Independent school Boards have SO much to consider right now as we begin the 2020-2021 school year. Annual retreats and beginning of the year Board meetings will certainly include time to discuss ongoing responses to the pandemic as well as consideration of topics such as social justice, equity and inclusivity, financial sustainability, etc. In addition to focusing on responses to these immediate needs, it is also important to engage Board members in reflection about your processes and practices to ensure that you are working together in the most effective ways. An annual Board retreat is an ideal time to engage in such reflections. Asking well-crafted questions will lead to fruitful conversations. Here are four broad topics that can be considered through small and large group activities to develop shared understandings and allow your Board to more effectively and efficiently work toward annual goals.
A. Are we using effective processes to make the best decisions?
Rationale: While Boards may consider the method of making decisions (Roberts Rules, consensus, etc.), they rarely consider the process for making decisions. This typically leads to bias and ultimately, poor decisions. Questions you could consider include:
B. Are our meetings as effective as they can be?
Rationale: The effectiveness of many Boards is hindered by their own practices. Meetings that are insufficiently organized and prepared for, poorly facilitated, and/or do not result in actionable outcomes are unfortunately common. Establishing thoughtful, researched, and disciplined practices enables Boards to do their best work, engage in meaningful and generative conversations, and arrive at productive decisions.
C. Do we regularly engage in generative thinking to establish and test where we need to go as an organization- before we engage in strategic thinking?
Rationale: Boards typically only spend time on “visioning” during major endeavors (accreditation, strategic planning, Head transition). Regular consideration of factors that impact your vision will not only clarify the strategies you need to take to achieve that vision, it will help all members of your Board understand, “get on the same page,” and support the vision.
D. Are we serving our Head of School as a proactive, supportive, and transparent employer?
Rationale: The Head-Board relationship in independent schools is unique and unusual, in that the Head (employee) has considerable influence on the Board and typically knows far more about the “business” of the organization than the Board. The relationship between the Board and the Head is a critical one, and needs to be open, honest, transparent, and collaborative. The Board needs to consider how it fulfills its role as “employer” as well as collaborator with the Head to ensure the Head can be as effective as possible.
In times of crisis, it is very easy to focus solely on the immediate situation. Nonetheless, independent school Boards need to continuously remember their responsibility for the long-term viability of their school, even as they respond to current needs. Ensuring that the Board operates at its most effective and efficient will enable it to best fulfill both immediate and long-term responsibilities.
A recent email from a Head of School included the line “I haven’t had much of a summer.” I’ve heard from many Heads of their long days, working weekends, and sleepless nights- worrying about so many issues confronting their communities as we all get ready to begin the school year. It has been a strange and uncomfortable experience- and not the restful, rejuvenating summertime that Heads desperately need!
So I’ve been thinking about what Heads of Schools can do to maintain wellness, preserve their sanity, and move through the fall with mental and physical health. With their reality being packed schedules and all kinds of interruptions, Heads need wellness strategies that are quick, flexible, and adaptable.
Boards members also need to be focused on Head well-being to ensure their Head can be the most effective leader as possible. Board members should talk with their Head of School about what they need, and when possible, and can support by paying for these strategies! When I was a Head of School, one of the most thoughtful gifts my Board gave to me was a gift certificate for a day at the spa. It recognized my need for stress reduction and self-care and was something I could fit into my own schedule. Boards need to be thinking about what would be most beneficial for their own school leaders.
Here are five wellness practices that have been shown to be effective-I welcome ideas for others!!
2. Maintain your exercise routine! This one is up to you to determine- as exercise is so individualized.
3. Become even more organized. Heads have to be organized to accomplish even half of what is on their to-do lists. In my experience, everyone can learn and use new strategies for daily time, work, and energy organization.
4. Work with a leadership coach. Being a Head of School can be lonely, overwhelming, and isolating (even as you are surrounded by people!). Engaging with an unbiased and experienced person who can help you 1) examine your school’s situation from a different perspective, 2) clarify your personal and professional goals, and 3) strategize problems and solutions, can lead to clarity and peace of mind.
5. Take time for more extensive self-care. This is also very individualized. What feels caring and rejuvenating to you? Research is very clear that when we disconnect from our daily issues, rest our brains, and engage in non-work pursuits, we return more energized and clear-thinking. This is not indulgence, this is what will enable you to be a better Head of School. Board members- what can you offer to your Head of School? Here are some ideas (some of which will need to wait until we are no longer physically distancing- some of which can be done now!):
Heads of Schools have even more on their plates than usual right now. In order to be the most effective leader for their community, Heads need to ensure that they are physically healthy and emotionally well. This takes time and attention. Health and wellness for the Head of School needs to be a priority for both the Head and their supporting Boards.
Heads of schools have A LOT on their plates right now! They are determining how and when to bring students and faculty back into buildings, how to train teachers to effectively teach from a distance, how to better address equity, inclusion, and social justice, and how to respond to parents’ fears and concerns about health and safety and knowledge loss- all on top of the other “normal” planning they need to do over the summer. If there was ever a time the Heads of Schools need an effective, responsive Board, it is NOW.
Unfortunately, I come across many Boards that are not effective nor responsive. Most Board members want to be helpful and supportive, and yet they don’t have the knowledge or consistently engage in the practices that allow them to fully fulfill their responsibilities. I’ve talked with many Heads of Schools who like and respect their Board members, yet A) wish they were more proactive and didn’t rely so heavily on the Head to guide them, B) wish they focused less on identified problems and more on researching and developing specific strategies and scenarios to support the school, or C) wish they engaged more actively in creative and productive development activities. These Heads feel stuck because they know their Board members are working hard, and yet the school is struggling.
There is considerable evidence that good governance has a significant and positive impact on the overall success of a school. When Boards fully fulfill their governance responsibilities, schools thrive. The most effective Boards have both a high level of knowledge about Board practices and a culture of implementing those practices. Their knowledge is not based on “what they think” or what works in corporate Board rooms, but what has been demonstrated through research and practice in nonprofits and schools. Boards with high knowledge of effective practices have taken the time to learn about governance from trusted sources and hold one another accountable for consistently practicing good governance.
Here is a matrix of what I have seen regarding Board practices.
I most commonly see Boards that operate in the bottom right or top left quadrants. Boards in the bottom right quadrant have some knowledge of effective Board practices and yet don’t have a culture of implementing them. These Boards are ineffective in their ability to accomplish their responsibilities because they are not consistent and/or active. Boards in the top left quadrant are more active, yet don’t implement what is most needed. These Boards often spend time “in the weeds,” engaging in operations and don’t have the knowledge on how to effectively govern.
In order to consistently operate in the top left quadrant, strategically and productively, Boards need to know what their responsibilities are and how best to accomplish them. This takes time, effort, and practice. It requires a clear understanding of Board responsibilities and “the line” between governance and operations.
So how can Board best support Heads in times of uncertainty? Be better at governance. Here are 5 things Boards can do that will both directly support Heads and free them up to focus on operations.
We know that governance has a significant impact on the ability of organizations to operate successfully. Especially now during these uncertain times, independent schools need engaged and productive governors. The schools with the most sustainable operations have Boards that take responsibility for their own professional development and ensure that they are consistently engaging in effective governance practices.
The Building Better School Boards Professional Development Program enables independent school Boards and Heads to improve their governance practices so they can ensure the sustainability of their schools without wasting time or money.
I’ve had the privilege of talking with almost 100 Heads and Board Chairs of small schools over the past 3 weeks through workshops I co-led (with the amazing Dr. Valaida Wise) on reentry and recovery for small school heads and Board chairs. I am always so energized by learning with such intelligent and creative folks! These school leaders are confronting the need to plan and strategize this summer in dramatically different ways than normal in order to be ready for school in the fall. Along with just about every other school leader in the world, they are thinking about health and safety while physically distancing, how to effectively implement a robust, mission-aligned curriculum from a distance, and how to support the social and emotional well-being of all of their constituents- students, faculty and staff, parents; while respecting and responding to their diversity. These school leaders are unique, however, in that they lead small schools and this context provides both distinct challenges and significant benefits and opportunities.
From the myriad of discussion topics we engaged in (over 2 sessions each, with schools in 3 different associations), here are five things that emerged as themes that all schools should be considering:
By gathering small school heads and board members together to share information, ask questions, and (sometimes) commiserate, we affirm the strength, value, and need for our small schools. The wisdom of these school leaders is vast and important. Together, they have weathered the pandemic-required emergency at-home learning this spring, and together they will reenter school and recover from this unprecedented time by sharing insights and support. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from them!
Is your Board leading your school using the most effective governance practices? The Building Better School Boards Professional Development Program enables independent school Boards and Heads to improve their governance practices so they can ensure the sustainability of their schools without wasting time or money.
The end of the school year is here. And what a year it has been! This winter, some of you had no snow days, some had too many, and some dealt with wildfires. You then helped your teachers switch, overnight, from teaching in-person to teaching remotely, you’ve written heartfelt, inspiring statements about anti-racism and promoting social justice, and you’ve facilitated physically-distanced graduation and moving up ceremonies for your seniors and students transitioning to other divisions. You have worried about your current students and faculty and wondered about future ones. If you haven’t already crossed the finish line, you will cross it soon. And most of you will be battered, bruised, and exhausted. My question is: How well has your Board supported you this past year? Have they made this remarkable year a little easier or have they added to the stress?
In my research on small school leadership and governance (with the incredible Dr. Valaida Wise), we found that Heads of small schools typically need to take a more active role (than larger school Heads) in ensuring that their Boards are effective in their work. Small school Boards often have fewer members who deeply understand the work of independent school governance and how to make decisions and act strategically to ensure the long-term viability of the organization. Heads usually have the most experience and expertise in these areas and need to actively help Boards to fulfill their responsibilities.
What I know about your Board members, even though I have never met them, is that they are passionate and dedicated champions of your school. While some may seem indifferent or disengaged, they all want the best for your current and future students. And most feel like they are putting in a lot of time and effort - over and above their other, everyday responsibilities. I also believe that many of your Board members know that they could be more effective and yet don’t know how to achieve this. They want to feel like they are making a difference!
If you have a good relationship with your Board Chair (and I hope you do!! This is one of the most important relationships in a school and one that needs to be carefully cultivated), I invite you, this summer, to talk candidly about your feelings regarding the Board’s work. How helpful were they? Did they meet your expectations? What would you like to see done differently? Here are some specific areas you can discuss:
There are many other questions you can and should ask one another! Ideally, the Head and Board Chair are able to have regular, open, honest conversations about their relationship and the work of the Board. I recommend creating time and space for these kinds of intentional conversations at least once or twice a year. This relationship will help you to set goals for your Board that will enable them to perform at their best.
Do you want your Board to be more effective? The Building Better School Boards Professional Development Program enables independent school Boards and Heads to improve their governance practices so they can ensure the sustainability of their schools without wasting time or money.
I am one of those people who likes to look for silver linings. While I try to be careful how much time I spend with my rose-colored glasses, I believe that it is usually more productive to focus on positives rather than negatives. I see a great benefit coming out of our current pandemic situation in that schools all over the country and the world are talking in meaningful ways about the social and emotional needs and health of our students, teachers, and family members. Yet there is some confusion as to exactly what social and emotional health is and what supporting social and emotional needs looks like in specific ways.
Typically, we talk about social-emotional learning in terms of teaching students to manage their own emotions and social interactions. This is certainly important and I’m delighted that we are shining a light on the need for more focus on social-emotional health both in and out of schools. However, school leaders also need to be aware of the social and emotional health needs of the adults in their communities- so that adults are able to effectively focus on the needs of their students. My work supports leaders of small independent schools so I will address social and emotional health and support from that perspective.
First of all, while they are often lumped together, social and emotional health are really two different things. Emotional (or mental) health is a person’s ability to regulate and manage their own emotions. It doesn’t mean they are happy all of the time, it means they feel a sense of control and ability to cope with how they are feeling. Social health is a person’s ability to connect with others and form meaningful relationships. It doesn’t mean you are an extrovert or always the “life of the party,” it is about satisfaction with relationships and the ability to adaptively engage in social interactions. School leaders who understand adult needs are able to lead in a manner that supports people in managing their own emotions and productively engaging in professional social interactions.
There are several conditions that directly affect both our emotional and social wellbeing and ways that school leaders can specifically address them to support and promote health. These conditions will be particularly important to consider as administrators plan for re-entry to schools and moving to a “next normal” of organizational functioning following emergency at-home learning.
1. Clear expectations- It is very unsettling not to know, at least in part, what the future holds- even for those of us who are not “planners.” The level of uncertainty that COVID-19 has presented over the past months has been a major problem for many. Our teachers feel (understandably) anxious and frustrated when they don’t have job security, know where or how they are expected to teach, know when and if they can return to their classrooms, etc.
Suggestions for leaders: Continue to provide regular, frequent, and clear communication. Even if it is to tell what you aren’t certain of yet, people want to know what you are considering. At this point, erring on the side of too much communication may be preferable. Nonetheless, make sure that it is clear, concise, relevant, and true in the moment. Know that people are looking for as much transparency as possible.
2. Self-efficacy and control- Similar to wanting to know about the future and expectations, people need to feel they have some impact or control over what happens in their lives. Independent school teachers, in particular, are used to a good deal of autonomy in their classrooms. Over the past months they have been forced to dramatically change the way they teach, and sometimes, what they teach. They have been asked to do something new and learn new techniques and skills- all while being evaluated by school leaders, students, and parents. Furthermore, they have been asked to do this in an extremely short period of time- which can feel overwhelming. For many, this has led to feelings of loss of control and lack of competence.
Suggestions for leaders: Understand that your teachers need ongoing support and encouragement for the work they are doing. Provide professional development whenever and wherever you can to help them develop a sense of competency. Protect them, if you can, from taking on too much in too short a time period. Include them as much as possible in the decision-making process about what and how to teach in new ways so they feel that they have an impact on the outcomes. Provide constructive feedback regarding the development of their new skills and buffer them from parent feedback that may not be well-informed or constructive.
3. Meaningful connections- Research shows that humans need social connections to maintain emotional health. While technological connections help (ie. video-conference, etc.), they are no substitute for in-person relationships. When we work from home and only communicate through our computers we lose the informal, often fun connections we typically have with others over the course of a normal, in-school day or week. Jokes, personal sharing, commiseration, etc. are lost when we only communicate for specific work-related tasks.
Suggestions for leaders: Find ways to facilitate informal connections with your faculty and staff. I’ve heard of school heads who hold bi-weekly Friday “happy hour” through video-conference where teachers can just “chit chat” and socialize. Other school heads make time to check in by phone with each teacher and staff member weekly. Encourage your teachers to do the same with their students. Have connection times with students that are just fun- and not necessarily content related. These relatively small gestures can provide meaningful connections that promote both social and emotional health.
4. Reassurance and routine- We all want to feel that our leaders know what they are doing and have things under control. School leaders who manage their own anxieties and present a sense of their own efficacy and control reassure the other adults in their schools which allows them to focus on supporting students. Maintaining some type of predictable routine promotes a sense of control that is also reassuring.
Suggestions for leaders: Acknowledge and address your own emotions in appropriate ways so that you can provide reassurance to others. Be aware of how you are presenting yourself to ensure that you come across as informed and in control. Then, develop routines for your community that maintain important traditions such as weekly assemblies, morning meetings, etc. Remember that your demeanor and focus set the tone for the entire school community.
Each of us has different strengths, challenges, and competencies when it comes to our emotional and social health. Some of us were struggling going into this pandemic and the realities of our current situation are exacerbating our mental health challenges. Others are benefiting from new routines, expectations, and social and physical distancing. Moving forward, individual responses to the “next normal” will continue to vary. School leaders need to be aware of the types of social and emotional challenges their faculty and staff are facing in order to respond well to them. Effective support of those who engage on the front lines with our students will enable them to continue their extraordinary work.
The dust seems to be starting to settle in schools as we are getting into a routine with emergency/at-home learning. Teachers and administrators are balancing synchronous and asynchronous instruction, families have developed schedules and workspaces, and everyone has become more adept at the use of various technologies. As states across the country are announcing their re-opening plans, the school leaders with whom I work are asking “when will we be back together?” and “What do I need to consider as I plan for getting everyone back together?” School administrators have numerous decisions to make about school re-entry over the next few months to be able to safely and confidently welcome students back into school buildings.
Nishant Mehta, Head of School and NAIS Board member, recently wrote an article that helped to frame the kinds of decisions confronting school leaders. In A Framework for Leading Change in a Post-COVID Environment, he reminds us of a 2002 Harvard Business Review article that suggests that an organization’s response to problems is either technical or adaptive. Integra Consulting Team defines adaptive and technical challenges this way: “Technical challenges are those that can be solved by the knowledge of experts, whereas adaptive challenges are complex and ambiguous in nature, and may be volatile or unpredictable. Solutions to these types of challenges usually require people to learn new ways of doing things, change their attitudes, values and norms and adopt an experimental mind-set.”
The technical challenges facing the re-entry of students into schools are many: When will faculty and students be able to return to school buildings? How many people can be in the building; in each classroom; in the lunchroom; on the playground- at a time? If and when there is a resurgence of coronavirus, how will we toggle between in-person and in-home learning? How will we toggle if some students and/or teachers can come into the building and some must stay at home? What will we do to support student and faculty/staff emotional and social needs? These technical questions must be answered in the context not only of state and local government guidelines but also in keeping with the mission, values, and culture of each community. Although this is a tall task, most schools have the capability to spend the time on focused planning needed to develop workable solutions to these questions.
In addition, schools should also be thinking about re-entry to school-based learning as an adaptive challenge. In Heifetz and Linskey’s 2002 HBR article, they state: “Responding to an adaptive challenge with a technical fix may have some short-term appeal. But to make real progress, sooner or later those who lead must ask themselves and the people in the organization to face a set of deeper issues—and to accept a solution that may require turning part or all of the organization upside down.” This pandemic has highlighted both strengths and weaknesses in our educational systems and we have an opportunity to make dramatic, positive changes- if we have the courage. School leaders can decide to return to their school buildings and pick up where they left off, or they can engage in a deep, thoughtful exploration of how to fundamentally improve their programming.
In my last article, I suggested that school Boards should take an “inquiry” approach to decision-making. Adaptive change requires an inquiry thinking approach focused on creative, “out-of-the-box” ideas and solutions. When thinking about how to adapt, schools can consider lessons learned over the past two months.
The good news is that some small schools have a leg up on adaptive decision-making. Small schools typically have quicker and smoother chains of communication as they have fewer people with whom to communicate. Because of their small size, they are nimble and can make and implement decisions quickly. Many small schools are already educational innovators and have a culture of creativity and responsiveness. It behooves small schools to use this unique opportunity to make programmatic changes that will enhance their ability to meet the needs of students and families.
Nonetheless, the challenges for small schools (and all schools) in the next few months are huge. I am hearing from school leaders that they are at various stages of coping and responding to the pandemic- some are feeling relatively stable and are able to move onto more adaptive planning while others are still in survival mode. Each school community needs to proceed first by addressing the technical challenges directly facing them. Yet to overlook the opportunity to consider adaptive changes, even though this requires time, experimentation, change, and courage seems short-sighted. In this historic moment in time- which schools will return and which will be re-born?
Independent School Boards make decisions all the time- at every meeting and throughout the year. Some decisions are more critical than others, yet all are important and impact the school. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, Boards are being asked to make decisions that they probably hadn’t considered before. Issues of privacy, strategy, legality, and mission are being discussed. Some small schools, with their lean budgets and often fragile enrollment streams, are even having to consider the most basic questions of whether and how they will survive. Thoughtful, planned, and self-reflective decision-making practices are called upon now more than ever.
Decision-making in Independent School Boards often goes like this: A problem is identified (e.g. there is a global pandemic, the country is likely going into a recession, and unemployment has skyrocketed- will we have the enrollment we need to survive?). The members of the Board and the Head of School talk through their concerns. They may try to gather some information from their current families (Will you be returning? Will your financial aid request change?) or from outside sources (other school heads, associations, etc.). And then they move to problem-solving mode: What should we do? How should we respond? Ideas are presented and debated. The solution that is most persuasively argued is chosen, actions are agreed upon, implementation is begun, and Board members cross their fingers and hope for the best.
Scholars who have studied decision-making would suggest that this type of process, called the advocacy approach- where ideas and positions are debated and advocated for- limits the ability of organizations to make the best decisions. Instead, they advise using an inquiry approach, which is “a very open process designed to generate multiple alternatives, foster the exchange of ideas, and produce a well-tested solution.” (Garvin & Roboto, 2001). Inquiry is a well-known concept in the education world- promoted as a progressive strategy that supports the constructivist pedagogy. Yet we rarely hear of school leaders being encouraged to utilize inquiry methods. If engaging in inquiry is best practice for students why isn’t it used by adults as well? How can Boards apply the inquiry method to make better decisions?
In his book Labyrinth: The Art of Decision-Making, Pawel Motyl, who promotes inquiry decision-making, recommends a series of decision-making steps for business leaders. I’ve modified them here as a series of questions Board members can ask themselves as they approach a significant problem. While the inquiry decision-making process involves more steps and more questions, these can serve as a starting point.
The whole world is working to understand, respond, and cope with the ramifications of the current pandemic. Like school administrators and teachers, Independent School Board members have had to make decisions that have significant impact on students, families, and faculty & staff with little time to pause, collect data, test assumptions, and consider strategy as promoted in the inquiry method. Nonetheless, these steps can be practiced and implemented moving forward as school Boards help chart the “new normal” for Independent Schools.
Acies Strategies provides Board Development and Leadership Coaching for leaders and Board members of small schools.
In this unprecedented time of COVID-19, school leaders are being called upon to perform the heroic task of reinventing the way they provide education- while they are providing it. We are all readjusting to a new normal of distance and online learning. How this will change the way we run our schools in the future remains to be seen. However, in their role as visionaries and protectors of school missions, Boards need to be working NOW to plan for the future. Board members are likely in the middle of supporting Heads in making significant decisions regarding your school’s response to COVID-19 including the types and timing of communication with your constituents, school closures and planned opening, distance and online learning, etc. In addition, school leaders are evaluating the current and future financial impact of this pandemic. Nonetheless, Boards should quickly move away from responding to current issues and turn their attention to planning for the future.
How Boards react and respond now will have a tremendous impact on both how their school weathers this current COVID-19 storm and also how they will emerge following the storm. Here are four recommendations for conversations Boards can be holding now:
We are all in uncharted territory. And our leaders are being asked to step up in remarkable ways. Boards, in particular, have a responsibility to react and respond professionally, proactively, and carefully.
Heads of Schools and Board Chairs have had to make dramatic changes in the way they operate over the past week. No one predicted that we would be shutting our school buildings for weeks (or months) in order to address the global pandemic we are facing with Covid-19. School leaders have had to make major decisions that have impacted entire communities in an incredibly short period of time. I am aware of many of my colleagues who have handled this task with grace, decisiveness, compassion, and clarity. I am not surprised.
I am also aware that making these types of decisions is taxing on leaders. There is intense scrutiny, and a tendency for constituents to be armchair quarterbacks. School leaders are also dealing with their own personal stresses- on top of having to manage their school communities. They are parents of children who are home and perhaps learning online for the first time; they have parents who are in the high-risk elderly group; they have to worry about stocking up on supplies, and may be personally scared.
Heads and Board Chairs- in order to be the most effective leaders for your schools (and for your families) you must ensure that you are caring for yourselves. This will look a little differently for each of you, yet will have some similarities.
1. Gather your supports so that you don't feel like you are in this alone. Rely on them heavily.
2. Practice mindfulness- focus on one thing at a time and identify what you are clear about at each step.
3. Prioritize- when you can't do everything, do what is most important.
4. Abandon perfectionism- you are doing the best that you can. We all are.
5. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually. Get outside, exercise, talk with friends, practice your faith.
6. Make time for gratitude. Even in this time of uncertainty, stress, and fear, there is so much to be thankful for.
I am grateful right now that we live in a time and place where technology can support significant social distancing. My child is continuing to learn from her teachers. My husband can work from home. And I can reach out to all of you and offer my support. I am here for you. If you want to talk- about your job, your stress, or anything else, I am available.
Please make time to pay attention to yourself. And keep up the great work- we are all counting on you.