11/10/2020 by Janet Durgin |

Leadership Lessons: A Founding Head Reflects on Her Call to Adventure

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When I left Northfield Mount Hermon School (MA), where I had spent 20 years as teacher, house director, department chair, and dean of curriculum, I drove cross-country with my husband, two teens, and our dog to take on founding the first independent high school in Sonoma County, California. I was heeding a call to adventure that seemed to have stalled as we raised our children and were working day and night in a boarding school.

When I first began as the proverbial boarding school “triple threat” (dorm, class, and field), my husband and I had just returned from living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and traveling the world. I’d already crisscrossed the United States in the early ’70s, eager to learn how the educational experiments of that era were playing out in courageous new schools embracing creative approaches to interdisciplinary and experiential teaching and learning.

Although I had many opportunities at Northfield Mount Hermon to grow, contribute, and learn, and eventually as dean of curriculum to lead an effort to reshape the academic program and schedule, I was ready for a new adventure as the founding head of school of Sonoma Academy (CA). Founded at the cusp of the 20th century, SA benefited from a synergy of right people, right time, right place. The founders were visionary entrepreneurs who wanted SA to reflect the agricultural roots of Sonoma County and the innovative spirit of the Bay Area. The founding trustees had articulated a compelling mission statement that “calls its students to be creative, ethical, and committed to learning; to nurture inspiring teachers; to engage with the surrounding community; and to communicate across cultures as they prepare to become leaders in a dynamic world.” I followed this mission statement to California and referred to it every step of the way as we built our school.

As I enter retirement after 20 years at SA, I’ve been reflecting on my journey and my legacy. I was able to shape a school community with the decisions I made and the values I instilled and embodied. I want to share this experience with aspiring leaders and heads as they look to ensure the success of their own institutions.

Heed your own call to adventure. As American professor Joseph Campbell said in “The Power of Myth,” “If you can see your path laid out in front of you, step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.” There’s no way I could have planned my path. Without knowing it, I had been answering my own personal call to adventure for years. A one-way ticket to Africa, three different academic preps and coaching my first year of teaching, and uprooting my family to go west were all terrifying at the time, but these growth-inducing experiences turned out to be what I needed to keep discovering my capacities. My two decades spent founding and building a school from scratch were a roller coaster, covering highs and lows I couldn’t have imagined.

Go for the big, bold, inspiring vision. Many founders would have spent years conducting feasibility studies and may have balked at establishing the only independent high school in the county. But the founders believed in the transformative power of a great school and great teachers, and an “if you build it, they will come” attitude attracted the right staff, teachers, and students. We worked together to shape the culture, develop rituals and traditions, and create innovative and interdisciplinary programs.

A large part of my role as head of school was to help sustain the joy and adventure that animated our spunky startup while making the strategic decisions that kept us afloat. There were many times in the early years when we thought we weren’t going to make it. And in many ways, our success defies the economics and demographics of the region. The founders never wavered in their faith in their bold vision, and this has become the story of the school—and we continue to be creative, take risks, and try new things in the service of fulfilling our mission. This attracts the bold, creative, innovative spirits in our region and creates an environment where students feel empowered to pursue their own “crazy” visions.

There are other reasons it’s important to have an audacious vision. It will keep you from being mesmerized by the siren song of the status quo. This vision continually challenges us to find new and better ways to fulfill our founding impetus. It also safeguards, as my former head of school at Northfield Mount Hermon used to say, against the “tyranny of the good idea” because, of course, everyone has the next great idea to bring to the head of school. It will also give you the strength and resolve to carry on during difficult and rocky times, as I found during the economic downturn of 2008; the Northern California fires of 2017, 2018, and 2019; and the COVID-19 pandemic in the last months of my tenure.

Be authentic. Learning best occurs in the context of connected community—a safe and inclusive place where it is OK to take risks, try new things, fail, experiment, innovate, and explore. But how do you create an environment like this, especially as we bring in new students and their families every year from disparate geographies and schools with disparate cultures and norms?

During my more than 40 years of working with adolescents, I’ve learned that authenticity is foundational: Teens have an unerring ability to sniff out inauthenticity in the adults around them, and nothing shuts the door in their minds faster than a “fake.” In my first year of teaching, I noticed the dynamic of the classroom shift when I admitted I didn’t know the answer to the question and said I would have to get back to them. As the head of school, I have seen that as well: Adults and students will respond with their own authenticity when treated with the respect and trust demonstrated by being genuine, even, or especially, when that genuineness can feel vulnerable or risky.

Empathy and honesty are at the heart of generative communication. When facing any situation—difficult conversations with parents or teachers or an unfolding crisis in the community as small as a student upheaval regarding an unpopular discipline decision or as large as a pandemic—communicating with transparency and empathy will illuminate the road that must be traveled together. Communicate quickly, clearly, and honestly about a situation and its impact; detail responses and plans. You are creating the breadcrumbs people will follow in order to feel safe and have confidence in the school—even if you don’t have all the answers upfront. Be willing to acknowledge missteps and make changes to remedy them; admitting mistakes is a bracing tonic. When you lean into the discomfort of admitting you are wrong, it allows trust to deepen and relationships to grow; and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know in response to what is truly unknown, as we had to do through multiple years of regional fires, through the pandemic, and during the tragic disappearance of a student.

Keep iterating. We are always asking our students to take risks, to embrace challenges, and to learn from stumbles, because these are the experiences that inspire growth. As educators and administrators, we too must adapt to unexpected conditions with a spirit of curiosity and openness. A good school cannot be static. Experiment, retool, and reenvision, but never lose sight of your core mission and values. This approach is baked into the culture at SA.

In the final months of my tenure, we wrote the comprehensive Sonoma Academy COVID-19 Strategic Agenda, naming the values that would shape development of a radically different schedule for the coming school year, our plans to launch a study on how to level-up our online delivery (which was already really good) in anticipation of a blended program in the fall, and our intentions to support our families in economic distress, particularly those who needed support for groceries and rent. As we began mandated distance learning, we framed our approach as an iterative process—allowing parents and students to give us feedback constantly, reviewing that feedback, and making changes as we went. Rather than simply navigating the disruptions while yearning to return to normal, we began to actively seek the ways that these disruptions challenge us to reimagine the future of education.

Embrace optimism and others will follow. The role of a leader—whether one at the head of a class, the chair of the department, the head of the school, the chair of the board, or the lead on a collaborative project—is to inspire hope and confidence in the team. To do that effectively, leaders must focus on the strengths and core values of the organization or group and how those are showing up in each moment. A leader amplifies and highlights a community’s resilience and resourcefulness, focusing on the qualities that help the group reach for its best work or its best response to a situation. To do this, leaders must maintain their own hope and confidence as well. Believing deeply in the mission or vision of the work at hand and returning to it regularly are key in nourishing a wellspring of optimism.

I focus on something I believe to be true and indestructible: the amazing potential for good, for change, and for connection that’s inherent to human beings and amply evident during the transformative time of adolescence. Whenever my own spirit flags, I look for signs of this magic in my students and in the community we have created together. It never fails and makes it easy for me to reflect these qualities back to those around me.

Now, after 20 years, I’m ready for the next adventure. I have every confidence that these lessons are embedded in the DNA of the school, and with this strong foundation, it will continue to evolve with the times in ways true to its mission. While the path is unknown, the school knows itself well enough now to find its own way. And so do I.

Janet Durgin is a senior consultant with the Carney, Sandoe & Associates Search and Consulting Group.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Independent School magazine.

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