“I am not political. My focus is on my school and my district. I am not at all interested in playing the games that are involved in politics.” As a classroom teacher, and even early in my administrative career, I said this countless times. And with it came the implication that politics were somehow ‘beneath me’.
I know better now.
It is naive to think that you are not political. We are all political, or we should be.
“All education decisions are political decisions,” Roger Breed, former Nebraska Commissioner of Education. There are almost always two sides to an issue, and there are almost always critical stakeholders on both sides. Effective leaders understand this, and they seek to build relationships and understand the political climate and issues at a local, state, and national level.
Education policies, budget policies, civil rights policies all impact the classroom. Ignorance of the process and of the issues being legislated is not noble, it is damaging. Information is power, and relationships provide an opportunity to have a voice in the process. Effective leaders understand this.
In 2001, I was in the classroom, and we had a new principal. We also had a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – No Child Left Behind. While leadership at the district-level across the nation shifted focus, many building leaders and classroom teachers paid little attention until they were directly impacted. This was not the case in my building. Our principal was aware and informed, and he made sure that we were as well. He modeled the importance of engagement in educational policy at the nation level. This was my first experience with anything like that, and it made me feel empowered. It planted a seed that has grown over the years.
I am political now. I have so much to learn, but I am trying. I am lucky to be surrounded by leaders with the knowledge and skills to teach me, and I am soaking it up like a sponge.
Relationships matter. Always. They are the foundation of everything we do. The relationship a teacher has with a student or a parent allows them to motivate and engage students. The same is true in politics. The relationship a leader has with the people in the organization, other leaders, and the community is critical for success. You invest in people, and the sometimes difficult work of creating policy gets easier.
How will you spend your political capital?
Leading in the public or private sector, in government, education, or business, is challenging and frequently involves making decisions on issues about which there are diverse opinions. Knowing your people, understanding your culture, and anticipating areas of conflict are essential to navigate those issues effectively. Not every issue is right for every time or every organization. Leadership is making the difficult decisions…and knowing when it is not the right time.
It was easier when I believed I was not political. I could bury my head in the sand to some extent and plead ignorance about local, state, and national issues…or worse, espouse an opinion about something on which I was not informed. But who wants their leader to be ignorant?
Seek mentors who understand the political process and learn from them.
Build relationships with stakeholders at all levels. You’d be amazed at who is willing to talk to you if you just ask. I once had a meeting with a member of Arne Duncan’s team because I was going to be in Washington DC and sent a tweet to the Secretary. Ask.
Read everything you can get your hands on about local, state, and national politics, especially in the areas related to education. Read both sides of the issue. Be open to being influenced. I joked with a friend that his mind was poisoned this week after a day spent with the opposition, but it is essential to listen openly to the opposition. Likely the right answer in matters of policy lies somewhere in the middle of the opposing views.
Politics and leadership go hand-in-hand. This was a lesson that took me longer to learn than I am proud to admit. I have so far to go, but I am on the journey.