Sadly, several boards that I have worked with over years have been plagued by persistent conflict and a lack of mutual respect among its members. Members of such boards understandably crave civility and congeniality.
However, surprising as it may seem, such boards need to be careful what they wish for. Congeniality is not always a good thing, especially for school boards.
In contrast to the boards I mentioned at the beginning of this article, most school board members are – like most of the staff who work in schools – positive, friendly, generous, supportive considerate, and even sacrificial people. Typically they enjoy working with each other and they share a sense of common purpose.
Surely an agreeable, convivial environment such as this must be the ideal, right?
Well, not always.
Schools where the dominant cultural priority is comfort are seldom schools where students or teachers are stretched or encouraged towards excellence. If the comfort and happiness of students, for example, is a key priority, then they may not be reprimanded when they fail to complete their homework or apply themselves wholeheartedly to their studies or their co-curricular involvement. Similarly, teachers may consciously or unconsciously avoid conflict with students by inflating their grades to give an artificial illusion of excellence. Moreover, teachers who are uncomfortable with this or some other facet of their colleagues’ work will be unlikely to raise objections for fear of causing conflict.
A similar dynamic can operate within school boards for whom conflict is anathema. Conflict avoidance can prevent important clarifying questions being asked, and it can railroad decision-making through unspoken pressure to reach a premature consensus. Conflict of ideas and the contention between competing alternatives, argued with dispassionate clarity and personal respect of course, are essential for effective board dynamics and decision-making.
In short, congeniality may be a recipe for mediocrity. This is because congeniality focuses on the wrong priority. Congeniality emphasises each individual’s comfort above the goals and priorities of the school as a holistic community. It may be counter-cultural to say it these days, but individuals in a school are there to serve the ideals and purpose of the school as an educational instrument, not vice versa.
The risk of opening up this issue within a board or a school is that it can quickly become polemical and polarising. The reality is that change in a school, whether through the board or the management, is only achievable when there is a functional balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the school.
Ideally, individual needs and school needs are complementary as the leadership and staff of the school embrace its mission, purpose, values and priorities. Shared values and priorities represent a collegial approach where the school and every individual within it look out for each other’s needs. In such situations, change doesn’t have to come about through “steamroller” tactics or even persuasive “buy-in”, but through a shared desire to make a positive difference and achieve better outcomes arising from an honest and respectful discussion.
When board members and/or the staff in a school fiercely protect their “comfort zones”, the apparent congeniality that is often a source of self-congratulation may simply be smothering the healthy conflict and discussion that ought to emerge to be happening. Without it, effective change that advances the school from good to great will be impossible. It is widely known that “good” can be the enemy of “excellent”, but so too is complacency.
Schools and boards with complacency-dominant cultures often suffer from the delusion that conflicts, tensions and disagreements are toxic and must therefore be avoided at all costs. The reality is that only conflicts which are poorly managed are toxic – dealing with conflict respectfully, focussing on the issues and not the personalities, actually builds community rather than undermining it.
Disagreement, tension, and respectful debates over competing ideas are essential to achieving effective and sustainable change in a school. Paradoxically, when board members and/or school staff seek to protect their individual comfort zones, prioritising harmony above exploring options, it actually leads eventually to the stress, apathy, frustration, mistrust and resentment that those people are seeking to avoid.
Another way of viewing this situation is to understand that short-term peace is a high price to pay for long-term mediocrity and ineffectiveness. This is not an argument for insensitivity, bloody-mindedness, or as it is sometimes called, brutal honesty – it is a call for collegiality.
When I use the term collegiality, I mean collaborating with a high level of shared responsibility – for the school as an educational organisation with a clear purpose and ethos, and also for every individual person within the school community.
In a 2012 article (an oldie but a goodie), the US educator Robert Evans wrote that “to flourish, collegiality requires a foundation of shared commitment to appropriate candour in the service of collective growth”. In other words, although candour may cause conflict, such conflict is not only healthy but necessary if the school and the individuals within it are to flourish.
How, then, do we rise from congenial to collegial? Once again in the words of Robert Evans, “the building of true collegiality is a journey, an ongoing exploration of teaching and learning”. Collegiality is not so much a destination but a new lens through which we view and appreciate the school and the people within it.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
Evans, R (2012) ‘Getting to No: Building True Collegiality in Schools’, Independent School, 71(2)
Board meetings and dynamics are developed in detail in our workshop OSG-S1 Board Operations.
Detailed advice on board meetings and dynamics is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.
You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at https://optimalschool.com/articles.html. You can subscribe to receive future articles by e-mail using the red button below.