These are two of the definitions of “ritual” in the Second College Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. In his thought-provoking column in the April 23 edition of the New York Times, “There Should Be More Rituals,” David Brooks observes that a ritual can be “an occasion for people to make promises toward one another – specific ways they are going to use their gifts to solve the common challenge.” This certainly applies to school boards, whose common challenge is to govern their districts, and reading Brooks’ column reminded me of several board-savvy superintendents I’ve observed over the years put ritual to work in melding their school boards into more cohesive governing teams. Of course, ritual is a “soft” tool in comparison to “harder” approaches to developing school boards into more effective governing bodies, such as putting in place a well-designed standing committee structure or mapping out processes for meaningfully engaging board members in key governing functions such as annual operational planning and budgeting. But the centrifugal force working against board teamwork – the inevitable result of elective school boards whose members all-too-frequently feel greater loyalty to the constituency electing them than to their board colleagues – is so great that superintendents can’t afford to ignore an important team building tool.
In my experience, well-conceived rituals can both solemnize the work of governing and celebrate a board’s governing accomplishments, fostering greater commitment to meeting the governing challenge and stronger loyalty to one’s board colleagues. They can also energize board members, who can easily become dispirited as they slog through a never-ending succession of weighty documents and grapple with a continuous flow of tremendously complex and often negative issues, such as a significant budget shortfall or demographic change forcing the closing of one or more buildings. Of course, ritual alone won’t lead to more cohesive and productive school boards, but I know from experience it can make a positive difference – at a very modest cost.
For example, I’ve observed a number of nonprofit and public boards, including some school boards, participate in the ritual of a year-end banquet involving all board members, the superintendent, senior administrators, and sometimes representatives of key stakeholder organizations such as the local community college. In every case I’ve observed over the years, the chief executive officer (the superintendent in the K-12 world), has promoted the idea and provided the support to make it happen. At one banquet I attended a couple of years ago, well-established ritual included the board president’s presenting each board member with a handsome engraved glass paperweight commemorating their service over the past year and the boards’ presentation of a “notable service to the cause of public education in our community” award to a community leader chosen by the board. And the delicious dinner following the awards ceremony was itself a ritual.
Earth shaking? Hardly. Difficult to bring off or forbiddingly expensive? Not at all. Energizing and a team builder? Without question. Every superintendent reading this post should consider adding ritual to your board development toolkit if you haven’t already.