• Mike Vachow

Handle with Care

Even before the pandemic, the average tenure of independent schools heads was in decline. In a 2019 report authored by NAIS and the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that although the overall rate of head turnover had remained stable over the past ten years, the number of short tenured heads (3 or fewer years) was rising. Today, 20% of heads serve their schools 3 or fewer years. More unsettling, the number of abrupt head departures (notice of less than two months) has risen. In her 2018 piece in the Trustee's Letter, former ISACS Executive Director, Claudia Daggett (may her memory be a blessing), wrote about the growing number of firings and resignations, attributing them to increasingly unrealistic expectations, weak partnership between heads and boards, and the excesses of transparency.


From the number and difficulty of this fall's head searches and an interim head search season that is warming up by the moment, we must imagine that the pandemic will exacerbate both of these trends. And, with the Delta and Omicron variants surges this year and the further fracturing of our nation's responses along political lines, school leaders have endured almost three years of unrelenting pressure. Talk to retired heads and rising stars, and virtually every conversation begins with "I'm so glad I'm not a head of school right now." Put all of these factors together, and it feels like we've reached a crossroads in the very nature of independent school headship.


Thankfully, I am certain that this not an intractable reality, that with a focused (and not particularly expensive) effort from boards and heads, the nature of headship can become more tenable and fulfilling. Now, I'm not talking about some fantastical return to the era of Frank Boyden. The complexity of our programs and budgets, the expectations for transparency, the role of schools--as both participants in and transformers of--our national legacy of racism, all have made the work of headship more complicated. What I suggest here are strategies to help heads and boards set realistic boundaries and to make head support a more concerted project.


Boundaries

The most important boundaries that school leaders can set are entirely about alignment, about the absence of daylight between the head and board on controversial and complicated issues. Whether the issues are emergent or chronic, discrepancies in messaging or in unmediated philosophical difference are at best enervating and time-consuming, at worst, sources of resentment, mission-erosion and, ultimately, separation. The remedies here are straight from the list of good governance practices and lie largely in the Trustees Committee, with ongoing diligence from the Board Chair.

  • thorough board orientation and continuing board education

  • board chair insures that all voices are heard, heads off "meeting after the meeting" dysfunction, disciplines/corrects bad behavior, creates a board culture of frankness and emotional safety

  • succession planning, audit of membership, elevating head's voice in trustee selection

  • talking points at the end of board meeting and proactive communication with community about important decisions

Some boundaries are practical but have cultural implications. Last summer, for instance, after over a year of leading schools in a pandemic, many heads "went dark" for a portion of the summer, informing their communities that they would not be responding to email, text, phone calls, short of major emergencies. The cringey laughter this measure inspired best defines just how unhealthy expectations for headship have become. Even before a global disaster, heads struggled to take real time away, often canceling plans because of institutional "emergencies" that seem silly in retrospect by comparison to the real one we're in now, or perhaps worse, destroying a week at the beach or on an Adirondack porch by tethering themselves to school by cell phone. Board chairs can help heads re-establish time for reflection and renewal by encouraging them to establish "administrator-in-charge" strategies, by staying out of their email and voicemail during these times, and by facing down histrionics from community members who are "outraged" by the head's failure to respond while away. Heads, of course, must reciprocate by confronting their propensity for martyrdom.


Support

In general, heads feel that the pandemic has strengthened governance at their schools and made their boards more supportive. School leaders should capture this momentum and build a more structured approach to head support. I'm a big fan of a Head Evaluation and Compensation sub-committee (of the Trustees or Executive Committee) which takes responsibility for facilitating the head's evaluation and goals and the longer rhythm of the head's contract. This committee could also take responsibility, in collaboration with the board chair, for guiding their colleagues to yearlong opportunities for head support, including:

  • executive coaching

  • keeping their colleagues focused on the patience and long term effort it will take to reformat expectations for the head

  • recasting the relationship between head and board as stewardship. Would the school fail to thank a donor or volunteer for extraordinary efforts? Why shouldn't the head and board treat each other in the same way?

  • encouraging trustee colleagues to ask the head how they can help, to reach out proactively to check in (to include the head's family in each of these respects), be present in school life to seize organic opportunities to praise the head's good work with multiple constituencies

The head's compensation amounts to the grandest gesture of support, and standing firm, arms linked on controversial decisions the most salient act of protecting boundaries, but the highest value moments in supporting the head lie in the less dramatic, daily awareness and action that I detail here.


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