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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

High Touch

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

This starkly practical counsel is for heads of small to medium sized schools, say, fewer than 500 students, and in particular elementary/middle schools. I add these parameters largely as proxy for the expectations of visibility and intimacy that school communities like these have for heads. I got this advice from my mentors, and through 11 years as a head, it's proven to have the highest simplicity to impact ratio of any other counsel I've received.

Leverage the high touch moments/locations of the school day--arrival, lunch, dismissal--by being present in them as often as possible, even if it can only be a cameo at times. In each of these moments, the school community assembles informally providing the head with an opportunity to get to know and be known by students, parents, teachers, staff, grandparents, older siblings, caretakers. Carry a light agenda: thanking donors and volunteers, checking in with a parent or staff member in a rough patch, helping new families get connected, meeting the new baby. And, it's a chance for the head to pitch in on duties, particularly at dismissal and lunch. Grab another administrator or two and offer to take lunch duty for the 6th grade team, or sit at/put a lid on the knuckleheadiest table of 3rd graders. All of this follows my contention that you can tell a lot about a community by the way it greets people and how it says goodbye. Every member of a community deserves to be welcomed into the day and bid farewell at the end. A school that has made no plans to do either is in a bad place, and a head who has not organized time to be present as often as possible for these critical moments tacitly communicates that it is not important.

My second two points are just corrollaries of the first. First, when you've been away from school for a few days, keep your calendar clear the day you return and spend that day out of the office, visiting classrooms, circulating during high touch moments, joining the JrKers' nature walk. And when people ask you about the conference you attended, have a short response prepared and turn the question around: what did I miss here while I was away? This is very difficult to do as your absence has undoubtedly created a backlog of appointment requests, phone calls, emails, but if you barricade yourself in your office to plow through all of this stuff, then you have doubled the length of your absence.

And last, follow the same routine in the week before long school breaks. The energy on campus during these weeks, along with the blizzard of events that accompanies it call for an all hands approach, and the head should lead the way. This too is difficult to do as these weeks also tend to elicit a certain amount of brinksmanship in the adult world: last word having, procrastinators resuscitating dormant projects. It's wise to pull the reins on artificial emergencies, and at the very least to do the opportunity cost math before setting the appointment. Does the last period meeting with the teacher who "just needs to vent" mean that you'll miss helping at dismissal (two days before winter break) and saying goodbye to the special guests who were on campus for the 3rd grade poetry reading? This is the kind of bad deal I see some new heads accepting in the name of being available and responsive.

Your visibility and connectedness deserve the same level of attention you give to scheduling board committee meetings. It's partly science--about managing your calendar and coordinating with the people who help you do that--and it can be art as well. Sometimes the emergency really is an emergency, the "venting" teacher is in a true crisis, and the poetry reading guests will have to get their farewell from someone else on the leadership team.

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