I often share my travel experiences and corresponding interactions. This time, I am writing about my recent journey to meet a candidate for an important state office and my reactions.

Washington is one of 12 states with an elected chief state school officer (Superintendent of Public Instruction). I was excited when I received a voicemail from one of the nine candidates for this position inviting me to a meeting.

The candidate said, “I would love to meet you, answer your questions and hear your perspective on where we should go on public education in our state.”

I knew many eligible voters would receive this voice mail, but since the meeting was held at a local coffee shop, I imagined that the number of participants would be relatively small and I might be afforded an opportunity to ask questions and share my advocacy for public education.

I reviewed the candidate’s website and examined their experience and views of public education.  I prepared a set of specific questions to help determine which candidate will receive my support in the upcoming primary election.

I arrived at the coffee shop to find six local residents at a table and soon the candidate arrived.  During the next hour, eight more residents for a total of 15 joined us. Given the small number of attendees, I was sure I could get in a couple of my questions.

After the candidate shared his experience and reason for choosing to run for this office, he turned to us to ask our questions.

As each of us asked questions, I was surprised that the candidate used each question as a guide to a prepared response that did not always answer the specific question. The candidate did answer a question on funding and another on student assessments.

However, the candidate did not answer questions — even when pushed — on other issues like as restroom accessibility in public schools.  For me, there is a big difference between “listening for understanding” and “listening to offer a prepared statement.”

The candidate also spent a lot of time on issues and policies the successful candidate cannot control (e.g., the Washington State Board of Education, Legislative funding, charter school legislation, etc.).  I suggested we focus on things the state superintendent does control, and asked:

  • How often will you visit with constituents to seek their input?
  • How often will you visit schools and engage students?
  • Are you willing to create a Student Advisory Committee to share their school experiences, insights, and suggestions?

The candidate indicated he would encourage the Washington State Board of Education to host their meetings throughout the state rather than only in the state capital.  I asked how those meetings would engage students and the community to which he responded they could attend and observe the meeting.  He stated that it is difficult to engage students as advisors therefore not excited to consider that strategy.  Of course, I had an agenda asking those questions and at least thought he might consider the strategies I was asking about. Did I mention that he did not take any notes during our meeting?  And, after my questions, he quickly moved to questions from other meeting participants.

I had other questions in my queue to ask later such as:

  • What will you do to reduce the current dropout rate?
  • Will you consider encouraging/requiring schools to measure their climate and use the information for continuous improvement?
  • What strategies will you employ to reduce the current dropout rate?
  • What will be your focus your first 100 days in office?
  • What do you anticipate your major accomplishments will be over the next four years?
  • What did you learn today from our conversation that concerns you, surprises you and/or validates your views?

I was unable to ask these questions as after 40 minutes the candidate suggested a few brief final questions as he had another meeting scheduled in a community 25 miles away and would have to depart soon.  The next 20 minutes was a bit of a mixture of questions and statements from meeting participants each responded to by the candidate by sharing his campaign brochure, rather than answering the questions or acknowledging the position stated by meeting participants.

His final words to us were ones of encouragement to vote for him in the upcoming primary election.

In summary, I was excited and well-prepared for the candidate meeting and expected he would listen to and respond to each question, I anticipated that he would take notes and commit to consider some of the suggested strategies, I believed he would seek to understanding of why meeting participants valued a certain position and expected him to share his reflections on what he learned from our interactions.

The candidate met none of these expectations and I walked away wondering what he expected from the meeting and how he would remember his time in my hometown with 15 eligible voters. I walked away disappointed that we were not fully heard nor our strategies fully examined and that our time was not productive.

Terry Pickeral
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Terry Pickeral

Terry Pickeral, has extensive experience in policy development, advocacy, education reform, youth leadership, teaching and learning strategies, education collaborations, evaluation and civic development. His commitment is to ensuring schools create and sustain quality teaching and learning environments for all students to be successful in school and contribute to their communities as active principled citizens.
Terry Pickeral
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