Four Challenges

This is the last part of a blog series focusing on the skills required for headship in today's changing world. Here are links to part one: The Competent Leader, part two: The Good Communicator, part three: Being the Decider, and part four: The Meeting Culture.

This summer I have written on a variety of issues associated with good headship in schools, particularly but not exclusively independent schools. Part of this project stems from the urging from friends that twenty-four years of heading a school deserve some reflection, but perhaps a larger part comes from discussions with current heads of school and others in the independent school world who are in the thick of school leadership and its many challenges. With roughly a thousand headships turning over in the next five years, it seems essential to develop a body of thought on school leadership that can speak to the practical issues in this significant generational transition.

I have addressed some of these issues in essays on good communication, effective decision-making practices, and the role and importance of inclusion in both areas. I want to end this summer’s writing project with a new school year note commenting on four challenges that every head of school has and might take into consideration as the school year begins. And even if these challenges are at present well in hand, a headmaster might benefit from keeping an eye on them as the year progresses.

1. Head of School-Board Chair Alignment

An open, comfortable, and mutually respectful relationship between the head of school and the chair (or president) of the board of trustees is essential to good governance and paramount in protecting the community from the inevitable storms, curveballs, and surprising passions flow through any given school year. A head of school cannot always, and some cannot at all, choose her or his boss, or chair of the board, but a head can make a point of periodically checking alignment to make sure that the relationship between the two positions is grounded in candor and trust.

By “checking alignment,” I mean specifically are the following questions answered with “we are aligned”

  • On the mission of the school
  • On our goals—and priorities of those goals—for the year
  • On our understanding of and ground rules for the roles we play
  • On the head of school hearing directly concerns, criticisms, or questions about his/her performance or decisions from the chair
  • On the chair hearing first and directly any job dissatisfaction/personal unhappiness from the head of school
  • On the necessity of communicating regularly—and of course honestly— throughout the year
  • On the value of good preparation, planning meetings together, and anticipating board reaction to issues that might arise
  • At some point in the year, perhaps connected to an evaluation, the head of school and board chair will discuss the possibility/timeframe of transition for either position

This list is long but certainly not exhaustive. However, if a head of school considers these items and senses that alignment is a potential problem or issue, it would be better to wade into the challenge now than be surprised later.

2. On Boarding and Out Going and Transitions

The start of every school year begins the career of any number of new faculty members. Usually the orientation and process of acclimating new faculty to the school community and culture, including faculty expectations and requirements falls under the purview of the dean of faculty, or the position that most closely connects with that title. Nevertheless, it is important that the head of school take particular care to be part of the on-boarding process, particularly with regard to clarifying and discussing the practical life of the school mission for a teacher. Further, insofar as possible, new faculty should have the opportunity to engage socially and casually with the head without the presence of lots of veteran faculty members, allowing for the gradual development of a personal connection. Obviously, there is a limit to the knowledge and comfort gained in these first days and weeks, but even small connections are important. Those connections both validate for the new faculty the network of professional support all new members seek, and can come into play later as each new faculty member distinguishes him or herself for better or worse. Feeling that she or he is indeed known by the head can pay great benefits as the new faculty member evolves into a veteran.

Conversely, the beginning of a school year is a good time to start the process of thinking seriously about hiring for the next school year. This idea may seem odd, an unnecessary agenda item to the already full plate of new school year issues. However, beyond having a meeting with whichever group of administrators considers such things, the amount of time is minimal; the forward thinking of starting to spell out about the “what if” possibilities can be invaluable. Even in September, there are likely to be some faculty members who return to school already indicating that this may be their year to look, to apply to grad school, or to retire. Given that, developing a strategy for each situation is useful work. With successful hiring a critical goal for every head of school—and rarely an easy challenge—starting to think about faculty attrition and hiring right at the beginning is an advantage to starting this process in January.

And start thinking about transitions now. How strong is the “bench”? What happens if a key performer leaves or cannot perform? What can you do now to prepare everyone to be ready to take that next step? I recall taking part in an avian flu planning scenario and in one stage the headmaster catches the flu and dies. At that point, I got up and left the meeting, saying as I did, “tell me what happens.” Even so, transition planning is not simply thinking about what happens when the head of school moves on; it is about change in all aspects of people movement.

3. Keep Your Friends Close/Enemies Closer

This old saying certainly applies to leading an educational community. Successful heads usually have a majority of colleagues who like them, appreciate and share in the work, and support an open and comfortable work culture. Inevitably, however, there will also be those who for any number of reasons—their need for independence, some unrelated personal unhappiness, or simply engrained cynicism—will push back against that leadership and attack the head (usually passive-aggressively) and intentionally or not disrupt the community harmony. And those same people may actually be pretty good at what they do: competent, even superior teachers, coaches, and/or administrators. Savvy heads of school are aware of the thorns in the adult community rose bush and make an effort to draw these people out, communicate regularly with them, and marginalize, even undercut their platform for complaint and disruption. Every school community—indeed, probably organization of any kind—will have and tolerate some level of negative behavior among the adults; this reality is part of the human nature. A head needs to find balance between spending time mitigating that behavior (without expecting to win all the problems over) and compartmentalizing the influence so that the positive and productive energy of the majority of faculty carries through the community and culture.

So, as the new school year starts, sit down with your closest, most loyal, and most insightful team members and analyze the adult professional culture in your school. From that process should come an action plan to keep the problem adults from having too much impact and disruption, and maybe, just maybe, encourage them to be a little more positive, open-minded, and supportive.

4. Evaluating and Supporting

Another year is about to begin and thus begins another year of faculty evaluation. How is that going for you? For your faculty? Is it tremendously time-consuming with the outcomes not always clear or actionable?

The education world has a tough time with the evaluation game, tending toward the expense of energy, time, and resources all ending up supporting people who need to move on, while giving the solid majority of faculty the equivalent of a pat on the back without strengthening their strengths. In short, faculty evaluation too often means propping up the mediocre performers with lots of improvement strategies, analysis, and plans to follow-up but no end game. The result can be that the strong core of faculty are demoralized by the absence of decisive, clear outcomes which, even if upsetting to a few, ultimately strengthen the academic talent. In sum, the education world spends too much time in the futile attempt to make the weak teachers strong while not taking the appropriate steps to make the strong teachers stronger.

Having worked and led faculty evaluation processes at two schools—both as a faculty member and as headmaster—I came to the conclusion some time ago that the best model for evaluation is informal, flexible, and constant. The five-step or more formal model involving self-evaluations, forced collaborations, hours of class visitations, and lots of meetings and file-filling evaluations/recommendations simply take good faculty members away from students and useful work. Certainly there has to be a sense that faculty are being evaluated—and good, confident teachers always feel that way and appreciate the attention; indeed, they want people to watch them work, to collaborate, to offer advice. By dropping the formal model but still giving all faculty members attention, by having lots of conversations with administrators and department chairs about faculty performance, by listening to what students say about faculty, and by looking for every opportunity to praise and support teachers, heads or academic deans pretty quickly get a sense of those who are struggling and those who are making the academic life of the school hum.

Certainly once a faculty member is clearly underperforming, some sort of process must begin to allow for and offer an honest, candid, specific assessment with an expectation of improvement. And with that assessment should come not reassuring support, but a clear indication that the situation might not result in a reappointment.

In a recent New York Times interview, Tae Hea Nahm, managing director at Storm Ventures, was asked about the power of culture in an organization. “Basically,” he replied, “people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture.” That statement rings true for schools, too. If the best teachers succeed and define the culture, it is important for heads of schools not to allow those who fail to linger and cloud the mission.