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.
Everyone wants to feel valued and appreciated. Most of us are growth-minded and want to understand our “growth edges” and where we can improve. Receiving concrete, constructive, and clear feedback from people we trust and respect is critical in helping us feel acknowledged and supported as we learn, grow, and accomplish our work. However, most of the Heads of small schools that I know are not receiving particularly helpful feedback and support from their Boards.
It is not that Boards don’t want to be supportive and constructive- it is that they don’t know how to be. In recent coaching sessions with Heads of small schools I’ve heard of two different, and common scenarios. In both cases, the Head and a subset of the Board developed goals for the Head at the beginning of the year. At mid-year check-ins, in one case, the Board told the Head how wonderfully she was doing. Everything was great- keep up the good work. In the other case, the Head was “dinged” for not meeting all of her goals- even ones that were outside of her control. In both cases, the Heads were left feeling that the Board didn’t have a clue about what they were doing or how to support.
Through my research, experience, and conversation, it has become clear to me that Heads of small schools need to take an active role in shaping and guiding the practices of their Boards; even the practice of Head Evaluation. Trustees who sit on small school Boards typically don’t have the expertise to develop and conduct meaningful evaluations, nor do they have the knowledge of all of the job performance requirements of an effective school leader. Heads need to intentionally guide the way they are evaluated if they want feedback that will be helpful.
Head evaluation processes serve two purposes. One is to provide specific feedback to the Head that will enhance their job performance. The other is to inform the Board of the Head’s duties and success in fulfilling those duties so that they can effectively govern. Each element of an evaluation process should be developed to best achieve these two outcomes.
Elements of meaningful evaluations:
Goal-setting: I believe (and there is data to support) that articulating a few, annual, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals to focus and guide work throughout the year is beneficial. Conversely, setting many, vague, general, and/or un-measurable goals is much less beneficial. There is an art to goal-setting. When Heads and Boards sit down to create a Head’s annual goals, there should be consideration of the school's needs (i.e. accreditation self-study activities or work towards strategic planning goals), the Head’s “growth edges,” and the Head’s curiosity. Then, there needs to be a guide for measuring success that goes beyond Board members’ opinions. There also needs to be a specific timeline for checking in throughout the year that is the responsibility of the Board- not the Head.
Accountability: There are many things a Head must do in order to keep a school running in good order. Listing all of those and evaluating progress or compliance every year would be onerous. Nonetheless, Heads need to be held accountable for their most important job responsibilities- and Boards need to know what those responsibilities are. Creating an accountability/compliance list, and considering it on a bi-annual or tri-annual basis will ensure that important details are not overlooked. This list can include:
Culture: The culture of an organization and the climate among constituents within an organization both have a dramatic impact on the organization’s functioning. The leader of an organization has the most influence on culture and climate. Therefore, Boards need to assess the school’s culture and climate relative to the Head’s performance. This can be done through surveys and/or “360” reviews- with care and respect so that the information gained is useful and not merely complaining. Like accountability, assessing culture and climate doesn’t need to happen annually, yet it does need to happen regularly.
Supporting and providing feedback to their Head of School is one of the most important responsibilities of a Board. Yet most small school Boards are inexperienced and overworked. Heads of Schools need to guide their Boards in developing a process for providing meaningful feedback and support on a regular basis. A robust evaluation process not only helps the Head learn and grow, it also enables the Board to more deeply understand their own roles and responsibilities.
What do you think? I welcome thoughts about other elements of meaningful Head evaluations. Please comment!
Happy New Year! As January is the time when so many people reflect upon their personal goals and practices, it can also be the time when boards lift their heads up from their work to consider how they best fulfill their roles as governors. It is easy for any group to get into a rut and is therefore important to regularly consider if your practices fully meet the needs of your organization. What better time than now?
One way to think about the efficacy of the work being done by a small school board is to think of the interaction of three factors: discipline, knowledge, and time. While I am confident that the board members on any small school board are dedicated, intelligent, and caring, I know that frequently boards become undisciplined in their practices. For example, you know that reports should be sent out a week in advance of a meeting, but committees don’t always send in minutes on time, there is always something important going on at the school that takes time and focus, and often, those reports are sent out the day before the meeting (or are passed out at the meeting!). We get into habits of practice where we know we should be doing something differently, and yet we just don’t have the push to change things.
So think of these questions as the “push” for your board.
These questions certainly aren’t exhaustive; they are intended to spark discussion and further questions. Spending the time now to consider with your board how you spend your time, what knowledge you need to acquire, and whether you are disciplined in accomplishing what you know you should, will enable you to move forward confidently into the new year with your work of governing your small school.
“I thought it was just me…” I’ve heard this too many times from smart, dedicated, engaged new board members who sit in meetings and feel out of touch, unworthy, unintelligent. They don’t understand what is going on, why decisions are being made, and what their role is. They frequently end up leaving the board because they don’t believe they can make an impact.
It is not them- it is the board.
How can boards of any size, and especially small school boards that expect so much of their members, hope to be strategic if trustees don’t understand their roles, don’t have the information they need, and haven’t been properly oriented? One of the most critical responsibilities of any board is to enlist the right people and give them the necessary information to accomplish their responsibilities. And yet often, small school boards overlook this important focus.
Before we can expect board members to fully participate in the work of the board, we need to provide them with a significant amount of information about the school and about the board itself. This takes thought, planning, and time. To best orient new board members, there should first be careful planning regarding the what they need to know, when they need to know it, and how they will gain the information. Time for learning and discussion is needed rather than just handing over of documents. Consider orientation as a year-long activity with periodic check-ins for understanding and continuing discussion. Furthermore, don’t assume that because a new board member is a parent or a member of the faculty or staff that they have this information. Each new board member should be treated similarly and given the same information in the same way.
Information to share with new board members about the school:
Information to share with new board members about the board:
There is a lot to discuss with new board members. Therefore board orientation should start as early as possible, be thoughtfully planned and implemented, and be a year-long endeavor. Small schools especially need board members to roll up their sleeves and fulfill the many expectations placed on the board. New board members will be better and sooner able to engage and participate if they have comprehensive information, perspective, and context about the school and the board.
I’ve recently had several conversations with Heads of Schools that centered on the work of Board committees. Actually, the conversations were about how the committees were not working well. Given that Board members of small schools need to deeply understand their roles and responsibilities in order to accomplish all that their schools ask of them, effectively utilizing committee time and structure is critical.
To be effective, Board committees must have clear charges that support the strategic goals of the school. I’ve heard of boards that meet every month and engage in what I call “admiring the problem,” that is, discussing issues without moving forward towards resolution; and I’ve heard of committees that perhaps meet 3-4 times a year and then wonder why nothing gets accomplished. Neither is helpful.
Here are 6 guidelines for effective committees:
Ensure that your Bylaws establish the right committees for your school; those that forward the mission and strategic goals. There are only a few recommended “standing” Board committees- Finance, Committee on Trustees (or Governance), and Head Evaluation & Support Committee, and then others that may be needed such as Audit and Investment committees. Other committees such as Advancement, Marketing, Buildings & Grounds, etc. that deal with operational issues may also be needed on small school Boards to accomplish work that school staff does not have the capacity to complete. Then there are ad hoc committees that may need to be established for short periods of time such as a Strategic Planning Committee or a Bylaws Review Committee. Boards need to carefully consider what committees are needed to accomplish their work for the school at any given time. Having too many committees that are not focused and productive drains resources and energy.
Ensure that you have the right people on each committee. Do you have the diversity of experience, skills, and perspectives needed to do each committee’s work? Some committees benefit by non-Board members participate and this is also a strategy for cultivating new Board members.
Ensure that each committee has a clear charge and articulated, specific, annual goals. It is important that each committee’s charge focuses on the long-term, strategic needs of the school. It is in committee that the real “work” of the Board is accomplished. Committees need to understand and articulate why they are meeting and what the plan to accomplish.
Ensure that the Chair of each committee is committed to facilitating regular meetings and following up with detailed, timely reports. When and how do committees meet? Are you sensitive to all committee members’ time and circumstance? Can you utilize technology to enable more members to participate?
Ensure that there are established and consistent practices for committees to share their work with the Board as a whole. Developing standard forms for committee reports that effectively and concisely convey the needed information as well as timelines for submission will enable the entire Board to understand each committee’s work and be prepared to make decisions in Board meetings.
Ensure that there are methods for regularly evaluating the work and the goal achievement of each committee. If there are no specific, objective outcomes that can be attributed to committee work, then the committee is not effective.
Board committees are critical to the governance of small schools, and yet there is often little attention paid to their structure and success. The nature of governing small schools requires Board members to accomplish a lot! Effectively utilizing committees will help.
Writes about small school leadership and governance