Editor, The NAIS Head Search Handbook, second edition

NAIS Head Search Handbook

Editor, The NAIS Head Search Handbook, second edition

Help your board and search committee master the process of finding the best new leader for your school. This updated guide covers all the crucial steps, from thinking deeply about your school’s needs to smoothing the transition between your departing head and your new one. Written by experienced educators and search professionals, it considers the topic from the unique perspective of independent schools.

Purchase The NAIS Head Search Handbook, second edition at the NAIS Store.

Leadership Lessons: Résumé-Building for Aspiring Heads

“I think I’d like to become a head.” The moment of realization arrives for many people in their 30s, often after several years of teaching have led to a successful administrative post. For others, it’s later, or—for the truly ambitious—earlier. The challenge for “more” calls—more responsibility, more impact, more investment in school life. It’s the opportunity to drive conversation and develop strategy and vision for a whole school, to get beyond a silo and see from the bird’s-eye. No matter when the moment strikes, it’s the beginning of a larger process to understand yourself as a leader and position your candidacy to land a job as school head.  

One of the key steps in this process can often be overlooked: tailoring a résumé for head searches. The document is an inherent example of leadership, in that it shows how individuals communicate, present, and think. The temptation may be to simply submit the material that won a current job. An existing résumé can form the basis, but it’s important to present as a ready head, not merely a successful administrator. 

The first step in the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads is a review of submission materials. Frequently, the conversation between fellows and mentors turns to the fundamental uniqueness of the head’s job—and how to present as a promising rising star, ready to tackle the increasing demands of the next job. We talk about why headship may be a good match for an aspiring leader—and then how to capture that spirit on paper for a search committee.

Part of readiness for headship is to know yourself as a leader: to understand what you bring to the table and why a school would hire you. What are the problems your outlook and skills can solve? Presenting in an authentic manner is critical to a committee understanding the candidate, and the résumé should reflect the real person, not a manipulated substitute or a thoughtless summary. Résumés of candidates who “just feel ready for the next step” often come across as entitled and “less than” when compared with candidates whose documents express leadership promise. That makes it important for the résumé to present a version of self that is thoughtful and ultimately supported by the actual product. 

Think Impact

Now is the time to take stock of what your impact has been. That’s because it indicates what your impact—as the candidate—will be. How would your schools be different if you had not worked there? What would students not have learned if you had not been part of their lives? What would have been not communicated or who would have been disengaged, if not for your work? 

The traditional résumé will list that an administrator has been in a post for a certain period and then list some impressive key bullets from the job description. Are we surprised that the admission director was responsible for leading the interview process for prospective students? That the upper school director supervised the divisional discipline process? That the associate head led the implementation of a new academic program? These types of descriptors articulate what it is to do a particular job. In considering a head, committees need to see how candidates used their responsibilities as tools to have an impact.

Core Competencies 

A growing trend in résumés is to open with a candidate summary that reveals core competencies. While not for everyone, the approach transforms the résumé from a work history summary into a statement of who the individual is as a worker or leader. Doing so helps give the reader an answer key to the reading they’ll do throughout the document. Carefully aligned descriptions of various positions with the opening candidate summary will read as good proof—and what can be expected after hiring.

There are many ways to present core competencies, with proven systems and structures to articulate them. One way is to self-identify strengths and use those as descriptors, possibly mirroring the school’s position profile as a language source. Using one of the many self-reflective leadership profiling programs can help candidates speak in language known to the hiring group. Among the most helpful: Korn Ferry’s Leadership Architect, Gallup’s Strengthsfinder, Marcus Buckingham’s StandOut. (Using these tools can also help you identify the jobs in which you might be most successful, thereby profiling the profilers.)

The committees have all profiled the job, either scientifically or anecdotally. A candidate summary presents an opportunity to do some of the work for them. Candidates who put themselves out there at the top of the résumé give hiring leaders something to clearly match to their rubric.

Track Record 

In the 2018 NAIS Head Search Handbook, Jane Armstrong points out that it’s essential for search committees to invest time and energy “immersing themselves in understanding the candidates’ track records.” You can give them a head start by building a résumé that demonstrates your track record.

As you think of your core competencies, experiences, and impact, you should seek to understand the trend lines of your career. Once the impact of each job is identified, ask, What are the positive commonalities between each job or role?  The answer will help you identify a track record. Does each project you undertake conclude with more people engaged than when you began? Do they maximize school resources for strategic gain?

Moreover, a strong track record can be an equalizer among résumés that are often read with the unconscious bias of people trying to quickly separate résumés into “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” piles.

Education First? 

One of the most frequent questions about head of school résumés is where to put your educational record. Traditionally, it goes up top. Consulting firm Educational Directions points out, “You’re an aspiring educational leader. Put education first.” Another philosophy states that putting “education” first can play into bias, not always in advantageous ways. 

If placed at the beginning, it’s a reader’s first impression and the lens through which they read the résumé. If placed at the end, the information behaves like a period at the end of a sentence: “Here’s where it all started and what formed me academically.”

There’s also the question of what education should be included. In short, this section should be reserved for degrees completed. Listing degrees not yet conferred should only be with the “candidate” indicator to show it’s in process and incomplete.

Nondegree programs and professional development programs should be a separate section. If you attended an independent school, including the name of the school and “High School Diploma” for the degree earned shows that you’re aware of the independent school student experience and general independent school culture.

Leadership Verbs 

Throughout our careers and in various job searches, most of us have probably been taught the technique of peppering the résumé with “action verbs” that show we’ve demonstrated leadership and been rewarded with responsibility. These words catch the eye of hiring leaders and signal that we can be taken seriously. They demonstrate our ability to excel in day-to-day operations focused on the now. However, a head search committee is looking for someone future-focused, who envisions, strategizes, and delivers results. 

If we think of search committee members boasting at a cocktail party about the new hire, what do we imagine they say? That they’re excited because the new head supervised 30 people? That they coordinated something? Unlikely. More powerfully, they will be excited by the leaderly impact the new head has had on past communities. They’ll be more excited to share that the new hire really transformed the learning environment, raised X amount of dollars, or built a program that increased enrollment. The same verbs that caught hiring leaders’ eyes while climbing to a core administrative position are assumed as basics in a head search. After all, heads who merely supervise, analyze, manage, or coordinate don’t necessarily get to the level of envisioning, strategizing, and building alliances. Show your leadership capacity by making impact verbs a theme—without being obsequious and contrived, of course (see “The Right Words” at left).

The résumé is an early step on the path to headship and is a primary vehicle for your candidacy. Whether in the search committees’ initial paper review to choose semi-finalists or the parent forum on the last day of a school visit, the résumé will form their basis of opinion. Show them from the start that you’re ready to be a head.


The Right Words

To best capture their career impact, aspiring heads should consider using these leadership verbs in their résumés.

  • Build
  • Collaborate
  • Create
  • Cultivate
  • Deliver
  • Drive
  • Engage
  • Envision
  • Generate
  • Improve
  • Include
  • Innovate
  • Inspire
  • Lead
  • Optimize
  • Plan
  • Resolve
  • Solve
  • Strategize
  • Transform

Originally Published in Independent School Magazine. By Vince Watchorn

Boardroom: Building Relationships During the Head Search

The head search has an obvious function: to find the new head. When seen in a larger, more strategic context, however, the process can achieve much more. Imagine finding a new head and creating a firm foundation for the future, built on a strong partnership between the board and the head. 

In compiling the latest edition of the NAIS Head Search Handbook, one of my chief goals was to set the head search in the context of strategic school improvement—including stressing the importance of the board–head partnership. In serving schools as both trustee and head of school, I’ve learned ways to help build the board–head partnership from the start of the search.

The Succession Plan

The comment that the chair–head relationship is like a marriage is meant to be comical, but the joke is based in a familiar truth. Search consultant and former school head Tony Featherston points out that the relationship “benefits from trust, open communication, some division of labor, and shared ownership—and the primary beneficiaries are the children.” 

As a result, the change in board chair is among the most disruptive factors a head can face. That makes it a force that is best managed when predictable and smooth. As head candidates enter the search and begin learning about their potential new school, they are surely wondering, “How long will I be working with this chair?” or “Who will be my next partner?”

Answering these questions helps a head anticipate a critically important change—maybe even building intentional transition into the process. As prospective heads interview and explore the position, the person they are getting to know the best is the search chair. That connection is often a significant factor in attracting the candidate and school to each other. 

Therefore, an appealing practice is to align board chair succession and the new head to the same start date. In other instances, the chair may be plotted to be in place for the foreseeable future. Sometimes a current chair will want to do “just one more year,” usually “to transition the new head” into the school. This indeed can be helpful, but it also bakes in a major disruption early in the tenure. It’s important to be clear to potential heads about what they can expect in the partnership.

Whatever the reality, schools thoughtful enough to plan their upcoming board chair transition—and even to envision their intent for the next one—reap the benefits of being able to communicate stability and predictability to potential heads. That, in turn, gives both the new head and the board confidence in what to anticipate and opportunities for thoughtful transition—with the school as the ultimate victor.  

A State of Transition

Transition means change. And change means discomfort and potential missteps. A well-established transition committee provides an ideal opportunity for planning, orientation, and reflection. Including the committee as part of the full search timeline from the beginning can help strengthen the board–head partnership.

The board gains in its relationship with the new head if it can identify by the finalist stage that there will be a transition team and who its leader will be. Some schools will want the new head to chair the transition, acclimating people to the new leadership in the time between hire and arrival. Others may opt for a search committee member, someone who has been watching the whole process and understands what’s necessary to effectively bring the new head into their role. 

On the volunteer side, the transition chair is then considering communication opportunities, team membership, and transition activities throughout the search process. This allows for an agenda that is intentional and has a high degree of predictability after the hire is made. For the finalists being interviewed, it demonstrates that the board has been deeply thoughtful and removes any guessing game about what will happen after the hire. An early jump on transition committee leadership relaxes the agenda and gives more opportunity for communication and relationship-building. Being able to say something like, “If you’re the successful candidate, you and Sally will be co-chairing the search committee,” sets an early tone that the board is serious about working in partnership with its new head and about assuring success.

All in the Agreement

The contract negotiation is one of the first signals of what the board–head relationship will be and one of the earliest opportunities to establish trust between the parties. No matter how much good planning and strong relationship-building has gone into the search and transition, it can falter with petty bickering, hard-nosed tactics, or surprises in the negotiation. Boards can approach the work in advance, with open communication throughout the process.

Benchmark a compensation range from the start. It’s important to know what aisle a search committee should be shopping in. Discretely gathering salary data for area heads, particularly at competitor and comparator schools, helps a board understand the immediate market. Reviewing farther afield by region, school type, and financial position gives broader context. With this framework in mind, the board can focus its search on appropriate candidates. The board can always consider a stretch for an outlier down the road, if necessary.

Discuss whether there are any special compensation considerations. Some candidates have circumstances or preferences to be considered as part of a compensation package, and it’s important for boards to understand what these might be. Moving expenses, education assistance, child care, club memberships, off-campus housing, or executive coaching are all factors that might be relevant. It’s helpful to anticipate and learn about these as part of the finalist process.

Use a term sheet to smooth the negotiation. A summary of key terms, as opposed to a full contract, provides a helpful start to an agreement. Some schools present this only to the nominee once offered; others will present the sheet to all finalist candidates once the interview has concluded, to help prepare a “yes” at the time of offer. Developed with the school’s legal counsel, the term sheet should include salary and benefits, deferred compensation, duration, renewal or extension terms, terms of separation by resignation or termination without cause, and noncompete and other professional obligations clauses.

Planning these steps early in the process helps mitigate the risk of setting the wrong tone in the earliest days of headship or losing a candidate in the last stage of the search. After a respectful negotiation, the board and head are poised to build on a strong foundation of trust.

Priorities Pass

An accurate, candid needs-assessment made in advance of the search benefits the school, the board, and the candidates. Thinking of mission, gathering input, and understanding the school in its broader context helps set a pathway to a data-driven, new-leader profile. Once complete, the position profile helps identify, recruit, and measure candidates on the way to choosing the right fit.

This effective work should not end with the selection of a new leader, however. The assessment should be extrapolated to another step: dictating early priorities for the new leader. Too often, the head and chair sit down to discuss goals for year one after the new head has started. Surely there are goal-worthy topics to discuss, but the school’s needs-assessment and any extant strategic plan should already articulate what matters most. These can be used to set goals for as many as two or three years, reflecting the more realistic length of the true transition period. 

Why lose sight of these important institutional planning and assessment factors just because the new head has begun their tenure? A deep understanding of institutional needs provides a hull to strengthen continuity in transition. With that continuity comes clarity of purpose, momentum, and success in a strategic context. The head has plenty of opportunity to put their own fingerprints on the school, and doing so in an institutionally established context provides a helpful frame. 

Search Success

A head search will find a head. Is that enough? The board–head partnership can be bolstered as it is being built. If approached in a strategic context that considers the institutional follow-through as much as the transactional hire, the search process will provide other strategic gain. Acting on these takeaways will increase predictability and expectation in a time of change. In turn, the board and the head will be on the same page well before day one. A strong partnership will have begun!


Go Deeper

Want more insights and information about critical governance and leadership issues? Check out The Trustee Table, NAIS’s lastest podcast, which is for trustees, board chairs, and school administrators. Each episode includes a discussion on a specific topic or challenge in independent schools. Rate, review, and subscribe to hear a new episode each month

Originally published in Independent School Magazine. By Vince Watchorn

Giving Students Their School Day

Opportunities, not obligations. That is how Providence Country Day School (Rhode Island) characterizes its daily one-hour “Community Time.” The block, from 9:25 to 10:25 a.m., is used chiefly for students to partake in activities of their own making — as a daily lesson in the value of students taking charge of their own education. On any given day, you’ll see them engaged in a wide variety of activities during this hour — in student-driven clubs, in one-on-one tutorials with teachers, in special programs, in self-directed learning, and, equally important, in open-ended socializing.

For many adults and students in the school, it has become the favorite hour of the day. As an exercise in rethinking the structure of the school day, the creation of Community Time also connects with the research on how students develop habits for lifelong learning.

Restructuring Time
When our school embarked on a new schedule design in 2012, we didn’t just want it to work. We wanted it to work well for the students. Paramount in our thinking was architecture that helped capture the current research about how students might thrive in school settings. The focus was on developing both the daily framework and a schedule that would enable student motivation and enthusiasm for their school experience.

Dan’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2009), provided the philosophical context for our new schedule, while scheduling guru Roxanne Higgins, president of Independent School Management, informed the practicality of what works and doesn’t. Throughout the process, we also focused on “variety” and “excitement about learning” as guiding priorities.

Until we implemented the new schedule in 2013, the school was accustomed to a straightforward, tried-and-true traditional schedule that was familiar and constant. But it was not conducive to building variety and maximizing human relationships in a vigorous educational atmosphere. In the old schedule, every class was offered at the same time every day, every day of the week, with a 20-minute break for clubs, activities, and assemblies. Students’ free periods were spotty; for each student, there might be only one or two peers with the same period free. This minimized collaborative opportunities, social interactions, and full-community availability to all students. Sometimes teachers couldn’t find adequate time for extra work with a particular student because their free periods conflicted. As a result, lunches were often sacrificed and work hours extended.

In the new schedule, a suite of features addresses these concerns. Community Time, one of the new schedule’s key features, grew largely
out of the desire to coalesce students’ free periods for group time and provide better access to teachers. But more important than boosting productivity, the shared open hour is designed to make education more meaningful and personal.

A one-hour Community Time — about 15 percent of the day by minutecount
— is admittedly a large portion to dedicate to non-classroom pursuits. We are committed to it, however, because we believe that a quality education
is not merely about structured learning in the classroom. Many lessons and discoveries can — and do — emerge in an hour of relatively formless, student-driven time. Critics may worry that during this hour the students’ time is too unstructured, that the students’ minds are diverted from their studies and that they are too focused on their own priorities or simply being with each other on social terms. For us, however, that is precisely the point. Community Time is about serendipitous learning, about supporting social and emotional growth through a mix of predictable activities. It’s about understanding the value of — and the possibilities in — the “blank page.” That is why, during the hour, community obligations are scant and independent opportunities abound.

Each session of Community Time usually begins with something planned for all students, such as assembly or advisor time. These gatherings generally last about 20 minutes. Guest speakers or special assemblies can run longer, but they are not scheduled more than once a month. When
the planned business concludes, students are free to pursue social time,
self-guided study, private tutoring, or other activities. Student-led clubs take up as much as the entire block one day a week. By leading clubs of their own invention, students learn about organizing and gain confidence to deliver on their ideas. Weekly advisor time and school assembly give the entire community time to develop school culture or reflect on our world.

Special talents and interests are explored during Community Time. Students can also use Community Time to present a “demonstration”
that offers an enrichment activity for their peers. Likewise, teachers may
offer sessions on special topics that are optional for students to attend. We’ve seen student demonstrations in fencing, Irish step dancing, and drone piloting. A math teacher offered a one-time session on cryptography; our maintenance crew taught interested students how to change a flat tire.
Students attended only if they found the topic compelling and of interest.
In another instance, a photography teacher could actually say “yes” when
students asked to extend their class time to enable an expedition to Narragansett Bay for some seascape photography in breathtaking surroundings.

Leveraging Lifelong Learning
Many independent schools share the goal of creating lifelong learners, but
educators also recognize that this worthy goal is not easily realized. Research indicates that Community Time might contribute in two ways.

First, educators know well this foundational fact from the learning sciences: practice matters.1 If we really want students to be lifelong learners, we must scaffold that attitude and the skills that go with it. We must give
students practice in the idea that their intellectual interests can and should
be taken seriously, and we must give them practice in using the tools that
satisfy those interests in the absence of a ready-made curriculum or a set of required tasks. Community Time offers that practice — that essential
habit of mind.

Second, the very existence of Community Time in the schedule sends an important implicit message to students: “We, your teachers, don’t set the
agenda for everything that’s important to learn. Yes, by virtue of our experience, we are good guides to what is worth knowing. But it’s within your abilities to discover things worth knowing, to pursue them, and to learn about them.” This sacrosanct hour each morning is a symbol of the importance we attribute to this personal search. The uses to which this hour may be put also constitute a rule that teachers and students
must respect; it’s tempting for adults to use this time for mandatory test
reviews, rehearsals, or supplemental coursework, but those practices are
prohibited, except in essential onetime sessions that are still student
centered.

Research shows that symbols and rules are important to institutional
cultures2: they broadcast silent messages about what the community holds
important. Research also shows that, over time, individuals internalize institutional culture.3 We hope and expect that our students will learn the value of setting aside time each day to discover and pursue an intellectual interest, even though it may not contribute to a grade or earn a reward.

It is for these reasons that the temptation to provide greater structure to Community Time is vehemently resisted. It is easy to see the hour —
in the heart of the morning — as the answer to plentiful scheduling challenges, but overburdening the time would negate its intent. The freedom of the hour is too important. It creates an essential opportunity for student driven programming, giving the students their favorite time of day for as much self-direction as possible and helping us all pursue a reflective experience rather than the blindly competitive rigor sometimes associated with high achievement.

Creating Social Engagement

Community Time also has a social element. Everyone is available at once —
including teachers. Finding time with people is easy. There is no jockeying
to identify mutual free periods for a needed get-together nor teenage angst
over lacking common free periods with one’s best friends.

Community Time, in other words, makes the school experience valuable
to the students. It adds meaning to their day and helps provide calmness
and confidence to their lives. Even socializing helps motivate academic
engagement. One student pointed out, “I know if my homework isn’t finished, I won’t be able to see my friends at community time, so I make sure it gets done ahead of time.” Another notes, “I just feel less stressed going into my next couple classes, so I can pay better attention.”

t may seem surprising that we thought it important to put time in
the schedule to socialize. That would seem to be the one activity students
would be sure they get to on their own. Again we were guided by research. It’s long been known that recess improves attention and learning. People assume that the benefit accrues from physical exercise, and that’s part of it4, but kids who don’t run around benefit, too, as do students too old for playground games.5 For them, the benefit may come from a sort of quieting of the mind. Research from the last decade shows that the brain has two attention systems.6 One directs attention outward, and would be engaged during classes, or video gaming, or any activity that calls for attention to the outside world. The other directs attention inward. It’s active when we think
about ourselves, our relationships, our past, our futures, when we are able to be more contemplative.

These two attentions systems are linked in a curious way. Only one is in
charge at any given time — when one flips on, the other necessarily turns off, like a toggle switch — yet they are mutually reinforcing. The operation of one makes the other system stronger. That explains why people who practice meditation (which exercises the inner-directed system) say they feel more alert during the day (a sign that the outer system is working well). That’s also why some schools have taken to encouraging or mandating meditation among their students. That explains why we see a benefit if students want to use a period of Community Time simply to hang out. The students learn and grow from their social time in ways they can’t in a traditional classroom setting.

Making the Shift
Transitioning from a traditional schedule to one that included Community
Time warranted serious planning and intentional communication. The team leading the process interviewed faculty individually to assure each voice was heard within our overall context, and once the new schedule was proposed there were ample opportunities to share opinions. We distributed a questionnaire to hear what problems — or enhancements — people could foresee. Three voluntary meetings with senior administrators allowed
for a deeper dive into some of those opinions and observations. All of this
communication allowed the architectural team to build a punch-list around
details, and to test various theories to see what the real impact might
be — and, in doing so, anticipate and address problems before they arose.
The extra layers of practitioner input allowed the administrative team to
plan better and understand what areas needed further philosophical or psychological explanation.

Benefits have been clear. Community Time encouraged one group of
students to call for a series of discussions about American race relations
in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and other high-profile incidents. Another group used the time to develop and propose culturally
based language changes to our dress guidelines. A student-led club interested in sneaker collecting — “The Sneakerheads” — used their time to
plan and execute a public convention on our campus that drew 40 vendors
and more than 1,000 collectors. Others simply value their Community
Time and feel ownership of it, one student even stating, “Community Time
makes it fun to come to school.”

One can never change just one thing, and for us it was essential to consider how our Community Time has affected or enabled other shifts throughout our program and culture. In a school founded on the philosophy that there should be no “sideliners” in their own education — and that sports a contemporary mission emphasizing “engaged citizenship” — Community
Time is more of a new manifestation of our educational approach than a
tectonic philosophical shift. The school has always emphasized the concept we now call “student-centeredness.” Still, Community Time has allowed us to align our practice and our principles more precisely, enabling students to
explore friendships and “quietness of mind” while also letting them develop confidence in who they are as leaders, activists, and social beings.

The practice they have gained through Community Time has contributed
in part to the success of a new, student-led Community Standards Committee in which students drive topics such as the gender-appropriateness of our dress code, raise cultural awareness around identity,
and work with the dean of students to address our more serious disciplinary matters. The success of that group, in turn, drives the administration to consider other, bolder means of teaching through experiences and developing programs that reflect the understanding of cognitive science. Ultimately, Community Time is not a final product, but a meaningful step in an ongoing effort to ensure that we are teaching in every aspect of our school day, not just in the classroom.

We have found that the schoolwide Community Time concept works well for adults and students and ties in closely with the school’s overall mission. The program captures the essence of what brain research says about what students need to be engaged in the present and to develop the habits of lifelong learning and self respect. Students love it because they get to be themselves and spend time engaged with their friends in activities that are most important to them. As educators, we find Community Time valuable for its multifaceted effect on a school’s social, academic, and cocurricular spheres. Mostly, we love that it encourages our students to take greater ownership of — and joy in — their day.

Vince Watchorn is head of school at Providence Country Day School (Rhode Island). Dan Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

Notes

  1. For a variety of perspectives and supporting research, see Anders K. Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  2. See, for example, Geert Hofstede, Bram Neuijen, Denise Daval Ohayv, and Geert Sanders, “Measuring Organizational Cultures: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study Across Twenty Cases,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 35, 1990, 286–316.
  3. Eun-Suk Lee, Tae-Youn Park, and Bonjin Koo, “Identifying Organizational Identification as a Basis for Attitudes and Behaviors: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Psychological Bulletin, 141, 2015, 1049–1080.
  4. Derek R. Becker, Megan M. McClelland, Paul Loprinzi, and Stewart G. Trost, “Physical Activity, Self-regulation, and Early Academic Achievement in Preschool Children,” Early Education & Development, 25, 2014, 56–70.
  5. Robert Murray and Catherine Ramstetter, “The Crucial Role of Recess in School,” Pediatrics, 131, 2013, 183–188.
  6. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou, and Vanessa Singh, “Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 2012, 352–364.

Originally published in Spring 2016 in Independent School. By Vince Watchorn and Dan Willingham

An Essential Partner in Our Diversity Work: Trustees

Last year’s The Head’s Letter was peppered with some inspiring and meaningful thoughts about diversity that capture well the feelings of many readers. Dennis Bisgaard, Kim Roberts, and others called our attention not only to the importance of difference in our field, but particularly the enduring racial and gender disparity in the ranks of headship. The prevalence and power of their messages underscore the urgency of this matter within our schools—not only for women and people of color, but for everyone. The call to develop diverse talent to enlarge the pipeline toward headship is a just and righteous one that must be heard.

Yet it is only the beginning of the work. Another important factor is our trustee interactions. How can we, from our head’s role, encourage our boards to think and act about diversity? It will make a difference if we do.

We want a profession that demonstrates that we’ve considered the entire talent pool in building future leaders. We want to take part in conversations that include every perspective and that challenge us to think and see things differently—to own our own histories while respecting and growing from the differing backgrounds of others. To that end, we can recruit and train and prepare a diverse population to be school senior administrators—yet we all know that until the search committees who actually hire the heads are of a similar mind, our well-intended work could well be in vain.

In our executive capacity, we have no appropriate role in selecting our successor. Yet the moral imperative for all heads that stems from the call of Bisgaard (THL, March 2015) and Roberts (THL, April 2015) is that our responsibility includes doing all we can to change the landscape our hopeful peers encounter. We must find ways to transform the ‘glass obstacle course’ into the mere sprint that we ‘traditional leaders’ (read: ‘white men’) have enjoyed for so long.

Some of us have boards that are progressive and enlightened in thinking about difference in leaderly ways. Some boards are obstinately traditional, bound to the structures and social institutions that reinforce traditional social norms. In the middle are boards comprised of well-intentioned trustees without egregious prejudices who may not have taken the opportunity to examine their own intrinsic biases or recognize their subconscious participation in cultural myths and stereotypes. None can bring anything but their own perspective to bear for the betterment of the institution (a diversity in itself that must be appreciated). All are expected to participate in conversations about school climate.

The thought context will vary depending on where a school lies on the spectrum, but in almost every case, opportunities for conversation can be found. We can:

  • educate our boards on the current discourse about diversity, equity, and justice occurring in the independent school profession—and its strategic importance in building 21st century schools
  • encourage our trustees to understand the importance of taking a sincere and broad perspective
  • work with our trustee governance committees to develop a sense of the ‘value of human difference’ over ‘tokenism’ and to consider the improvement of board diversity as a desired recruitment criterion
  • promote policies that help broaden the school’s viewpoint
  • engage them in developing an institutional diversity statement and regularly articulate how it is enacted and lived through the mission and in school culture and life.

In these ways, we develop and strengthen our own partnership by talking about inclusivity as a means toward a climate of real inclusion, not just philosophical inclusion. In so doing, we will make the schools we lead better, safer places for our students— and simultaneously help practice board members in hearing and thinking about equity in an independent school context. Although their choice of our successor is none of our business, such cognitive preparation may be a future service to our oft marginalized colleagues.

The privilege from which ‘traditional leaders’ have benefited our whole lives should force us to see the inequity our hopeful peers face as our problem, as a profession, not the special interest of marginalized groups among us. Until there is equity in hiring practices, we are all part of the problem—so we should likewise be part of the solution.

It feels sometimes like there is precious little we can do against the tide of historical mores to shape the atmosphere in which future heads will hunt for leadership positions. Our greatest impact could be in subtly ‘managing up’ by making diversity a conversation within the school’s governance structure.

Providence Country Day School, Coed, Day, enrolls 215 students in grades 6-12. Mr. Watchorn was appointed in 2011.

Originally published October 2015 in The Head’s Letter. Published by Educational Directions Incorporated

Building the All-Important Chair-Head Relationship

Many times it has been said that the most important relationship in a school is that between the board chair and the head. Too often, the commentary ends there, yet many questions flow from that position. If one agrees that this statement is true, an obvious strategic initiative is developed: Build the relationship! What, then, are the key ingredients of this chair-head relationship, and how is it developed to a tensile strength that can sustain a healthy school?

Like most strong relationships, the foundation lies in the trust that stems from authenticity, honesty, and mutual respect.

With both of us currently in our first year of our respective roles, we have been able to use the transition as an opportunity to know each other better. The board made a helpful decision to name its chair-elect as search committee chair, so we were getting to know each other when we were still in the interview process. Once the hire was made, a collaborative goal-setting process helped not only flesh out our roles but also get on the same page about the school’s general strategic trajectory, before the first day of school. After these interactions, it was just a few loose meetings with a meandering agenda — and a few more formal ones — before we started sharing a vision and understanding each other’s strengths to help us get there.

We share a belief that an essential element of a good chair/head relationship is an agreement to approach the work as a team. Here are some points we outlined at the outset of our collaboration:

Agree on Parameters. Each office holds clearly different responsibilities, and also some responsibilities where the lines become a little gray. Agreeing to these parameters ahead of time helps inform a strong, enduring partnership. When you can’t agree, the parameters provide a decision framework for how to resolve the disagreement. They set expectations and build mutual understanding of an articulated – though not punctilious – sense of boundary.

Talk Openly about Vision. In the steady current of ‘keeping each other in the loop,’ it’s easy to get caught up in details and the day-to-day – exactly where you don’t want to be. Conversations about vision keep the focus on the big picture and also help flesh out ideas before they’re ready for prime time. These discussions of shared vision nurture agreement on the bigger actions that grow from them, and build partnership around the most important steps the school will take.

Interaction in Diverse Ways. Building a strong partnership can be aided by a variety of communications. Office meetings and phone calls are likely the sine qua non, of course, but opportunities for lunch, a family dinner, or just a drink on the back porch – not to mention participation in some common interest – all expose sides of a person that help build knowledge, trust, and, in turn, partnership. Parameters can be established explicitly, or they can find themselves. One must always be honest if any personal boundary is approached. While the partnership is about the work of schools, spending time in each other’s company should be fun.

Be Honest, Be Yourself. No matter what, tell each other the trust. That means that when the trust is difficult to hear, responses must be genuine but carefully expressed; anger or disrespect in either direction can be a deterrent to open honesty the next time. A deterrent to honesty can lead to surprises, lies of omission, and a lack a clarity on institutional direction. If you are not yourself in the interactions, the relationship could eventually become forces and ineffective.

Remain Unified. In a partnership, there is a single voice. That is not to say only one person speaks, but that two people send the same message. With relational integrity, debate and vigorous exchange are welcome signals of strength – but they are private. That means that disagreements stay behind closed doors, confidences are vaulted, and that once board-relevant direction is determined, the pronoun to use is, unequivocally, ‘we’.

The interaction between a board chair and a head of school is not simply a business relationship; it is a complex organism based on respect, trust, familiarity, and collaboration. When combined, these traits can encourage a shared vision and enhanced strategic direction for a school.

Originally published in The Trustee’s Letter. By Vince Watchorn, Head of School, and Mary P Heffner, Board of Trustees, The Providence Country Day School, Providence, RI

Out of the classroom, into the world with the ‘Four Cs’

Rhode Island residency has been mine for only a few weeks, since I moved to the state in July to lead the Providence Country Day school. In that short time, I have found that moving to a new place eefreshes one’s perspective and renews even well-established personal philosophies.

Watching with these new eyes as we prepare for back-to-school exercises has underscored how much education has changed since my own 1980s school days — and how much it continues to evolve before our very eyes. The salient changes are more than the obvious presence of technological hardware or media-savvy students. They are embedded in how we teach and the skills that we expect our students to develop through their traditional subject-based curriculum.

Today’s kindergartners will be graduating from college in the 2020s and retiring in the 2060s. The rapid-fire cultural and technological change that has so far typified this century makes it difficult to imagine what the world will be like in 12 years, let alone after the middle of this century.

Yet schools are charged with preparing students for life in this world, and prepare we will. Though the core subject matter will always be important, we must also focus on the life skills required to succeed personally, socially and economically in the 21st Century.

Thought-leaders in what educators call 21st Century education — such people as Daniel Pink, Carol Dweck, Malcolm Gladwell or Dan Heath, to name a few — express how we think about teaching. They suggest we ought focus on the foundational skills that will most benefit students in the future. So 21st Century education is about fusing the traditional “Three Rs” with the emerging “Four C’s” — creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.

The question is, how do we really teach the Four C’s? Clearly they are more difficult to teach in a regimented way, and with many school systems fixated on measurable outcomes, how do we make these Four C’s a priority when they are tough to measure? When the Four C’s lead us to consider the importance of discernment, analysis, or problem-solving on a par with algebra and history, how do we ensure that we adapt our curriculum and best prepare our students?

Some curricular changes are subtle, while others are a dramatic departure from the style of education that looks “familiar” to most parents. Driven by research rather than textbooks, experience rather than memorization, the 21st Century curriculum is linked to the community — local and global. It is project-based, aimed at students participating in addressing real-world problems. Through creative teaching and the Internet, today’s students will collaborate not only with one another but also with people around the world.

Needless to say, technology plays a huge part in 21st Century learning. The latest digital and mobile technologies can transform how young people communicate, collaborate and learn — not to mention how we form personal identities through social networking. Young people have a native understanding of these technologies and are already fluent in their mastery, yet find them
largely absent from their daily education. As we work to integrate technology into our curriculum the question is not “how does this technology help me teach?” but rather “how will this help my students learn?”

Preparing students of today for the world of tomorrow is more than integrating technology into the classroom. It’s about changing the classroom itself. No longer is the classroom to be defined
by four walls, rows of desks and a chalk board. Engaging students in the activities of their community, using the classroom as the nexus — rather than the static location — of learning makes course work more relevant and helps embed the Four C’s in learning.

Even getting outside can help students embrace 21st Century ideas. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average 8-18-year-old American now spends more than 53 hours a week using “entertainment media,” up from 44 hours just over five years ago. And when children do go outside, they are likely to participate in a sport or some other structured activity.

The result, says “Last Child in the Woods” author Richard Louv, is that kids are out of touch with Mother Earth. Citing an epidemic of “Nature Deficit Disorder,” Louv shows how being outside for unstructured play or scientific exploration heightens connections to reality; and he explains how understanding ecology leads to understanding the connections between people and communities.

Whether indoors or out, through technology or through organic interpersonal connections, we now teach an audience that expects to connect — an audience that hungers to be creative, to collaborate, to think critically and to communicate.

As educators embark upon a new school year, the evolution of education facing us is undeniable. The fundamentals are important; what we teach students to do with them is equally so. It is our duty to prepare them not for our pasts, but for their futures.

Originally published September 5, 2011 in The Providence Journal. Vince Watchorn is headmaster of Providence Country Day School, in East Providence.