DA op-ed: Help your school board better understand employees

Promote teacher and staff successes to enhance school relationships and culture
Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

Twice a month, board of director members for Topeka Public Schools in Kansas spend the first 20 minutes of their board meetings celebrating the district’s diverse culture and employee accomplishments.

“We highlight employees and their achievements, and acknowledge our diverse community,” says Tiffany Anderson, superintendent at TPS, a district that supports roughly 3,000 teachers and staffers. “We embrace and uplift the staff and culture within the district.”

Building relationships among district employees helps develop a healthy school environment and culture. HR professionals at some school districts overlook this opportunity.

They present board members with data about salary and recruitment or retirement trends, but rarely address employee successes in and out of school.

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By sharing positive employee experiences with board members, HR staffers can help strengthen the connection among them, and extend support and trust beyond the classroom.

Austin ISD achieves this goal through in-house communications. Every week, board members receive an update that includes news about teachers or staff and their accomplishments, says Fernando Medina, chief human capital officer at the district that supports more than 11,000 employees.

“It’s important that our board knows who our employees are, not only as educators, but also as people,” he says. “They need to become familiar with their character and quality. We want to celebrate that.”

Some updates have showcased teachers who have done heroic things, including one who saved a drowning swimmer and another who used the Heimlich maneuver to prevent a stranger from choking. Other updates have highlighted teachers receiving awards or state recognition for teaching taekwondo to local children, for instance. The district’s chief financial officer was celebrated for being appointed by the state legislature to a finance committee, which is “unheard of,” says Medina.

Firsthand experience

At other school districts, HR administrators invite board members to work side by side with staff in the trenches.

“Generally, they may not know all the details like the grunt work, all the work it takes to recruit given the budget we have,” says Nick Swartz, talent acquisition manager at Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan. “We’ve brought board members to job fairs about once or twice a year and to winter and fall expos in our district, so they can experience the recruitment process.”

By doing so, he says board members develop a better understanding about employee needs while being educated about the recruitment process.

“This can be a missed opportunity in the sense that it allows you to frame your story [to the board] a little bit better,” Swartz says.

Powerful interactions

Several years ago, Education Elements worked with a school district in Indiana where the HR director introduced a new student-centered learning initiative to board members, says Keara Mascarenaz, a partner at the national education consulting firm in San Carlos, California.

HR staffers helped select teachers to present their new teaching approach to board members. The approach also reinforced the district’s culture of innovation.

Read: Creating a quality employee experience

HR professionals can also borrow ideas from their peers in corporate America. Some share with board members the results of employee surveys that are focused on the district’s culture, benefits and growth opportunities.

Other HR administrators help school boards run more efficiently, be more effective, and carve out time on agendas to address topics that matter, such as employee achievements.

“You can start small,” Mascarenaz says. “Feature one teacher, and see the feedback you get and the power that it has before committing to an entire year of staff features at board meetings.”

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

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