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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow


Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Warren Buffett has written an annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders for over 50 years. You can buy a compilation of all of them on Amazon. The media often pick up the folksy aphorisms that the phlegmatic Nebraskan uses to make his eerily accurate economic predictions seem head-slappingly clear in retrospect. This one has understandably resurfaced a lot lately: "It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's swimming naked." Buffett first used the analogy to describe the folly of investors and banks who had inflated the real estate bubble that popped in 2008 and occasioned the Great Recession. It's an analogy that just as perfectly fits the pandemic's revelation of a great number of other human truths.

Some of these truths are entirely personal or lie at the intersection of the professional and the personal. Over the summer, I heard many of these internal explorations in my conversations with school leaders. They go something like this: Like all school heads, I've had moments of deep reservation about my ability and desire to be a school leader, and this crisis has me wondering if it's time to return to the classroom, find a different industry entirely, etc. After these heads had peeled away the feelings of guilt--for "betraying" their aspirations, for "abandoning" their schools--what stood before them were simple, unadorned truths: the cost to their own health and the happiness of their families felt too high; they found too few rewards or joy in trying to satisfy the bottomless psychological neediness of their school communities. The leaders I've spoken with are giving themselves more time to examine their feelings, especially to eliminate 2020 as an outlier, but I'm confident that these gut-checks will be one of the major reasons that head departures will increase in the next two years.

Governance disarray will be the greater reason, however, another kind of exposure that is already transpiring at a greater frequency because of the pandemic. Lost in the weeds, divided into camps, speaking with multiple voices, recruited into constituency factions, running away from trouble, any of these erosive postures will quickly snowball into institutional chaos at the very moment that schools need responsive, cohesive leadership. Heads need the support of the board collectively and each trustee individually as they navigate the shifting circumstances of the pandemic and its impact on school families. In an NAIS poll in April, 83% of independent school heads felt that they were getting the support that they needed from their boards, but that was April, and heads' perception of board effectiveness overall has declined 10% in the last 8 years as has average head tenure. The pandemic has hit independent school leaders at a moment when the critical trust that must exist among them was already weakened.

The crisis has also exposed enormous inequities in education. Independent schools discovered anew the power of their missions and resources: our reflexive and compassionate attention to our school communities, the institutional trust engendered by our alignment with common values, the dollars that have helped us mitigate health risks and support families who've lost income, our economies of scale that aid logistical flexibility. Those strengths have also highlighted the massive disparities in the ways American children are educated. By comparison, kids in underfunded, in-formula school districts that couldn't supply all teachers and students with reliable digital tools and consistent wi-fi essentially stopped going to school in March. In the early going this fall, it seems that students in some of the poorest schools might continue to go without not only a basic educational experience this year but also the nutrition, health and social support that their schools provide. The death of George Floyd and other Black lives this spring and summer highlighted the blatant, systemic racism that persists in this country. Independent schools will have to respond to their place in educational inequity especially as it plays out along lines of race and class.

Last, the pandemic has uncovered inspiring creativity among teachers as they immerse themselves in digital learning tools and teaching strategies, creativity that could transform education in the future. The pandemic arrived at an auspicious time in the history of digital technology with the wide availability of robust, user-friendly and relatively inexpensive communication tools. More importantly, unaffiliated, non-commercial curators of those tools and teaching strategies--like Global Online Academy and One Schoolhouse--have accelerated their already formidable expertise in helping teachers sort through the expanding number and quality of those tools and pedagogies--from excellent to breathtakingly fraudulent. The one caveat to this hopeful perspective is the plight of young students. We are very likely discovering one of the hard edges of remote learning. Even the best digital tools in the hands of the most creative educators, shepherded by an attentive adult learning "concierge" at home or in a childcare setting are radically inadequate by comparison to a high quality in person classroom. This is the "Oven Bird" moment, the horrible realization that teachers and parents of young students are facing now: "what to make of a diminished thing."

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