I have avoided writing about politics for this entire election season. My fear, to be honest, is that any foray into the topic might result in an ugly exchange in the comments section of the blog. Civility is not always the first thing we think of when we hear the word politics today. But I was at a political forum this week, and I was reminded how important it is to our democracy to engage in these discussions.
“I am not political. My focus is on my school and my district. I am not 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. 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.
Obviously there is considerable focus on the national election, but I would challenge everyone to spend as much if not more time on your local elections. At the state and local level, your senators and Board of Education members shape policy that impacts you every day.
Do you know who is running for local seats? Do you understand their priorities? Have you researched their qualifications and their background?
There is still time!
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 national 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.
Know the candidates. Read everything you can get your hands on about local, state, and national politics. 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 at a political institute, but it is essential to listen openly to both sides of all issues. Likely the right answer in matters of policy lies somewhere in the middle of opposing views.
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.
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?
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.