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Dr. Les Potter has over 53 years in education in the US and Egypt with 45 years in school and university administration. Currently Les is retired from full time employment but is a consultant at Core...
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Politics in Education -Tips From Experience

I have spent over 50 years working in education from K-university. I have seen my fair share of educational politics on all levels. As school administrators you need to be aware of this in order to stay out of the political battles that you might arise. I have been a K-12 educator in 9 school districts in 5 states. I have also been a school board member and a university professor that worked with educational leaders. I have seen excellent school boards and superintendents and not so good ones as I am sure you have as well.

Even if you don't see yourself as a political person and don't like playing politics, not understanding how the district works will set you up for failure.

Many educators (teachers and administrators) do not think that politics are in education. This is not true. Any time you are dealing with people whether that is students, teachers, principals, district staff, superintendents, school board members, parents and community members---you will have politics and conflict.

Politics equals power. This is what people want. Either their personal agenda, advancement, or money. As a school administrator you can be caught in the middle of this. From one side, maybe parents and  students, school boards, community members and superintendent, teachers and unions, You will feel the pressure. You need to know how to play the game to survive.

There are over 14,000 school districts I believe in the United States. Each one is a little different than the next. You as a school leader have to know the political minefields and how to avoid conflicts that will arise. 

I have had school board members ask me when I was a principal to work against my boss the superintendent so they could justify firing him. 

I have applied for a superintendent position in a small district in a southern state that the board asked me if I would fire several principals as soon as I was appointed. I asked the reason for the firing and several board members, basically said that the principals had suspended students that were relatives of theirs. When I asked the reason why the students were suspended, the reasons seemed justified and were even in the district's code of conduct. The board members' rationale was that they thought they were above the school law and one of the perks of being an elected school board member was taking care of their own. I did not take the job but I followed the person who did become superintendent and yes he did fire those principals. Unfortunately for him, the principals were local folks and popular in the community and the new superintendent was an outsider (from another state) so they quickly fired the superintendent. The school board members got what they wanted---a show of power and the community got what they wanted, their principals reinstated. The superintendent was a "throw away". Discarded after he was used for the board's purposes. 

I took one superintendent's sage advice years ago about always counting your votes on the board. One vote not in his favor might have caused him not to have been renewed. I saw this as good information for all administrative jobs. Do the best you can and try to keep as many people as you can happy with your performance. Most administrative jobs are tenuous at best.

I was asked when I was an assistant principal in another state to help elect the superintendent who was running again for his office. I would be rewarded (with a better position) if I could solicit money from donors and votes and it was OK with him if I did this during work hours and he even said so. I did help him get re-elected but I did what he wanted after school hours. If I was caught (this is illegal to do), I would be the one in trouble not him.

Years ago I was a high school principal in a racially mixed inner city high school. I was constantly getting phone calls from a school board member (not mine actually) who lived in the neighborhood whose students went to the school. He was calling about our policies and decisions we were making. Even to the point where two girls left school got caught drinking he wanted one girl punished but not the other one as he was a friend's child and the younger of the two was the "ringleader" in this escapade. The code of conduct was pretty clear that both got suspended. I got a call from the superintendent saying that this board member was the swing vote on a 7 person school board and to do what the board member wanted. I did but I chose to let both girls off with other punishments. These are some of the situations and the politics that we can find ourselves in.

You might have difficult decisions to make. Do I hang my coat with the superintendent who does control my future in that school system? Or do I side with school board members who control the superintendent's future? These are difficult choices. 

Remember your first priority is the students and providing the best education for them. But know your surroundings.

I had to make a difficult decision many years ago as a principal in a large school district. I aligned myself with the superintendent who I felt had students best interest in mind. The board did not like this superintendent because he would not do what they wanted. I felt they were trying to power grab and did not have the students best interest in mind but only their own needs. I choose to leave the district. Many administrators do not have the luxury of doing this. Choose wisely what is best for the students and your career.

Working with people is always difficult at best. This is especially true with people in power over you. I think it good for you to find out what these people want and learn from this. I would not align myself to one person or group as these people can leave and you are on an island by yourself.

Focus on doing the best job that you can. Stay out of school politics as much as you can but know that it is there.

Good luck!

Dr. Les Potter
former Director and current Assistant to the Superintendent
American International School West, Cairo Egypt
[email protected]