School & District Management Commentary

Why Educators Must Become Political Animals

By Mary Esther Van Shura — May 24, 2011 6 min read

Through the ages, many in positions of power and authority have been described—metaphorically—as animals. From the biblical serpent enticing man to folly to the elephants and donkeys representing political parties, those with influence are frequently portrayed as creatures of immense appetite operating with reckless disregard for the needs of others. It is no wonder then that educational leaders generally look on “political animals” with disdain and avoid active engagement.

Alas, such actions do nothing to create a shared vision for schools. In fact, our communities can only evolve when our leaders are engaged with the political community. Rather than ignoring the political dynamics, educational leaders would be served well by becoming highly skilled political animals in their own right. As envisioned by Aristotle, a leader serves the community, or polis, by distinguishing himself (or herself) from the other animals by his gift of speech and power of moral judgment. Unfortunately, despite their moral judgment and gift of speech for issues of academics, our school leaders too often fail to speak to the social, economic, and political environment in which they operate, and more importantly, in which their elected school boards roam and feed.

While numerous theories have been espoused in the last decades to understand the political atmosphere, little attention has been given to training educational leaders in the hard science of electoral politics. In the development of a comprehensive curriculum of the political dynamics, universities must require training in the methods of analyzing the political climate and the ideological forces that influence decisionmaking. They should also mandate study of processes for making decisions within such a context, ways of understanding the political landscape, the identification and specific strategies to interface with the political animals that dominate the political landscape, as well as a mastery of the strategies that must be employed to satisfy the media, which has become the primary hunter in the political jungle.

First and foremost, school leaders must understand the political climate in which they exist, and to whom school board officials are responsible. To do so, administrators must become proficient in the analysis of demographic and electoral data. Generally, educational leaders tend to focus on the profile of the student population and neglect the demographic profile of the greater community and, more importantly, the electoral community. Without this additional analysis, educational leaders cannot reliably predict the behaviors of the elected officials who are ever-cognizant of the demands and values of their electorate.

Most important is determining the level of congruence between the school-community profile and the greater community’s electoral makeup. The greater the overlap, the greater the ability of a superintendent to make decisions that are palatable to the majority of school board members. However, if there is a lack of overlap and, in some instances, a significant deviation between families served and the community of voters, the temperature of the political climate will rise dramatically and force the superintendent to wrestle with decisions that may be academically sound but inconsistent with greater economic or social forces. This is particularly a factor where the school profile is challenged by households led by single parents, many of whom do not participate in the electoral process, or a dominant older-adult population with a high frequency of voting participation but a resistance to increased taxes due to their economic challenges.

Complicating the process further are the ideological forces that influence elections—which can be particularly difficult to pinpoint at the local level. But even those hard-to-define forces can become apparent upon reviewing voting patterns in several election cycles, and doing so will also further contribute to educational leaders’ ability to predict the palatability of proposals that must be offered to their respective political animals for consumption.

First and foremost, school leaders must understand the political climate in which they exist, and to whom school board officials are responsible."

Infrastructure is another factor in the political landscape. Communities with decaying water and sewer lines are challenged to expand their tax bases, while those communities with newly constructed water and sewer lines thrive. While these conclusions are obvious, educators rarely possess a deep knowledge of the actions and leaders of the water and sewer authorities that control these conditions.

Many superintendents readily admit that much of their time is consumed by feeding information to their respective school board members who are political animals in their own right. However, these leaders would be better served if they had a deeper understanding and appreciation of the characteristics and appetites of these entities. Focusing solely on the “financial lion” will lead to consumption by various other animals, including, but not limited to, the tigers (the voters), the zebras (the unions), the hippopotamus (the bureaucracy), and so on.

The basis for the “survival of the fittest” in this scenario involves the mastery of the tiger’s appetite and habitat, which feeds on voting patterns of various age, gender, and racial cohorts and techniques that are used to predict and persuade voters to secure their support.

While zebras, so to speak, are generally understood by most leaders, there does appear to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the deeper profile of this animal. Primarily, leaders must be ever aware that the stripes of the zebra are parallel and not intersecting. Although the zebras may share goals, their actions will always be parallel to management. This arrangement encourages creativity, fosters accountability, and ensures the proper relationship between union and management.

Probably the most ignored of the animals is the hippopotamus, the bureaucracy that lies beneath the surface. It is a fatal error to misunderstand this creature’s agility when threatened. While the desired outcomes of a decision may be valid, the ability of the leader to move this immense animal is challenged if the leader does not recognize the bureaucracy’s ability to pose obstacles to achievement. Leaders whose vision is only above the surface (where just the tip of the hippo is visible) will not survive.

The political animal kingdom also shelters the monkeys (intergovernmental forces and/or lobbying groups); bats (social forces) that generally ignore the light of day but can cause significant challenges; hummingbirds (social media) that bombard with high frequency and expectations; owls (legal forces) that challenge the daily operations of school systems; and bunnies (special interests) that are somewhat insulated from intense scrutiny.

Even with the mastery of the kingdom of political animals, our leaders must be aware that they are being tracked by a hunter: the media. Too often, our leaders become targets of the media rather than learning how to use the media as an advocate. If leaders acquire nothing else, understanding the behavior of this hunter will ensure survival.

Across the nation, educational leaders, especially superintendents, are being eaten alive by politics. It’s time for the educational establishment to recognize that the sustainability of efforts to promote accountability and academic excellence will be compromised if we do not have administrators who are proficient in the art and science of being a political animal. Superintendents and other leaders must be able to roam freely and speak with the other animals in their local political jungles without constant fear of losing their hides. They deserve no less. We deserve no less.

A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as Why Education Leaders Must Become Political Animals

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