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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

New Trustee Kit

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

If I had to boil down a new trustee orientation into a blog post, this is what it would look like, and its theme would be "find your inner extrovert."

Get to know your colleagues

Groups trusted with important strategic, analytical work function best when they have developed personal connections. Ideally, your board has provided some opportunities for trustees to build relationships with each other, but this networking will become richer much faster if you also reach out. Ask the Head for 30 minutes a few times each year and show up with coffee. Invite the chairs of the committees you serve on to lunch. Organize a quick after work drink with the other new trustees in your "class."

Jump in

Most independent school boards have more to do than time and people to accomplish it. If an ad hoc committee is forming around an opportunity that really interests you, jump in. If you can provide a connection, offer an expert or reasoned opinion, suggest another lens to use in viewing an issue, put yourself in the conversation.

Ask for clarity

Make sure that you understand the issues, the way that decision-making happens, the way agendas are formed. If these questions aren't answered proactively in trustee orientation, or if there are references during meetings to antecedents you weren't present for, or if you simply aren't following the conversation, ask for further explanation. There's almost a 100% certainty that several of your trustee colleagues, new and continuing, are similarly confused.

Understand how your new role changes the way others see you

This is a particularly important point for current parent trustees to consider. At the ball game, concert, car pool line, parent teacher conference, birthday party, grade level cocktail event you will still be Jackie Smith, county prosecutor, mother of Rob and Ellie, but these creds will now stand in the shadow of your new role, trustee. Despite your school's best efforts to educate them, many people misinterpret the structure of authority in independent schools and view you simply as someone who can make things happen. And, they wouldn't be entirely wrong, except for three critical caveats:

  1. Each trustee, including the Board Chair, has no individual power. The Board acts collectively, full stop.

  2. The Board delegates oversight of the operations of the school to the Head. Ninety-five percent of what happens in the daily life of school is the direct responsibility of the Head of School. As a result, the response that you'll soon be repeating to school community members goes like this, "Thanks for bringing this to my attention and for your trust. I strongly urge you to make time with Head who is ultimately responsible for (curriculum, teaching, hiring, evaluation, extracurricular programs, food service, snow removal, parking, playground equipment, etc.)." It's usually wise to give the Head a heads up on these encounters particularly if you've heard from several parents on the same matter, or if you think that an individual parent may be "coming in hot." Faculty and staff are typically better informed about the structure of school authority, so instances of teachers approaching trustees directly should be viewed as a danger sign and communicated quickly to the Head.

  3. Trustees are accorded no special privileges. That is, trustees have no right to set off on personal fact finding missions, no influence in the admission process for friends, no special treatment in classroom placement for their own children, etc. Indeed, trustees give up a certain number of "freedoms" they once had. Kvetching about the perennially sub-.500 soccer program, gossiping about the second grade teacher's Harley-riding boyfriend, hanging with just your 9th grade parent peeps at the school event, second-guessing the new uniform policy, all of these items, enticing but of no nutritional value for anyone in the community, are definitely off the menu for trustees.

Two final points on this matter of roles. Being a trustee doesn't mean that you can no longer interact with the school as your child's parent. It's important, however, to call out this shift of roles. It will sound something like this: "Before we talk about Rob's struggles in math, I want to be clear that I'm here not as a trustee but as Rob's mom." Last, the Board must maintain strict confidentiality about their deliberations and devise careful communication plans for important decisions. The Board always speaks with one voice and should construct talking points at the end of every agenda so that the school community gets a consistent message regardless of which trustee they encounter.

Leverage these same new perceptions as political capital

If you were in the habit of thanking, praising and introducing people to each other before becoming a trustee, these same actions will now hold even greater value. If you weren't, now is a great time to start. Don't leave the concert before complimenting the Director on a great show, or the Fall Picnic without thanking the parent volunteer chairs. Trusteeship can also afford you the pleasure of getting to know people across the school community. You can help the Head strengthen community bonds by introducing people to each other. School communities tend fall into silos naturally. Parents often make their tightest adult connections with the parents in their oldest child's class, and parents who are finishing their time at a school often find themselves feeling alienated as some of those adult friends have moved on before them, and the school is now occupied by what feels like an entirely new generation of families. Helping people make connections serves to break down those silos and reintegrate families who are under-connected.

Support the Head

Headship is a highly visible, very lonely gig, and Heads are under increasing pressure to deliver on programmatic innovations that not only prepare kids for their competitive next steps but also unravel deep-rooted inequities in our national identity. Check in on your Head, jump at opportunities to praise her work publicly, help her build political capital, connect her to outside resources and collaborators. You can't do too much of this.

Show up

Attend meetings, read the materials before you arrive (margin notes and highlighter), finish your homework on time if it's been delegated. Do not make the Head's Executive Assistant chase you. Attend school events and activities, especially command performance moments like fundraising events, school milestone celebrations, state-of-the-school address. Make the school one of your top giving priorities and be first-in in any campaign. Do not make the Director of Development chase you.

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