Small school board members are often called upon to help with operational issues in order to best support the Head and administration of their school. Boards get involved in discussions (and sometimes the actual work) regarding fundraising, enrollment management, finances, building care, etc. While it is sometimes necessary in a small school for trustees to “cross the line” from governance into operations, board members need to understand that line and stay in the governance realm as much as possible.
The governance realm involves thinking and planning strategically and generatively regarding the sustainability and thrivability of the school. This is one of the primary responsibilities of any nonprofit or independent school board. Strategic thinking is focused on developing data-informed strategies to achieve goals for long-term, financial success. Generative thinking is used to analyze problems and develop creative solutions. If the board isn’t engaged in these types of thinking and planning, who is? Nonetheless, some boards struggle to identify how they can effectively engage in strategic, generative thinking.
The first place to start is by setting up your board meetings so that there is time, space, and focus on strategic and generative thinking. Too often boards spend their precious meeting time reading committee reports or "admiring problems" (discussing issues without considering solutions). Board meetings should be designed to be as efficient as possible so that there is enough time for the most important conversations.
Here are four steps to establish effective, efficient meetings:
1. Start and end meetings on time. Do not wait for latecomers.
2. Use a consent agenda to quickly approve those items that do not need any further discussion (prior minutes, time changes, etc.).
3. Expect Board members to have read reports before the meeting and behave as if everyone has done so. Do not read or summarize reports!
4. On the agenda, clarify the items for discussion, the items for approval, and the expected next steps or tasks for each agenda item in order to diminish misunderstanding and the need to ask clarifying questions.
By reducing the amount of time needed for information-sharing and routine business, boards can spend time on strategic and generative conversations. On your board agenda, place these types of discussion at the beginning of each meeting, rather than the end, to ensure that you will not run out of time. Make time for strategic and/or generative thinking and planning at each meeting and consider a range of topics. Boards can use the strategic or generative thinking time to consider broad goals, thrivability, threats, opportunities, etc. for the school. Allow a significant amount of time for these discussions, 30 minutes or more, to allow deep consideration.
Ensuring that there is ample, protected time on each board meeting agenda for the board to consider big-picture, strategic topics and to develop creative, meaningful solutions will enable boards to fulfill their responsibility of overseeing the long-term viability of their organization.
One of the unique aspects of leading a small school is that, due to limited resources (both monetary and human), the administration is typically very lean. In other words, there are not very many people to get all of the work done. While the same things need to be accomplished in a small school as in a large school (admissions, development, business management, curriculum oversight, faculty management, student management, building management, etc.), there are fewer people to accomplish the work. And ultimately, it is the Head's responsibility to make sure everything gets done.
When I was the Head of a small school, I used to joke that in another school, a task might be given to the assistant to the Associate Admissions Director. At times, I wore all three of those hats- Admissions Director, Associate Director, and Assistant! While this can certainly be seen as a challenge, I also see this as a benefit. As Head of School, I learned about and was aware of every aspect of our school. When we finally were able to get a part-time Admissions Director, I worked closely with that person and still was able to be involved with every step in the process.
However, being responsible for so many aspects of a small school’s operations does create a significant challenge for small school leaders- time and focus management. Most of the Heads of small schools that I know say that there just isn’t enough time to accomplish all that needs to be done. Many Heads express frustration over having to spend so much time “in the weeds” and lament that because they need to focus on budgeting, student behavior management, fundraising, plunging toilets, etc. they have little time for strategic thinking. Others said they don't even know where to start with addressing the bigger picture and more visionary thinking. While it is true that Heads of small schools need to spend more of their time responding to operational needs, they serve their schools best when they can engage in leadership activities such as strategic thinking and setting and working towards a vision.
Operational issues related to staff, students, building, money, etc. are very visible, and it is easy for Heads to become solely focused on them, to the exclusion of the larger strategic issues that need their attention. While the Head may be particularly good at managing the daily operations, they are the only one who is uniquely informed and qualified to perform the leadership duties needed by schools. I propose that there are six areas that Heads of School need to address and sustain regularly: 1) themselves and their leadership, 2) overall fiscal and programmatic stability, 3) managing the Board, 4) thinking strategically about the operations of the school, 5) setting the vision and managing the “brand” of the school, and 6) managing the culture and climate of all constituent groups. There is no one else who can influence each of these areas to the extent that a Head of School can. And if any one of these areas has problems, flounders, or otherwise runs amok, it can have a significant negative impact on the rest of the school’s functioning.
None of this is to say that Heads of small schools shouldn’t be closely involved in the day to day operations of their school; given the small administration that is characteristic of a small school, they need to be involved. However, Heads of small schools need to recognize that they will have the greatest influence over the long run if they stay "above the operations line" and lead, rather than do.
The graphic below depicts the “above the line” and “below the line” focuses. I’ve also developed a summer reflection form- both a short, free Worksheet and a longer, more comprehensive Workbook version to help Heads of small schools consider their performance and goals in each of these areas.
“We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey
Have you heard the “joke” that goes- What is the best thing about teaching? June, July, and August! I don’t take such a cynical view of education- I actually think September is one of the best months- so full of hope, promise, and opportunity. Yet in order to get to that place of optimism in September, it is helpful for school leaders (administrators and teachers) to spend time over the summer preparing by reflecting and planning.
Research and practice tell us that when we stop and reflect on our learning it synthesizes and solidifies our experiences into understanding and knowledge. We ask our students to reflect on their learning; yet do we as adults acknowledge and value reflection as an important part of our own professional growth? While it is important to weave reflection time into our schedules during the year, the summer months are an ideal time to take a big picture look at our performance, learning, successes, and challenges in order to plan for the upcoming year.
There are many benefits to spending time in self-reflection:
Emotional intelligence- Reflection leads to self-awareness, a key element in emotional intelligence. This, in turn, leads to the ability to practice self-regulation, another element. Without intentional self-reflection, it is difficult to develop self-awareness.
Recognize progress- We all need to feel like we have agency and impact in our work. While positive feedback and praise from others are important; acknowledging our own progress and success to ourselves is also beneficial.
Clarity- When we are “in the moment” in our work, we often lose sight of what we are doing, our impact, our mindsets, and the big picture. Self-reflection, both on an ongoing basis and in the summer, helps us to step back and gain clarity on the entire context of our work.
Increased confidence- When you have assessed your performance, you can move forward with the confidence that you know what you are good at as well as your “growth edges.”
Integrity- When you are aware of your patterns and habits of behavior, as well as your attitudes and mindsets, you can consider if they are in alignment with your values. After consideration, you can decide how you might alter your patterns moving forward.
Ability to plan- With the clarity and confidence gained through self-reflection you can establish aspirations and goals based on clear information and understanding.
Basic reflection includes looking back to think about and articulate what went well and what didn’t go as planned. We can also reflect upon specific details within our work. Writing down reflections and subsequent plans for moving forward helps to organize thoughts and can be a resource to look back on in the future. In addition, talking through reflections with a trusted colleague can help to further clarify thoughts.
By taking the time this summer to engage in intentional, comprehensive self-reflection, you will set yourself up for a productive school year.
I’ve developed both a brief reflection Worksheet for Heads of Small Schools and a more detailed Complete Workbook. Click here for a free copy of the Summer Reflection for Heads of Small Schools Worksheet.
“The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning.” (Jennifer Porter HBR 3.21.17)
Parents choose independent schools for their children for a variety of reasons. One thing all parents share is a desire for their children to be cared for and supported in school. And I think it is safe to say that all independent schools aspire to care for and support all of their students. Each child matters in every school. Yet in small schools, each individual student has the potential to make an significant impact on the functioning of the organization in ways that are not seen in larger schools.