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Welcome to Talking Out of School!
Independent schools are all about relationships but it can’t just be about relationships…
How do we speak the truth - that much of our customary ways of management and operations in schools are outdated, sometimes silly, and defy reason - while preserving the casual, relational feel that is central to a well functioning school?
We can’t persist with the idea that getting the right people in the right seats on the bus is the major solution when the wheels on the bus itself are falling off. Often we hire talented, energetic people to do jobs that have become extremely difficult, if not impossible.
For the past seven years, I have often wondered if I was alone in my perception that there were so many assumptions, beliefs and practices that increasingly made no sense in running a school. In my 25 years, I’ve seen schools go from “family style” - cozy, homegrown-feeling places where everyone pitched in to do whatever needed to be done - and then headed off for a summer of rejuvenation - to multilayered and complex professional organizations with millions of dollars in revenue, endowment and real estate hanging in the balance.
I will confess I am often nostalgic for the old days but I also realize they were designed for a narrow subgroup - largely white, educated, genteel Utopian fantasists although many of our organizations provided steady and comfortable jobs for a local staff workforce as well. And often the pedagogy wasn’t cutting edge, the content was often related to the teachers’ passions rather than the students’ and other aspects of student services were well meaning but sloppy and amateurish. Pay and benefits were often terrible and for those schools that offered campus housing, they were often units that remained at the bottom of the list in terms of campus upkeep and maintenance.
When I started as a dorm parent in January of 1996, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Thank goodness, all the kids survived and honestly, I don’t know what they got up to under my unsuspecting nose those first few years. I am quite sure - a lot.
It was all about relationships. I literally tripped and fell into a 25 year career in boarding schools and the people I met and made relationships with in those first few years absolutely changed my life and influenced my entire adult path. When I started teaching English (and ESL. And US History. And …) in that environment, I had the privilege of spending my days with bright, engaged, interesting young people and I had the freedom to explore delivering the education I wish I’d had. Working with kids on their writing and introducing them to literature that had made me think - that was about relationships, too.
But it can’t be ALL about relationships. It’s not possible for every head, senior administrator, teacher, etc to manage through relationships with every member of the constituency. We also have finally recognized all the needs of the students we were in fact not meeting through this relationship-centric approach. And there is a dark side of relationships - when the adults cover up for each other and kids become the powerless victims.
So how do we rectify the magic of a career built on relationships with the demands of running highly sophisticated nonprofit organizations in a professional and inclusive way?
Here are some things I have questions about and I hope to explore in the months ahead:
Head of School transition - July 1 to July 1 - how does this make any sense at all for either an incoming or an outgoing head?
Why doesn’t board of trustee governance training - good, thorough training by experts - often not stick?
How did the job of board of trustees chair become so unmanageable and what can we do about it?
What happens when the head/board chair relationship is a mismatch - outside of one of them leaving?
How do we maintain professional standards AND an environment of belonging for the adult population?
How can heads get the training they need to manage a sophisticated senior team and all the complicated areas of management within a school?
Why do we persist in largely approaching admissions in “if we’re all just super friendly and keep repeating our advantages” they will come?
Why are we not pouring resources into our admissions offices the same way we do during a major capital campaign? Why are we not approaching admission with the same precision we approach a major capital campaign?
We need to recognize our tuition is out of reach for the vast majority of people and come up with solutions. We aren’t going to do that in our school silos.
We also need to recognize that the way we operate our schools, it is essential to have a highly educated workforce who deserves to be well compensated and also continually professionally developed.
And the head of school job itself - don’t get me started.
And why do people freak out when you just tell the plain truth that it isn’t the best year ever?
I plan to be posting once a week but this is a work in progress - I hope to have more structure in place by Labor Day as I resettle in my post-school life.
Until next week, my friends.