The Head as Pater/Mater Familias
Updated: Jun 29
Al Adams' piece in the 2010 fall issue of Independent School magazine, Thirty-One Windows: the Evolving Metaphors for Headship, is one that I re-read at least twice a year and have forwarded to dozens of head friends and clients. It's a study on the roles that heads play in leading their schools and how the relative importance of those roles changes over their tenure. Adams discerns 31 "windows" into headship that he groups into 9 overarching roles.
Adams singles out the role of Pater/Mater Familias as being especially important because it "constantly asks the Head to be the glue that binds together an often fragile, sometimes flawed, occasionally fractious, and always insatiably needy community." It is the role "that usually trumps all other duties when it calls," and heads regard it as one of the most important of the nine regardless of where they stand in their tenure.
I've been thinking a lot about these passages and wondering how these roles might shift in relative importance when one inserts a third vector: the cultural moment(s) of the head's tenure. I would posit here that whereas the Pater/Mater Familias role has always been one of the most important in headship, it has become even more valuable now as families come to our schools looking for an antidote to the impatient discord and loneliness that characterizes our national times. They are looking for a school community where their child and the entire family feel connected and cared for.
The good news is that independent schools are already good at creating community and possess enormous practical advantages over of our educational counterparts: we are place-based and selective; we are small and heavily staffed by comparison to even the best-resourced public schools; our faculty are the central value proposition. So, how can heads take this core strength and make it even stronger?
Most important, attention to community needs to exist first in classrooms, all of them. Woe to the school that mounts efforts to connect adults when there is inconsistent attention to the children's social and emotional worlds. Floating before the eyes of any head reading this piece are the faces of the current parents or faculty members who would hoist the irony/bullshit flag on that matter. If necessary, and functioning as Mayor and Architect/Builder, the head must lead the effort to shore up attention to community in the classroom then the faculty room before widening the circle. Responsive Classroom practice provides a powerful framework for elementary and middle school classrooms and an important model for the entire school as it elevates to central importance how we form our circles of community at the beginning of the year and daily prioritizes how we greet each other and conclude each day with reflection. I've seen schools push Responsive Classroom practice into faculty meetings to great effect, and at schools that have entered the work earnestly, teachers discover that the time they dedicate to these constructed community building activities is more than re-captured through the student empowerment they build.
Heads are also fortunate to have many formal and informal opportunities to communicate and demonstrate the value of community. What the head has to say at Curriculum Night, in the letter that accompanies progress reports, in the email sent to families on the heels of a national tragedy, in the head's presence in classrooms, the admission office with prospective parents, at the Saturday away game, at the front gate every morning, in the phone call to a grieving teacher. In all of these moments and scores of others like them, heads have the opportunity to model in word and deed how the school cares for its members.
It's also a good idea to ask the community. At Forsyth School, we asked the community how they felt (or did not) feel connected and cared for--not with a survey (which by their very nature carry a whiff of corporate cynicism and tedium) but in face to face, individual conversations with one person from a small group of volunteers who asked just two questions: How does the school help you feel connected and cared for? How does it not? We thanked our interlocutors profusely, pulled out the common threads, fed that information back to the entire community, built plans to address a fair bushel of low-hanging fruit--easy fixes in scheduling, communication--and longer plans to dig through the dilemmas. We conducted this series of activities two years in a row and communicated milestones, but I'm convinced that the greatest positive outcome of this effort came in the most common thread: interviewees told us again and again that more than anything else, they were glad to be asked and to have evidence that they were heard.
As we think about how we distinguish ourselves as independent schools, it's understandable that the conversation quickly turns to exemplary and innovative programs, bold new facilities, ingenious marketing strategies, but we must also consider one of our longest held assets and our primary marketing tool--a caring, connected, mission-focused community--and how deeply contemporary Americans desire it.