Updated: Jun 24, 2021
What's keeping independent school heads awake at night? The complexity of concrete plans for the beginning of the 2020 - 2021 school year growing--"Little Shop" style--around them daily. The heads I've spoken with also worry about governance problems popping up like poisonous mushrooms, disastrous distractions that could pose an even greater risk to school sustainability, even viability. They're awake at night working on the former. The latter are the inchoate fears that drag them out of a sound sleep. Overwhelmed by the details of planning, the daily shifting news, and the many voices begging to be heard, school leaders risk losing sight of the key principles they developed a month ago to direct their responses, become less deliberate about best practice in the board room, and find themselves taking actions that splinter the board or drive a wedge between the board and head. Search consultants expect an increase in head departures this year, some of them of natural causes--heads seeking new opportunities; heads, exhausted by the last year and half, leaving the industry; even, sadly, heads whose schools were forced to close--but many more departures will be self-made, the product of deteriorating governance.
This is no fait accompli, however. School leaders can proactively address the problems inherent in this hothouse environment by finding a regular source of unaffiliated, outside counsel, someone who is readily available and can help school leaders gain perspective and hold themselves accountable for governance best practice. Unfortunately, the common go-to sources for this kind of counsel for heads--local and out of town head peers--are similarly swamped. A handful of long-serving heads might have assembled a "Head's Council" comprised of distant past trustees, retired heads and local civic leaders. Board chairs often have a similar, informal council of past board chairs. First time heads are at the greatest risk. Struggling to navigate a new environment and a new, profoundly deeper role, even in a normal year, first time heads face extraordinary odds. The question that boards and heads should be asking now is how can we provide ourselves with the support we need during this crisis?
A promising model that fits the moment would feature a consultant or trusted partner conferring regularly with the head and board chair together and being available for emergent conversations. Each of the items on a stock agenda for these meetings would be driven by the key principles that many school leaders formed and began communicating to constituents soon after school was out last year. I came across a number of great examples of these guiding ideas, like these from Belmont Day School, a PreK - 8, co-ed, day school near Boston:
Keep all community members safe by managing and mitigating risk
Inspire and challenge the whole child through a mission-driven program, which upholds the BDS core values
Keep equity and inclusion at the forefront of our program, with stress on allocating additional time and energy toward anti-bias curriculum and programming aimed to support students’ health and wellness, especially as we return in the fall to our broader school community
Provide equitable evaluation measures and access to programming
Devote time in the day and thoughtful planning both to structured physical activity and free play for all students
Ideally, all communications from the school regarding practical plans for the start of school and updates during the year return to these landing points. The head/board chair counselor can play a critical role in helping school leaders be accountable to the guiding principles by asking the head and board chair to evaluate how they're spending their time and energy in light of them and to gauge how important any given effort might be to these higher goals. In the case of the latter, the counselor would help the head sort and delegate activity and determine how much of her time she will need to oversee the work. In the case of the former, the counselor would help the head muster her inner "no." The guiding principles provide school leaders with a very visible high road to take in these conversations: "re-examining the K - 2 writing curriculum, finding a new food vendor, undertaking a brand review, etc., are all worthy endeavors, but it's going to have to wait as it's too distant from the critical efforts we're making to respond to the crisis." Finally, the head/board chair counselor would help them identify opportunities for proactivity particularly in guiding the narrative of the school's efforts and in establishing patterns of reflection and revision after the pivots to various scenarios that are almost certain to happen this year.
Stories of governance crisis as the product of pandemic pressure began trickling down the independent school grapevine this summer well before schools began living any of their 2020 - 2021 scenarios. As school leaders return to the intensity and rewards of encountering faculty, staff and families every day, they should invite a partner to help them remain focused on a vision for the school that will help it emerge from this crisis with momentum.