Five Tips for Good Governance

POSTED: January 29, 2021Category: ArticlesBY: AISA P9

By Rick Detwiler, Schools Governance Consultant

As if international school governance was not already a challenge!

This pandemic has wrought a heavy toll on all of us, especially our schools as we try our best to maintain students’ social, emotional, and academic growth in the midst of lockdowns, alternative learning structures, and uncertainty.  It has also highlighted the challenges facing trustees in balancing their fiduciary accountability for sustaining the school logistically with their strategic responsibility to guide the school community through these times and on into a thriving future.

Recently,  AISA sponsored an online Governance Workshop Series for school-based teams focusing on the elements of the AISA Code of Governance.  Working with those schools as they grappled with the governance issues they face and sought direction to support their work as trustees,  I discerned five particular guideposts that seemed to mark the way… “Tips for Good Governance,” if you will.  Here they are:

  1. The most impactful foundation of good governance is a sound policy manual.  The “Policy Manual” is where the Board articulates the results it expects to be achieved.  Policies are broad directives citing what is expected, why, and to what extent.  Sound policies do not dictate how those ends should be reached – procedures are the purview of the administration. Boards with sound policies focus on their strategic role to guide the school.
  2. Effective Boards are led by a strong Board Chair-Head of School partnership. “Leading together,” the Chair and Head collaborate to keep the Board focused on what matters, be it coping with the challenges of the pandemic or sustaining itself during quieter times.
  3. Board culture, how a Board conducts itself, is critical and it can be molded. Board culture doesn’t just happen; by forging essential agreements regarding group and individual norms and committing itself to abiding by those guidelines, a culture of inquiry, candor, and commitment to mission is well within reach of every Board.
  4. Being strategic doesn’t just happen, either. Specific structures adopted by strategic Boards to keep them focused on the big picture include: utilizing an annual Board Calendar; employing a strategic agenda; focusing on strategic topics; using committees effectively; coming prepared to meetings; setting priorities; and committing to the Strategic Plan.  These are just some of the practices that ensure strategic competence.
  5. Action-based learning is the best professional development for trustees. In the Governance Workshop Series mentioned above, school teams studied principles of good practice and then used them to tackle specific challenges, learning how to be an effective Board by actually being one.  Professional development for trustees wound into real-life applications is invaluable.

Yes, this pandemic has raised a number of challenges for Boards, but by forging a path with the help of these five guideposts: sound policies, strong leadership from the Chair-Head team, healthy Board culture, staying strategic, and learning by doing, effective Boards can not only cope, but actually thrive during these tough times.

About the author:

RICK DETWILER, former head of school of five international schools, now consults with international school Boards on governance and policy review/revision. Rick has consulted Boards from over 60 international schools, including 20 AISA schools, on the strategies cited in the NAIS International Trustees Handbook, which he co-authored.

Particular interest: school board training experiences that are action-driven and individualized for the specific needs of the client school.

Education and experience: After graduating from Dartmouth College, Rick served as a Naval officer, including two tours in Vietnam, and as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching science in Botswana, followed by ten years as teacher/principal in Vermont and a 20-year career in international schools.

Rick now lives in Vermont with his wife of 49 years, Sandi, a retired ESL teacher.

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