What Yo-Yo Ma Can Teach School Boards (And the Rest of Us)

Elections are coming up, and I set out to write a blog post on what attributes make a good school board member.  There’s a lot of research to cite and several lists of best practices to share.

Then I saw Yo-Yo Ma and I changed my plans.

You may have heard that he is a famous cello player. And, he appeared in a special concert with the Louisville Orchestra – a sold-out house.

But I experienced something more than a great musician. I watched a great team player.

First, I noticed he walked in through the orchestra to enter, not the normal way most featured players do by walking in front of them. He just appeared from the side and came up behind his platform.  He emerged from the ranks.

He greeted the appropriate players and accepted the audiences’ enthusiastic welcome.

He sat down and was immediately immersed in the music. He is truly an exceptional musician. What I noticed was his effort to merge with the other musicians; he worked to draw them to him. He leaned toward the concertmaster during one section while their parts were connected, and he smiled at him. When the focus was on the cellos, or violas he would lean that way and engage them as well. He recognized this was a group effort.  Support each other.

When his solo section was over, he stepped off the platform and walked past the whole first row shaking hands with the players, not just the concertmaster and first violin.  He showed great appreciation for the entire orchestra. Then he left the stage. We thought that was all. No encore.

Then as they were preparing to perform the last movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma appeared quietly from the other side and took a seat on the second row of the cello section. He played not as a soloist, but as an orchestra member. He shared music with another player, and, as he had before, during the piece engaged with her in playing the beautiful music together. After the piece is over, he turned down Conductor Teddy Abrams’ invitation to step out and take a bow. He was just part of the orchestra. He stayed with the ranks.

It was a beautiful experience. When you are the one with the most experience on the world stage, you are expected to act the part. Many do. My orchestra friends have stories of some of those prima donnas.

Or you could be a Yo-Yo Ma, and make the team better just by joining it. Respect everyone’s contribution. Acknowledge the professionalism of your colleagues. Don’t seek to stand out all the time.

So, in the post I was going to write before seeing Mr. Ma, I had intended to say that research shows the most effective school boards are those that form strong teams and work together toward ambitious goals. They learn together, they respect the staff and they don’t make excuses for poor performance. They encourage each other and grow the positive.

Or, I could just tell you about Yo-Yo Ma and the orchestra.  He exhibited all these attributes of a good team member. While he took the lead some of the time, he also embraced his role in the ranks. Both ways he made beautiful music.

At the core of team building is respect and encouragement. School board members and superintendents should embrace this strategy. Community members should too. Respect the professionalism of the district and its staff.

That’s what Yo-Yo Ma demonstrated on the Louisville stage on Sunday.

Take a tip from Yo-Yo Ma, the best in the world. I predict great results.


About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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