Confessions of a School Board Member

An educational psychologist describes life as a school board member.

Posted Jun 04, 2018

By Richard E. Mayer, Distinguished Professor, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara (mayer@ucsb.edu)

I have a confession to make to my fellow educational psychologists. Although you may think that I spend all my waking hours happily engaged in the joys of academic research and teaching in educational psychology, that is only my public life. I have to confess that for the past 37 years, I have been leading a secret double life as a school board member in my home community of Goleta, California. For example, I sneak out of my house on many Wednesday evenings to rendezvous with a select group and our followers. There we hold what is called a school board meeting, where I face the latest installment of issues in educational administration. I also attend school events at school sites, visit classrooms, and attend committee meetings with teachers and community members, always proudly wearing my district identification badge. 

I began this secret double life in 1981 when I was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Goleta Union School District, and I am now in my 9th term as a board member. Our five-member board is responsible for the education of approximately 3500 children in preschool through grade 6, housed in nine elementary schools. We manage an annual budget of approximately $45 million and employ more than 700 people including nearly 200 credentialed teachers. Approximately 38% of the children come from low-income homes and 35% are in the process of learning English. Some of the accomplishments I am most proud of include:

  • maintaining small class sizes and neighborhood schools that serve a diverse population
  • providing a full curriculum (including art, music, physical education, science, and technology) 
  • providing differentiated instruction and additional services to meet the needs of each student
  • providing psychological services and social emotional learning experiences
  • providing an afterschool program that gives students a safe and productive place to go
  • providing academic preschool, academic summer school, before-school breakfast, and after-school homework assistance for students from low-income homes
  • providing additional class size reduction and additional certificated tutors to help students at schools with a high percentage of students from low-income homes
  • assigning social workers to help parents from low-income homes obtain the medical, dental, and other services that their children need
  • providing appropriate professional development for teachers and respectfully including teachers in curricular decision making
  • helping English learners succeed through a multi-tiered system of language development and academic development
  • maintaining a stable financial foundation for the district with an open and prudent budget process
  • fostering a spirit of mutual respect and focus on what is best for the children among board members and within the administrative team
  • fostering community involvement through district committees, events, public meetings, and online resources
  • encouraging an evidence-based and data-driven approach to decision making
  • insuring that all children have access to computers and the Internet at home
  • supporting environmentally friendly policies, healthy food programs, and school safety programs.

Working in my district has enriched my appreciation of educational psychology and what it has to offer to society, and has helped me see the need for our field to do a better job in communicating with practitioners and policy makers. I appreciate that our district's administrators and teachers are committed to evidence-based practice, but I see a need for better professional development concerning what the evidence has to say. I appreciate that our district administrators and teachers are committed to data-driven decision making, but I see a need for better systems of monitoring individual student progress including effective assessment instruments. I appreciate our district's understanding of the central role played by school psychologists and the psychological well-being of our students, but I see increasing demands on psychological services from our students. As an educator, I see the need for excellent teacher education programs and for continuing professional development. Although I think my day job as an educational psychologist is helpful to me as a school board member, I try to always remember that our school board members work as a team and each of us brings useful characteristics to the table.

If you are considering embarking on your own secret double life as a school board member, the number one requirement, in my opinion, is that you care about kids. Other requirements include:

  • teamwork: work together as a team, with respect for all;
  • leadership: listen, seek information, involve all stakeholders, build consensus on issues;
  • trusteeship: serve as the community's trustee advocating for students’ best interests;
  • inclusive: represent all constituents, not just those who voted for you, and all children, not just those in your neighborhood;
  • equitable: recognize resource allocation should be based on the needs of each child;
  • democratic: appreciate the unique position of elected school boards as a vehicle for community control of local schools. 

I got so interested in how to be a school board member that I even wrote a book about it: How Not to Be a Terrible School Board Member, published by Corwin Press.

My secret life as a board member is rewarding. It has enriched my skills in teamwork and leadership, taught me the importance of equity and inclusiveness, and strengthened my appreciation of local representative government. I embrace that our decisions are public, even when things get a little messy, because it has helped me see the beauty of respectful and thoughtful decision making. I get to learn and think about interesting issues, and I have gotten to know many good, caring people. Being a board member is consistent with my view that children are the future of our society and our most precious resource, and that they deserve to learn and develop to their fullest possible potential. I am grateful for the opportunity to play even a small part in this worthy effort. I appreciate the trust my community has put in me to look after the best interests of our children and contribute to our community. 

Now that my secret is out in the public, I hope it will inspire you to consider adding school board membership to your life as well. You can be part of a team that has a large impact on the development of our nation's children. We certainly can use more educational psychologists in this worthwhile mission.

This post is part of a special series curated by APA Division 15 President E. Michael Nussbaum. The series, centered around his presidential theme of "Evidence-Based Change through Psychology, Policy, Professional Learning, and Participatory Practice," is designed to help education researchers extend the impact of their work. Those interested can learn more about this theme on page 7 of Division 15's 2017 Summer Newsletter.

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