life right now matters for kids just as much as preparation for their lives later on.
  • The solution is democratic education. The solution is for every child to be in control not only of his or her own learning, but of the environment in which he or she learns. Equal citizenship between adult and child can produce learning environments where all children can find satisfaction and fulfilment in their lives.

Even when I successfully hold on to those principles, it isn’t easy to know when to speak and when to be quiet at these meetings. I often feel a little like I’m a stranger on Mars. What I know doesn’t seem to apply, doesn’t even seem relevant  to public education; as though I’m sitting in a room full of people who all seem familiar to me, but don’t speak my native language.

We talk about finances. We talk about policies. Some of them affect students directly, and some don’t. We hear about situations arising with the physical plant, usually after a solution has already been found.  Bus problems. School nutrition programs.

I might pick and choose, decide on one or two things at each meeting about which I can make some points, and the rest of the time allow the system to function as it will. I doodle my way through the reports. It helps me focus. Or I take notes if I want to try and formulate a response or a comment.

We spotlight pilot classrooms, we hear from teachers. We hold expulsion and grievance hearings. We talk about our transition to a standards-based system.

It is this last issue that makes my job the hardest. This is the effort my district and districts around Maine are making to change the structure of teaching and learning. The reasons why this effort creates difficulty for me are more than I can articulate here. Suffice it to say that it creates a sea change in how things operate in our classrooms without touching on any of the bullet points above. It takes a neat and legislation-driven end-run around the critical issues of teaching and learning. As long as we accept that learning should be driven by standards and enforced by testing, we can’t hit any of those bullet points. As long as we acquiesce to the questionable custom of adults deciding for children what they should learn and when, we can’t touch the change that kids really need right now.

So why do I continue on the school board?

More important, why should you consider running for your school board?

Friends who have served with me, then gone on to other things, say, “I don’t know how you still do it.” Actually, I have long been resigned to the fact that I do not do my best work at the board table. As long as I believe my audience is drumming their fingers and letting their minds wander; as long as I am aware that while I’m speaking, my superintendent is formulating responses intended to deflect and disprove, I’m going to fumble and falter while getting to the point. I know this about myself. I’m working on it.

Actually, I love it. I’m generally not Ms. Happy Fun Girl by the time the meeting is over (although during the meetings I do crack more jokes than most of my colleagues) but I am fully engaged while I’m there.  

I have been studying issues of learning and the public education system every day for a long time. I’ve collected a group of people from all over the Maine and the US who believe what I believe. Their support gives me confidence; their work shows me that what I dream of for kids is actually possible; their battles are the same as mine. It has taken me ten years to understand what my role in school board meetings is. I’m there to cut through the power of the status quo and bring up the simply and beautiful concept of what can be. 


  1. You share a lot of the subtle nuances of board membership that a lot of people miss Lisa, and that's cool. Its almost like joining a school board doesn't mean selling your soul!

    Question: Are you satisfied with the influence/authority/direction you have as a member of the school board?

    1. Nah. Like I said, I'm not at my most effective when I'm sitting at that table. And I have the distinct impression that my being there makes it possible for others to ignore issues like the damage of standardized testing, etc. There is a large contingent of the board who I have absolutely no idea if they think I'm an idiot or a dreamer or a nut. I do think they think I have a tendency to go on a bit.

  2. 1966 “I made up my mind that I would never try to reform people—that’s much too difficult. What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get people moving in preferred directions.“ - RBF

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