Updated: Jun 24, 2021
About a month ago, I wrote about a communication challenge all independent school Heads will face this summer. It's not an unfamiliar moment as Heads are often responsible for helping the community understand the intersection of the school as a business and the school as a community. This summer, however, when Heads communicate detailed plans for the fall of 2020, they'll need more than ever the unwavering, supremely confidential support of every school trustee.
It's important to note that some of our higher education counterparts have not provided a reliable road map for this moment. Indeed, we'll see furor later this summer when some colleges and universities retreat from the brave (i.e. disingenuous) pronouncements their Presidents made this spring about a full return in the fall; cue more class action lawsuits. Independent schools leaders, conversely, have been more circumspect and given their schools the advantage of time. Their descriptions of the fall, however, will be no less impactful, and they'll need a carefully designed communication plan and Gibraltar-caliber, one-voice Board.
What does speaking with one voice, a core element of governance best practice, look like? First, the Head and Board Chair must make certain that every trustee truly understands the issues. This is a moment for command performance meetings, for the Chair to ride out into the canyons and wrangle under-engaged trustees into the corral. It's also a moment for Heads to coach Board Chairs on assessment. Perhaps each trustee, at the final full meeting in which the fall plan is approved, writes a bullet-point summary of the plan, which is collected anonymously and reviewed collectively. Perhaps it is an old-school, written quiz, or a heads-down/thumbs-up survey. Whatever the case, it's essential that every trustee understands the facts. Nodding heads, as any good teacher knows, are a horribly inaccurate indication of learning. Second, the Board must generate talking points, the critical pillars of the plan and their essential rationale. These are the places on which trustees can land when asked, and where later, as school constituents compare notes, they'll discover that they've heard the same message. Finally, the Board should practice scenarios: what will you say when you're cornered in the grocery store, Facebook group, socially remote block party with the parent who's irate about the lack of a tuition discount, or the departure of the teacher or classmate with an underlying health condition, or the dissolution of fall sports and the school lunch program. How will you manage the conversation with the curious spouse or partner, colleague at work, friend who's a trustee at a competitor school?
Even more important, the Board should have assessed and legally vetted the school's response to constituents who lie outside the circle of reasonable care that the school can offer for their physical and financial well-being. Employees and students with some underlying health issues may not be safe within your school. Some families of elementary age kids, even with additional financial aid, may not be able or willing to afford the additional childcare implicit in a phased return. And, the school may have to lay off some employees. These will be tough conversations for the Head and senior leadership team to lead and because of privacy protections surrounding labor and medical information, the school can, at best, provide only broad context surrounding the school's decision-making to help the rest of the community understand. Trustees must be prepared to support the Head personally and publicly throughout these difficult moments.
This last anticipates the closely choreographed communication plan the school will construct to customize the core message for each constituency, the format--from personal phone calls to email blasts to press releases--and the tightly paced (seconds, in some cases) order of that messaging. I've written about some of the general truths of school messaging in the past, and this moment will be different only in the caveats for flexibility that school leaders must relate, and in scale for the out-sized impact that wayward trustee behavior could have on the school's future. The trustee who divulges to a friend how he'd opposed some portion of the plan and finally capitulated, or who leaks confidential information in passive-aggressive resentment, or who sneak-peeks parts of the strategy with friends, or who editorializes over-much in conversation, any of these behaviors, in this crisis, at this critical moment, could critically damage the school's bottom line, potentially threaten the school's very existence, and at the very least, saddle the school with years of cultural repair. Conversely, Boards who approach this moment humbly, humanely, who see themselves as stewards of the school's collective history, at a defining inflection point in its growth, will have given their schools a gift of inestimable value.