Mentoring Board Members: A Shadowing Experience

by Cathy Gallenberger And Pat Wilder

When one thinks of mentoring in schools, little thought is given to Board of Education members. Usually they are "shown the ropes" by their fellow board members, the superintendent, and other administrators regarding their duties and responsibilities; but do they really comprehend the "inner workings" of a school?

Although Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois has a program that helps board members understand the general operation of a school by scheduling informational dialogues with individual departments, Pat Wilder, Board of Education Member, and Cathy Gallenberger, Dean of Students, decided to take this process one step further. Pat decided to accept Cathy's invitation to shadow her. Pat shadowed Cathy for an entire school day and observed her as she performed her duties as Dean and as she taught her algebra class.

The day began at 7:30 a.m. Pat sat in Cathy's office and observed as students flowed in and out. Students were in the office for various reasons: to explain an unauthorized absence, a discipline referral, a tardy referral or just to visit.


The following reflects our individual perceptions:

Cathy:

"I knew that several Board members perceived that Dean/student interaction was generally negative, punitive, and confrontational. I wanted Pat, as a representative of the Board, to have further knowledge, understanding, and an accurate perception of what occurs in the Dean's Office. I thought it was essential for Pat to observe, first hand, the steps involved in "due process" and how our Deans take adequate time to insure that students' rights are protected.

As each student entered my office, I explained the reason I sent for them and gave them the opportunity to respond. If we agreed on the circumstances and a consequence was appropriate, one was assigned. Occasionally a student and I would agree on the circumstances but disagree on the consequence. When this situation occurred, I would articulate the school's policy and the philosophy behind the policy. On rarer occasions a student and I would not agree on the circumstances. When this situation occurred, I would set up a conference with the student and the staff member involved in order to resolve the differences. Frequently parents were contacted and apprised of the circumstances surrounding their child's presence in the Dean's Office.

By the end of the day, I believe that Pat saw that students were treated with respect, fairness, empathy, and patience, while at the sametime, being held accountable for their actions."


Pat:

"Although I should have know better, my perception of what a Dean actually does was somewhat stereotyped. In a phrase, I expected

discipline! After all, it's commonly held that the guidance counselors apply gentle nudges and the Deans deal hard and fast with trouble. My perception soon changed. Cathy approached each visitor with a "no-nonsense" manner and it was obvious that her "regular customers" knew her well. Students were first asked to give an explanation for the infraction, but after the excuses, the bottom line on inappropriate behavior was "How can you keep from doing this again?" I watched as each visitor responded to Cathy. I didn't see fear, I saw respect. The students may not have cared for the consequences that were being issued, but they knew that they were being treated fairly. I was especially surprised by the number of students that came in "just to visit." It was another confirmation of the trust that the students placed in Cathy.

Cathy also teaches an algebra class. I accompanied her to the class and observed from a back row seat. As I watched Cathy, the teacher, I was struck by the similarities that I saw in Cathy, the Dean. The qualities of a good teacher -- knowledge, high expectation and patience -- don't change with the title.

Although shadowing other members of the faculty would be beneficial, a visit with a Dean is particularly helpful to a board member. Only through observing the interaction with students can you understand the balance that a Dean must implement."


We recommend that the board member take notes and make observations. There are two reasons for this.

First, because of the constant activity, it is not always convenient to ask questions while you are shadowing. The notes can serve as a foundation for discussion between the board member and faculty member at the end of the day. In order to have a successful shadowing experience, each person must have a clear understanding of what is happening and why. The end of the day is the best time to ask questions and review procedures. The notes taken during the day will help jog memories.

Second, good notes are an invaluable preparation aid for assembling the report for other board members. This can either be a formal or informal presentation. The style is unimportant. What is important is that the other members of the board have the opportunity to share your experience. Notes will help the board member organize that report and answer questions posed by other board members.

We agree that shadowing is an investment in time that is well worth the effort. It creates a better understanding of the roles within the school system. Although board members are aware of the school's structure, the human relationships within that structure are more difficult to understand and are of primary importance. Information regarding those relationships can only be partially understood through generated reports. Shadowing gives a board member the opportunity to see first hand how the policies they formulate are implemented.


Cathy Gallenberger is Dean of Students at Adlai E. Stevenson High School

Pat Wilder is a member of the Board of Education.