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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

So Last Week

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Independent school Heads have been living in the eye of a hurricane for the last two weeks as they marshal collective efforts of patience, grace and technical expertise to provide their school communities with remote access to the programs and compassion that define their missions. They know that their efforts will be extraordinarily meaningful sources of support to school families.

This weekend, Heads are encountering their first opportunities for reflection. I've picked up a few cautionary themes in my conversations with them. The first: busy rolling up-their sleeves, some school leaders have blown through the critical first stop sign: Do we have all stakeholders present for this work? This first question is particularly important in independent schools where transparency is sacrosanct and where school leaders routinely negotiate the distance between the pyramidal org chart that makes the school function efficiently and the campfire org chart that many constituencies want to believe in. When faced with crises, school leaders often run ahead of themselves and discover, after they've traveled miles down the track, that they've left key stakeholders back at the station. Some examples I've heard recently:

  • Head and Board Finance Committee launch into enrollment attrition modeling--Director of Enrollment learns about the conversations after the fact.

  • Earnest teachers, functioning ad hoc, put "free" online tools in the hands of students--IT Director, tech-savvy colleagues and parents raise privacy and integrity flags too late.

  • Heads and Marketing Directors crank out content-rich, reassuring messages to families--forget to include non-current parent, unaffiliated Trustees who can be important influencers in their networks.

The second theme I've heard is about disruption in communication habits creating governance trouble. Without organic, incidental opportunities to encounter trustees, without opportunities to gather in person, Heads are discovering erosion in governance best practice behavior. Some examples:

  • A trustee makes editorial comments on the school's remote learning efforts and gets retweeted (and misinterpreted) exponentially throughout the wider school community and beyond.

  • In haste, a Head leaves the Board out of the loop in advance of school-wide communications one or two times too many (a hazard that might occur inside a day in the current climate) and creates peripheral political friction that she has little time to manage.

This summer presents independent school Heads and Boards with a leadership challenge of a lifetime. They'll need to generate support from every sub-group of every constituency as they turn their attention to planning and expectation setting for unprecedented summer work: retention, re-evaluation of financial aid, potential reduction in work force, fundraising efforts, and the institutional and personal messaging involved in all of these efforts. At stake: a continuum of survival to major re-set for every independent school in the country.

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