Many of you may be aware that I will be moving on after five years at Alexandria Country Day School to assume the headship at The Children’s School in Atlanta. I am thrilled to join such a wonderful, progressive community of educators, students, trustees, and families, and look forward to a long, enriching tenure. I’m just as glad that the search process and interviews are finally over. It’s grueling on one’s mind, body, and soul and I learned many lessons about independent schools, being a head of school, Boards, search committees and search consultants that I would like to share with aspiring heads and school leaders. (Note that this is not a how-to guide to head searches, but tips and reminders to keep the process in perspective.) One search consultant did tell me in my first year of going through this process that it takes an average of three years or so to find one’s first headship. Obviously everyone’s experience will vary, and for me, I got the job in my second. In my combined two years, I considered or was considered in as many as ten searches, made it to the semi-finalist in one, and finalist in five. I use my experiences of these two years, along with advice I read or received from mentors, to craft this post.
- It’s all about the fit. It’s hard to remember that when you get a call after three interviews and several days and hours spent traveling and on campus that the school decided to pass on your candidacy. Just remember that that’s what we tell our families and students when they apply to that next step after your institution, and it’s as true for you now as it is for them.
- Talking about fit, know your fit! Would you like to lead an elementary school, a K-12, day or boarding, single-sex or coed, religious or secular? How about geography, size of school, etc.? The variations are numerous and it’s important that you know your comfort level and limit your choices accordingly. Saying no to schools outside your “fit zone” is just as important as saying yes.
- Don’t take it personally. Also really difficult advice to impart but I hope that I had heard more of it. A head search that you are really excited about will leave you and, possibly your family, drained by the end. You will have invested a lot of time and mental, emotional, and physical energy to prove that you are the best candidate for the job; the school will also have invested the same in you and it’s difficult to not leave each visit feeling good about your chances. You are putting your best foot forward, as is the school, and everyone wants to make it work even if there can only be one standing at the end. This advice is also pertinent regardless of whether you get the job or not. If you don’t, learn what you can about how you did and where you or your experience fell short of the school’s expectations, and move on to the next one. If you do get the job, celebrate but don’t let it go to your head. This is also going to be useful on those difficult days when it seems you can do nothing right or please anyone. Don’t take it personally.
- Know the search consultants and let them know you. Some of the good ones I had the privilege to work with include Educators Collaborative, Resource Group 175, Dick Jung, and Carney Sandoe. I made sure that I spent time on the phone with these consultants and shared as much as possible with them about me, both professional and personal attributes, so that they could guide me towards schools that would be a good fit.
- Find a mentor. I have been fortunate to have many such mentors and supporters along the way, from former heads to current heads, and other administrators and educators in national or regional associations who know independent schools and can serve as a reference or recommend me to consultants. According to former heads who now work at Carney Sandoe, “The guidance of a leader who understands first-hand the pluses and pitfalls of Headship could make a big difference in your career. Find someone you trust who can share his or her experiences with you and help guide you.”
- Similar to #5, aspiring heads should shop for heads, not schools or titles. It’s very easy to let the reputation of a school or the glamour of a title attract one to the wrong or an okay fit. Instead, shop for a head you can learn from, who will be supportive of your aspirations and help you develop a leadership roadmap. Great heads develop leaders at all levels in their organization and demonstrate inclusivity in their communications and decision-making. Are you growing as a leader in your current school? Do you get informal and formal feedback from your supervisor/head? Are you included in decision-making? A head’s reality is different from the reality of virtually everyone else at school, and any window into the head’s job will help you learn what it means to hold the top position. It can also give you a preview into your head’s thought process and the behind-the-scenes look into how decisions are made. (There’s no one way, of course, to making decisions, and the process will depend a lot on the school, circumstances, head’s personality, experience, and leadership style, however the trailer will help when you are in that position.)
- Connect, connect, connect. Attend NAIS institutes and conferences, take the opportunity to go on accreditation visiting teams, and seek out school leaders you may know of or have heard of, even if they don’t know you. Reading blogs (my two go-tos in currently: 21k12blog.net and The Learning Pond) by school administrators, the Harvard Business Review, and subscribing to The Head’s Letter are also ways to connect across traditional and social media and develop one’s personal leadership network.
- Heads who lead schools in the 21st century must learn to embrace 21st century technologies and their potential to transform teaching and learning. I found it very helpful in the search process to be a producer of social media too, and referred search committees to my blog, Twitter, and Facebook pages where I regularly share my views on the current landscape of education.
- Search committees tend to prioritize experience over potential. Independent schools are risk-averse institutions, and experience is easier to assess than potential. Combine those two factors, and you can understand the search committee’s bias to favor sitting heads over aspiring heads. Of course, this isn’t always the case and many aspiring heads do make it, but the odds are stacked against them. One way to claim experience is chairing committees, task forces, and other such leadership opportunities as they arise at your school. Carney Sandoe’s cadre of former heads shares, “Though the specific strengths desired by one school or another for their next Head can vary, every school needs a Head who is a strong leader of people. Seek out a leadership role in whatever capacity you are able.”
- Success builds success. Search committees want to hear about your successes as a teacher leader or administrator. Have you spearheaded the design or implementation of a strategic initiative? How did you overcome any apathy or resistance at your school? What was the desired outcome and did you achieve it? I had the good fortune to chair several committees and task forces, ranging from strategic planning to curriculum and anti-bullying initiatives. The success of each process helped tremendously during the interviews as I shared not only my vision and leadership, but my ability to create buy-in, empower faculty and parents, and ultimately, deliver results. Lots of aspiring leaders pad their resumes with stories of committees, volunteer opportunities, leadership workshops and institutes, but only success builds success.
- #10 is true for institutions as well. It was very tempting for me to find schools in crisis or with notable challenges for my first headship, however, as more than one mentor and consultant told me, “you want your first headship to be a success.” Then, be setup for success by choosing a school that is already successful. (Don’t worry: there are always opportunities for growth, but a school in crisis has very little time and patience for you to establish your leadership and the trust you will need from the community to move the school forward.)
- Be your authentic self – professionally and personally. Yours and your family’s personal comfort with the school and surrounding communities is as important to your success as head of school, as your professional background and experience will prove. I didn’t realize this key point until much later in the process and I could compare my experience at The Children’s School (TCS) against that of another. It only became clear after my finalist visit to TCS that I decided to withdraw my candidacy from this other school. I could be my full authentic self at TCS. It was only amongst them that I felt celebrated for all of the experiences I bring to the table, where I could engage in difficult conversations respectfully with Board members and faculty, where I could give respect and receive it in equal measure.
- The whole process is like a stereotypical arranged marriage: you and your potential match have to make a decision based on a couple of phone or Skype calls and two to three dates. It sounds extremely rushed and it kind of is, but if both parties follow #12, then the chances of making the right decision are really good. Only time will tell whether it will turn out to be a great marriage.
I wish you all the best and hope that this post proves useful to you as you prepare for your searches and interviews. Feel free to share your lessons and experiences in the comments, or just with me via email.
UPDATE: After recent conversations with friends and colleagues, many of them who are heads or aspiring heads themselves, I would like to add #14 to my list above.
I have been a member of the NAIS Summer Diversity Institute (SDI) faculty for six years now. The attached presentation represents the ideas and experiences of many mentors, educators, and organizational management books, and as such is simply my attempt to present to the SDI participants tools and strategies they can take back to their institutions as agents of change.
(Note: This year I presented alone, however for the last three years, I have co-presented this workshop with a friend and mentor, Tony Featherston, incoming head of school at The Town School.)
Today is day 2 of the NAIS Summer Diversity Institute (SDI). At the opening session yesterday, Jay introduced the faculty as one of the most functional groups he has worked with. What defines the functionality of a group or a team? At SDI, we build community intentionally and daily. Relationships extend beyond the professional and into the personal realm. Trust and respect are first given by the leaders to the rest of us on the faculty. Every voice is respected, the process allows for feedback, and decisions are explained. Perhaps, what really makes us a functional group is that all of the above allows us to be our authentic selves. I don’t need to pretend or put on a mask or keep secrets from any of the SDI faculty. You are accepted before you even join the team.
Over several years now of doing diversity work in independent schools, I have come to realize that ultimately, Jay’s remark about the faculty and the purpose of diversity work are closely intertwined: both allow people to be their authentic selves, and when you can be authentic, you feel safe and more willing to take risks, share your questions and experiences without the burden of judgement or rejection by the group. Education begins and ends with authenticity, and if not, then our best intentions and actions in other areas will fall short of our goals. Yes, race/ethnicity, religion, class, socioeconomic, age, ability, body image, sexual orientation, gender, and so on are parts of diversity work, but they are details when looked at through the lens of allowing our students and faculty and families to be their full authentic selves. Imagine how the barriers to change and to difficult conversations would fall down when schools build such a community daily and with intention behind every action. Imagine!
Starting another session as a facilitator (my sixth!) this week at the NAIS Summer Diversity Institute (SDI). We have 74 participants coming this year – more than the 68 NAIS generally caps it at – with another 12 on the wait list! I have often said to my colleagues back at school and elsewhere that this institute is the best professional development I do for myself each year. Although I’m a facilitator here and present a three-hour workshop every day in addition to facilitating other small group sessions in the afternoon and evening, I take back with me as much about building inclusive communities in our schools as I hope I share in my workshop with the participants.
Independent schools are by definition exclusive. A selective admissions process coupled with a high tuition cost for entry requires intentional and thoughtful leadership to build an inclusive policy and practice. This year’s SDI theme is TRANSFORMATION, and having gone through this process now for six years – one as a participant and five as a facilitator – I can personally vouch for the theme. SDI is unlike any other professional development because it affects and impacts the intellectual, social, and emotional parts of us every day, and this process and the scheduling as such is just as intentional because diversity is arguably more personal than professional. Unless we first recognize and then own our privileges and the powers associated with them, we cannot engage and serve as allies to those less privileged or powerful than us. Similarly, we cannot allow others to engage us in areas where we lack power or privilege unless we are sufficiently informed and reflective about ourselves.
Ultimately, the week ends with the participants and facilitators as one big happy family – no, really! I’m not being facetious here or sappy either. Individual lives are transformed, and therefore participants are ready to go back to school rich with knowledge, skills, strategies and resources, and most importantly, the sense to affect and lead change around diversity and inclusion back in their respective institutions. The one big happy family finds ways through email, Facebook, and so on to keep in touch and lean on and vent to one another as the year goes on and successes and challenges abound.
The SDI faculty – a group of ten terrific educators and even more fantastic individuals – is my work family, and although we get together for only a few days in the year, I lean on them personally and professionally than any other friends I know. So here’s to the faculty and to the 2012 participants, and to another great week ahead as we seek again to transform lives and institutions!
The Taft School Campus – site for SDI 2012
I gave this presentation last Wednesday to the ACDS Board of Trustees on the changing educational landscape, and how independent schools must innovate more to best prepare their students for the 21st century. NAIS and Pat Bassett’s presentation at the 2012 Annual Conference provides the basis for much of the content surrounding 21st century schools, and I have added my own thoughts and tried to give context to his ideas.
The world has changed, and schools must now match their rhetoric and understanding of this with action. We must, as I say in one of the slides, redefine what learning is in the 21st century, what we value, and how we assess. We must also address the most important question of all: Why should families continue paying $20,000 plus per year for an education that is increasingly moving online and much of it for free?!
As the Assistant Head of School, I consider myself to be in the enviable position of working on a variety of strategic curricular initiatives simultaneously with a variety of people connected to our school. This also requires that I keep up with educational trends, journals, and any other literature published on the web, Twitter, or the blogosphere on an almost daily basis. It is difficult to parse through all of this information at once, much less make sense of how it might apply to my school and existing projects here. Yet, leadership requires the ability to both look ahead to the horizon while keeping one’s hands firmly on the wheel and feet planted on the deck, and thus steer through calm and stormy weather with the same even-handed and predictable approach.
This time I have spent since last December on developing my personal/professional learning network (PLN) has been tremendous and served to further my growth as an educator and as an administrator in ways that no conference or workshop could have. Indeed, I have shared and even led a Twitter How-to Session for Administrators at my school, and plan to offer one for the teachers soon. This PLN has also helped me unify my vision of the various strategic initiatives we have undertaken at Alexandria Country Day School since the 2010-2011 school year under the 21st Century Skills umbrella. However, this topic is almost too broad, and I have been thinking off and on about where to now take this conversation and plant it firmly in the ground with our teachers, parents, and the Board. The recent NAIS Annual Conference was helpful in establishing some next steps, and in a previous post, I shared the ten items Pat Bassett, President of NAIS, shared in his opening remarks.
The way I see it now, this same approach that has helped me professionally is where we begin the conversation around 21st Century Skills for all of our teachers – help them develop their own PLNs first so they can see and learn firsthand from the human and electronic resources available instantly at their desks, or for those with a web-enabled phone, in their pockets!
If we wish our students to be connected learners, it behooves us then that we model the same outcome by first becoming connected ourselves! This realization came as an epiphany to me, although it may seem obvious to many of you. Please contact me if you or your school has developed a professional growth plan to help your teachers develop a PLN.