On the Road to the New State Board Member Institute

I had no idea my first slide was going to turn out to be a laugh line.

Let me explain: When you give a lot of speeches, you pretty much know when people are going to laugh. So as I prepared my presentation to board members attending NASBE’s New State Board Member Institute, I built in a couple of places where I expected at least a smile from the audience.

But Slide #1 was not on my list. It read: “So they told you this job would take one day a month.”

And it evoked more than just a chuckle. They laughed. Out loud.

You see, although these 35 new state board of education members had been on the job for less than a year, all of them realized their responsibilities take much more than the one day a month typically scheduled for a meeting. They have to read the materials for that meeting, which can run to several hundred pages. They serve on board committees. They visit schools and talk with experts. They familiarize themselves with the policy manual.

So one day a month? Hardly.

The new members recognized that theirs is a big job. Many of them observed wryly that they had heard the same observation: Trying to get up to speed must be like taking a drink from a fire hose.

Instead, their learning process may be more like getting thrown into the deep end of the pool. “At least a fire hose allows you to direct the water,” one observed.

While nearly everyone else in the Washington, DC area enjoyed an uncharacteristically mild weekend, the new state board members hunkered down in a windowless hotel conference room for sessions titled “The Four Roles of State Boards,” “The Policymaking Process,” and “Hot Topics in Education.” NASBE staff and our mentors—former Virginia board member Tom Brewster; former Colorado board member Randy DeHoff; former Utah board member Carol Murphy;  former NASBE president and Georgia board member Brad Bryant; and NASBE past president (and West Virginia board member) Gayle Manchin—tried to help them learn how to deal with their wide-ranging responsibilities. On the agenda for any given meeting, they may be asked to make decisions about teacher licensure, student assessment, charter schools, the performance of the state superintendent, and the implementation of a law the legislature passed last session.

They worked hard and ignored the fact that the New York Mets were staying in our hotel and the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale was just a few steps away. And they left a little more prepared for the tough job that will face them at home. We sometimes say that for state board members, the hours are terrible and the pay (they are mostly volunteers) is worse.

But they get to do something few other people do—know that every decision they make can improve the education of the children in their state.

Oh, and the laugh I expected in my presentation on boardsmanship? It was for a slide titled, “Allow plenty of time at the grocery store.” I may share that in another blog post.