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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

How Superintendents Can Engage Board Members to Benefit Their Districts

It can help them understand the needs of students and staff
By Michael Nelson — June 20, 2023 6 min read
Retired superintendent Mike Nelson and school board member Nancy Merrill engage in a Q&A for community members.
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How can we get school board members to become advocates for the professional learning teachers need to have a deeper impact on student learning?

Too often, board members are seen as being disconnected from the day-to-day learning needs of teachers and students. They are seen as the people who focus on how the district spends money or how to keep a district from raising taxes. Although those are important aspects of the job, so is a focus on student learning—and the necessary learning teachers need to be more impactful in the classroom.

During my nearly 14 years as the superintendent in one district, a five-person board supervised me. And during those 14 years, 15 different people filled those five seats. Even though tenure of board members is generally longer than that of superintendents, it often feels like there is constant change. Gene Sharratt, a former superintendent in Washington state, shares, “If one member of a board and superintendent team is new, then you have a new team. Even though the change is one person, you must acknowledge and respond as if it is a new team.”

In my case, I was the anomaly and the constant member of the team, serving about a decade longer than the average superintendent tenure (which recently retired American Association of School Administrators Executive Director Dan Domenich says hovers in the five-year range). Some may say it must have been difficult having so many different individuals supervise me. But from my perspective, all those transitions helped me stay focused on leading the board to home in on student and adult learning because I was always working with a new team.

In the state of Washington, the board sets local school district policy based on state law and supervises the superintendent. That’s its purpose, as I heard so many times during my tenure. But if a superintendent only focuses on that function, he/she is not leveraging the influence that a united team of superintendent and board members could have in propelling the learning for both students and staff. This is where the influence of the “superintendent teacher” comes into play.

What is a superintendent teacher?

A board and superintendent can move the focus on student and adult learning forward through their response to the necessary professional learning experiences that engage their staff members. However, the board should have a clear focus on what professional learning experiences staff members need to do that work, and the board needs to take part in some of that learning to truly understand the needs of their teachers.

This is where the superintendent can take on the role of teacher for their board. The superintendent can provide the professional learning to the board that they need to help support teachers and students. Nancy Merrill, one of the longtime school board members with whom I worked, noted the experience of working collaboratively and the difference it made for them in terms of understanding the needs of students and staff—and, more generally, for the “power” of professional development.

As superintendent, here are five strategies for guiding board members to be advocates of professional learning in their districts:

  • Questioning
  • Being Present
  • Listening to Dialogue
  • Being a Researcher
  • Honoring


Most board members do not have a background in education. I have found that most want to support school district professional learning initiatives, but because of their background, they often remain quiet during staff presentations. That leaves staff members often wondering how the board truly feels about their work, and as a result, they make up their own narrative. Wait, What? by James E. Ryan is a book that I used to encourage board members to ask questions. Its premise focuses on five key question stems:

Wait, What?

I wonder …?

Couldn’t we at least …?

How can I help?

What truly matters?

The first time we used this book we read it as a team of six studying each question. After that, it was the first book given to new board members. We created a poster of the five questions that was placed near the board table so members could see them during presentations and help keep the board focused on student learning.

Being Present

From a superintendent’s perspective, there is nothing more exciting than having board members who want to study and learn about best educational practices. In our system, our board members were invited to professional learning events. More frequently than not, a board member or two would join. This accomplished several things. Our staff appreciated learning side by side with them. Secondly, the board members at the event would frequently report about it during their public meeting, which eventually made its way to all staff members and the district website.

Listening to Dialogue

All elected officials need to be good listeners. I found it critically important to build background knowledge for my board about professional learning occurring in our system. When asked about professional learning in schools or out in the community, having background knowledge allowed board members to build a greater understanding of our district’s work. Whether it was with a student, staff member, or community member, the board’s ability to engage in conversations about the work built an important level of credibility that spread throughout our system and community.

Being a Researcher

I never expected board members to read complete research articles or books. I would, however, offer both. Whenever we did a whole-staff book study, our board received a copy of the book. As superintendent, I felt it was my job to highlight snippets of importance for the board at board meetings and in my weekly Friday updates. During our board workshops or retreats, I could go deeper into the content of the book or article, processing the research using similar protocols that a principal might use with staff members.

When you create a team of six who want to be learners and support professional learning in the district, board members become learners themselves and will send you books, articles, and links to research they found. I embraced that. Many times it was very good information with complementary insights to the professional learning going on in the system. I would share how this connected to our work. Even when the research didn’t specifically match, fantastic dialogue occurred to help us better solidify the vision of our professional learning purpose.


Boards across our nation honor the professional learning going on in their districts. This is necessary as staff want to hear they are engaged in good work. The community also wants to hear that early release time for professional learning and money being spent on professional learning are valuable.

There is a difference in how the message is received. If the message is being given by a board that is not engaged in professional learning, staff and community know this. If, however, staff and community know the board’s active role in professional learning, it is received in a more positive way.

The words may be exactly the same but felt and responded to differently. A staff member is more likely to feel honored when they are acknowledged by a board that is actively engaged in the professional learning process, too. The words are genuine, and the response is positively felt, rippling from staff and into the community.

The five concepts of Questioning, Presence, Listening to Dialogue, Research, and Honoring are simple, yet led by a “superintendent teacher,” a board can profoundly impact a school district in becoming one that supports and empowers professional learning.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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