A longtime federal education authority concocts a three-part cure for addressing a common school leader’s phobia

Psychologists label them phobias. They are a fear of something such as heights, closed spaces or ever-smiling elected officials. Science and medicine suggest that effective ways exist to overcome, or at least to cope with, these fears.

I’ve devised a three-step program to overcome “politico-phobia.” This condition is recognizable when a person breaks out in sweats and is unable to talk coherently while in the company of someone who is a politician.

This treatment deals only with fear of politicians. It won’t address phobias of spiders or multi-colored body tattoos.

Because I spent decades working with politicians, including 27 years writing federal laws for the schools as general counsel/staff director for a congressional committee, I developed this three-step remedy to treat all aspects of politico-phobia.

Pilot testing of my homegrown remedy shows it is best to complete all three steps of the regimen in one sitting. Otherwise, the phobia will return and again dominate one’s emotions and reasoning powers. Think of it as a shot of tequila that must be thrown done in one gulp. You will need such fortitude if you suffer from this disease and want to be cured.


Step 1: Self-Reflected Image

Recognize you are what you fear. If you are a superintendent or an assistant superintendent, you are a politician. Do not try to reject this notion — a common but useless reaction to this truth.

Consider this: You were hired as the superintendent by a group of citizens after you got those on the board of education to like you. To stay in your job, you’ve had to find ways to ensure board members think highly of you. Truth be told, you are acting exactly as an elected office-holder does with the electorate.

In addition, you work at securing popular support by attending an endless number of football, soccer and basketball games in your community. You attend public meetings you have called or which others have organized. All these actions sound political to me.

So, to complete this first step, sit in front of a mirror and repeat, “My name is ……., and I am a politician.”



Step 2: Common Behavior

You also must face the fact that politics is inherent in human behavior. No one can avoid it.

The word itself is based on polis, an ancient Greek word meaning city. Politics is how people living in a city or belonging to any organization deal with one another.

Churches/synagogues/mosques, Rotary clubs/chambers of commerce/Elk lodges, gardening clubs and PTAs are imbued with politics. Members must get along with one another and use some common behaviors and rules for the group to make decisions and act.

Politics permeates our lives. We just do not call it that. Finding ways to get along with others and developing rules of behavior that are accepted by most people are ordinary parts of life. That means eschewing the common thought that “politics is evil, but a necessary evil.” Repeating that thought can retard your recovery.

Step 2 involves saying to yourself: “Politics is part of being human. A well-functioning society cannot exist without it.”



Step 3: A Respectful View

You must face a final harsh reality. The president, members of Congress, governors, state legislators and other elected officials are human beings, just like you and me. They may be Republicans, Democrats or even Socialists, but we share the same gene pool.

These elected office-holders may have been motivated to run for public positions because they don’t want to spend so much time with their kids or because they have strong beliefs or because they like to see their own face on roadside billboards. Regardless of their motivation, they breathe and eat just like you and me. This means you should approach politicians like you want people to come to you.

What I learned in meetings of politicians and constituents was that an important factor in having an influence was to show respect for the public office the politician holds. A state legislator, a member of Congress or another elected official, even if he or she does not share your beliefs, has stood for office and been elected by the people as the representative for that geographic area.

Some of you may be inclined to shake your head, saying, “No, no, no! Congressman (insert name) is a complete bozo.” That rant may make you feel better and also may be true, but it makes no difference. Respect the office.

Another factor in influencing the position of an elected official is to be well-prepared. This means knowing the issue at hand, including a command of the evidence to back up your position. The elected official or a member of her or his staff is giving you a chance to influence votes and other decisions. So make your case clearly and concisely, buttressed by facts and experiences from your schools and communities.

It is best to meet with politicians from your geographic region. They will pay more attention if they believe you might affect their ability to be re-elected.

As a superintendent, you too pay attention to what the citizens, or voters, are saying. Retaining your job depends on popular support, just like elected officials. Therefore, your opinion should be respected by public leaders. Your expertise is based on the difficult job of running the schools and listening to parents and others in the community who offer varying opinions on what the schools should do.

To complete Step 3, say this: “I respect elected officials, but part of their jobs is to respect my views on how best to educate our children.”

I know this last step calling for mutual respect will be difficult for many education administrators. Some state legislators seem to have little interest today in improving public education. Some members of Congress may appear to have closed minds. It is hard to be respectful when that respect is not reciprocated. But, in the long run, expressing your opinions in a reasonable and respectful manner will pay off.

In our country, the results of elections vary from period to period. Over the last several decades, both Republicans and Democrats believed they had achieved long-term domination of the presidency and the Congress. The electorate felt differently and several times took control of Congress and the presidency from one party and gave it to the other party. The point is that once elected politicians see popular opinion going against them, they listen when they would not have paid attention earlier.


The Cure

That’s my prescribed three-step program to conquer politico-phobia. You have learned (1) you are a politician, (2) politics is necessary for the functioning of human society and (3) elected partisan politicians are human too.

You realize now your fear of politics and politicians is controllable. You are fully qualified to talk to elected officials, and your views deserve respect.

And, lastly, to ensure you retain this cure, you must expose yourself to elected politicians on a regular basis. This exposure will maintain the correct chemical balance in your brain to keep politico-phobia under control.




In October 2016, this article appeared in the School Administrator, a magazine published by the American Association of School Administrators.

Jack Jennings is the author of Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2015).  E-mail: [email protected].