Can we get past the window dressing?

Early on in my corporate communications career, I was fortunate to work for Phil. He was a creative, critical thinker who loved to push the boundaries. He would not only review and edit my work, but ask tough, important questions along the way. If you didn’t have ALL the answers, Phil would send you back to your desk to get them. And even if he didn’t necessarily agree with your ideas or approach, more often than not, if you did your homework and effectively stated your case, he’d let you spread your wings and execute.

Phil also taught me the greatest lesson of all: Selling an idea to others is best done with a balanced approach — where the pros AND cons are clearly articulated, rather than just presenting my own proposed plan of action. He would say, “People are smart. If you show them you’ve thought through not just the pros, but the cons too, the chances are strong they’ll come to the same conclusion as you, and you’ll gain credibility — especially with our senior management team.”

Phil was right. Not only did my proposal for a “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” earn across-the-board buy in from the CEO on down, I earned professional respect along the way, and in turn, people at every level of the company helped to make sure my team succeeded in executing (and we did — in a big way). It was a pivotal moment in my career because it eventually led to me running corporate employee volunteer programs, and non-profit recruitment campaigns for youth mentors.

Fast forward to my experiences with Medfield school task forces and committees. On any number of initiatives, we have smart and engaged parents, teachers and administrators who eagerly want to roll up their sleeves to make a difference. I’ve always come to those tables buoyed by the great lesson of looking at all sides of a proposal — and that’s in addition to journalism training (despite initially going to the “dark side” of PR, as my reporter friends liked to joke).

Yet four years ago, here I was at the first meeting of the former Elementary School Day Committee. Leading up to it, I had heard that extending the school day was “the only way” Dale Street music ensembles would be put back into it. Despite the warning, I felt it was critical that I approach my role on the committee objectively. Quite honestly, as the mother of three older children, I was most worried that extending the day would hurt the youngest K-3 students (and I found out too late that I wasn’t alone with my concerns according to survey data that was not made publicly available until after the extended day had been approved. However, teachers on the committee also voiced the very same concerns).

Sitting at those first few committee meetings and remembering previous classroom teacher feedback, I was motivated to see the schedule from all sides and came prepared with research about pros and cons, but the cons were quickly dismissed. After just a couple of meetings where the pros of an extended day were laid out in slide presentations and small group discussions, this question was asked of the group: “So are we all in agreement on the extended day? We don’t want to hear later that people walked out of here saying they are against it.”

Many months later, when it was all over and our work was done, I heard more than one fellow committee member express this frustration: “Why did we waste more than a year of our time when it seemed the decision had already been made?”

Whether elementary school day committee; principal, office staff and teacher search committees; or special task forces, the perceived “window-dressing” approach has since played out in multiple ways, and it doesn’t just happen here in Medfield (and it’s not the fault of sub-chairs who truly want authentic collaboration but are often held captive).

No matter what the role or where it happens, it’s demoralizing to want to do the right thing, and spend time and energy on an initiative, but then feel you don’t have a meaningful voice in the process. No one wants to put a lot of thought into creating a product only to learn after the fact that it has been changed by others, AND you never had a seat at the table where it happened.

We have wonderful, talented and dedicated people volunteering across our community on any given day. Everyone’s time, efforts and sincere motivations deserve respect.

So what’s the solution? When it comes to committees, leaders should be accountable for achieving authentic collaboration that requires:

  • A statement of purpose before committee members are recruited. What is it that we’re here to achieve? How will we measure our success?
  • Clearly defined member responsibilities on day one. Where do my ideas and feedback end, and where does the higher authority begin? Who is the ultimate decision-maker?
  • A commitment to transparency and honest communication. How do we share our mid-term progress (good and not-so-good) to the outside world? People certainly want to hear that things are working well, but they also want to know the stumbling blocks, and where there’s a difference of opinion or views. A balanced view needs to be shared with the public early on in the process — long before any vote is cast.

If we want to see committee involvement and volunteerism overall flourish in Medfield, let’s put an end to taking advantage of people’s good intentions, overriding their decisions without their input, and ultimately treating the committees on which they serve as window dressing. Time is precious, but even more so, is one’s burning desire to make a difference in the lives of children. When volunteers as treated as true collaborative partners in education, it benefits everyone.

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What does “democracy” really mean?

As a writer, I’m fascinated by words and their meanings. Given that numerous heated elections are coming up (paired with an especially frustrating local special election that has just passed),  I’ve become passionate about the word “democracy” and wanting to dig into what it truly means.

Trust me. This post isn’t a boring history or civics lesson. It’s an attempt to recognize and appreciate the ways “democracy” plays out in my own day-to-day life so that it’s never taken for granted. “Democracy” is preserved by actions like talking with high school students about their rights, speaking out against something you feel strongly about, writing or signing petitions, or tapping into the power of the law to hold elected officials accountable for their actions. No one should ever be shamed, or worse, punished, for exercising their democratic rights, yet I’ve experienced that first-hand here in my own small town, right down to a nasty letter sent to me by a local official because I dared to share information about an issue of public concern.

I don’t care what kind of powerful seat the person holds, no one is above the law, and especially when it comes to running elections with transparency, which was sorely and embarrassingly lacking in the recent Medfield School Committee/Board of Selectmen special election to fill an interim committee seat.

A school committee election anywhere is especially sacred. Unlike other town boards, if  you don’t like the way your committee votes on a particular budget issue or policy, for example, there’s not much you can do about it — other than voting each individual member out of office. For boards like the Conservation Commission, Planning Board or Historical Commission, for example, a democratic appeals process is in place at BOTH the local and state level. Not so for school committees. If you don’t like the way they operate, you’re held captive.

Are there exceptions? Yes, but very limited and typically only related to student issues, such as special education and civil rights, not policy-making or budget-setting. Even so, the rules for public input at School Committee meetings, and the unspoken etiquette around not making waves with school budgets at Town Meeting, serve as strong deterrents for people who do want to speak up, but either don’t know how or are too afraid to do so. And believe it or not, I was once one of those people!

School committee members can appease people by holding “school committee hours”, but how are they held accountable for responding or taking action on any of the issues that have been brought forth? Not one school committee meeting has provided a generic, anonymous summary of the topics/issues discussed during school committee hours.

These days, I’m realizing the only way to make change happen is to leverage my strengths as a writer and communicator and do whatever I can to create greater awareness of important education issues right here in Medfield — especially for parents of young children coming up in our schools. It shouldn’t take a groundswell of community members to make sure their voices are heard, but if that’s what it takes, I hope I can be a source of motivation to get it going.

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“Who cares?”

A few years ago, a school staff member remarked in frustration that compared to other towns, Medfield is “so complacent.”  That comment struck a chord because I had been feeling the same way myself. Sitting at a school committee meeting when you’re the only attendee (other than invited speakers) has a way of making the “Who cares?” question pretty darn relevant. And while events of the past year have thankfully resulted in more parent engagement in school issues, I can’t help but wonder how long it’ll last now that one particular problem has been tackled.

Seeking perspectives that might help answer the original question, “Why do so few people care?” I uncovered a fantastic book, “13 Ways to Kill Your Community,” by Doug Griffiths and Kelly Clemmer, who pegged No. 12 as “Complacency.” They note that one cause of complacency is actually success, which is certainly relevant in a town like Medfield.

“The community grows and builds, and people begin to feel confident and secure. Eventually, and almost universally, that security and confidence (i.e., status quo) becomes the dominant sentiment,” note the authors.

So how does this relate to education? In a school system that has been high-performing for so long, it’s easy to see how complacency can set in. For years, school committee races were uncontested, and as my own experience showed, so few people attended committee meetings. Even the local media stopped coming. As a result, changes and decisions were made under the radar, impacting everything from music and art, class sizes, recess, schedules, policies and budgets — all without meaningful stakeholder input.

Of course, it’s human nature for people not to sit up and take notice of changes until they’ve personally felt the impact. I was certainly guilty of that four years ago, but today my eyes are wide open, and shutting them is no easy task, especially when children are involved.

In all my years working in youth mentoring, with students, in community affairs and in communications supporting CEOs and other senior executives, I learned early on that understanding and tackling important issues head on with key stakeholders is the way to make true and lasting progress. Divergent views, new perspectives and thoughtful questions are critical to the process, and I’ve had the good fortune to work for (and with) amazing leaders who encouraged all of it.

I may be making waves in our quiet town of Medfield, but if our community is to succeed over the long term — and we want our youth to be part of that progress here and elsewhere — we have to overcome complacency and pay closer attention to how decisions are being made. If we want real and sustainable change, each one of us has a responsibility to the next generation to model advocacy and active citizenship.

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Apples & education – the perfect analogy

I’ve been reflecting on the philosophy of education lately, my role in the community, and my perspectives about our small town of Medfield. Over the past five years, I’ve learned much about education decision-making, and most of all, I’ve learned that public schools are complicated!  A big question I’ve been asking myself: What can I do with the knowledge and information I’ve gleaned? How can I share all of it in a way that will help others?

It made sense to start this blog to help create awareness about important educational issues and topics related specifically to our public schools. I also felt compelled to take this step now because I fear we are in a perfect storm of unmanageable enrollment, limited space, worrisome student stress, and many decisions being made and conversations being had under the radar.

So why the apple? We all know the apple is a symbol of education. However, it’s not the single, iconic, fruity teacher gift that catches my attention — it’s the entire bushel! When I think of apples, I think of all the varieties — sweet, soar, red, yellow, green. Some are shiny and nearly perfect, while others are oddly shaped, colored, or have bruises and blemishes. But yet, with nurturing, creativity, time and warmth, every one of those apples can be transformed into something even more delicious! Or, they can be treasured for what they are right now, in their natural state, in the moment.

Beyond individual children, schools as a community are also a mixed bushel with different teachers, administrators, classroom configurations, daytime schedules, personalities, philosophies, motivations, etc. There are wonderful lessons being taught — whether behind classroom doors, on stages, or out on fields, and just like apples, no two lessons are alike. And that’s the way it should be!  It’s okay to have inconsistency, it’s okay for some lessons to fail, and it’s okay if schools like Medfield are NOT perfect. Nothing is perfect, and the non-stop attempt to cast everything in a positive light is a huge disservice to all who care about our schools, and most importantly, the students.

As a community, we need to see the reality of our public schools — the shiny, the blemishes, and everything in between. Through factual information combined with personal opinions and perspectives, my goal with this blog is to provide the mixed-bushel, balanced view of our Medfield Public Schools. I hope you’ll follow along!

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