06/02/2020 by Bob Fricker |

The Board’s Role in a Transition to a New Head (and in Times of Crisis)

by Bob Fricker, CS&A Senior Consultant

It’s an understatement to say that these are challenging times for all schools. This full-scale shift to online and distance learning in the middle of a pandemic that may stretch on for months has changed how all of us live and work. For educators, it has completely upended how we educate children — and while I’m sure we’ll settle into some form of post-pandemic clarity, at the moment, the uncertainty demands a remarkable level of vigilance, hard work, and flexibility.

I see school leaders doing amazing work now to both make the necessary programmatic adjustments to distance learning, support teachers and students through the process, and communicate confidence about both this present arrangement and the outlook for the future. At the same time, I’m pleased to see boards of trustees both support their heads of school and offer their reassuring views on the future of their institutions.

In my work with schools, I know this short-term, emergency work is essential and takes precedence. But I also encourage heads and boards to focus some time on long-term issues that will help strengthen their schools for the long run — especially schools where heads are in their first or second year of leadership.

Even before this pandemic reached our schoolhouse doors, schools were wrestling with both the promise and complexity of education in a world full of both optimism and concern. The promise in education has been led by recent brain-science research on learning, coupled with new technologies. Together, they have led to increasingly innovative and engaging approaches to teaching. At the same time, independent schools have never faced greater pressure to be consistently excellent and relevant, and to demonstrate that the investment of tuition dollars will produce a valuable return. Parents, particularly those new to independent schools, are also more anxious and slower to trust. In recent surveys (prior to the pandemic), teachers have reported feeling greater stress as they try to incorporate new approaches to teaching and meet the challenge of addressing the neurodiversity and anxiety among their students.

Into this already challenging set of dynamics, a leadership transition creates a unique set of issues. As a result, the number of new heads who do not make it into a second contract has been growing significantly.

In recent conversations with the board of trustees at a school where I helped with the search for a new head, I’ve reminded them that, in the first year, the board plays an important role in two major areas:

1. Caring for and supporting the community

2. Caring for and supporting the new head

In every school that hires a new head — particularly one following a beloved long-term head or one hired to bring about needed change for a struggling school — I encourage all boards to consider their role in these two areas. In truth, however, it makes a great deal of sense for all boards to focus on these areas as their schools emerge from the fallout of this pandemic and start up their campuses again. In very real ways, the post-pandemic era, whenever it begins, will feel very much like starting a new era in every school’s history.

Caring for and Supporting the Community

A metacognitive strategy that one school teaches its students is to recognize when students are in one of three personal zones[1]:

  • Comfort Zone — in which students feel relaxed and in control and can demonstrate their acquired knowledge and skills;
  • Learning/Growth Zone — or, as it is called in psychology, “the zone of proximal development” (ZDP), which involves a range of emotional and cognitive processes, including some anxiety, needed for learning new skills and processing new information;
  • Panic Zone — in which students become overwhelmingly anxious and can’t function or learn much of anything.

In many ways, schools are no different from students. Every leadership transition requires a school’s teachers, parents, students, administrators, and the board to venture from what has been familiar (the Comfort Zone) into the unknown. Schools certainly don’t want to venture into the Panic Zone, but every leadership transition is likely to require time in the Learning/Growth Zone.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that most schools struggle with the shift from comfort to challenge. Some may leave the Comfort Zone reluctantly, but eventually see the fruits of this form of growth and move confidently into a new era in the school’s history. Unfortunately, some will resist this process by using passive-aggressive tactics or, worse, by openly rebelling — resulting in a fractured community.

As organizational guru Jim Collins notes in his excellent monograph on nonprofit institutions, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” social sector leaders need not only excellent executive skills but also excellent legislative skills. Legislative success requires the building of coalitions, which depend on the leader’s ability to influence people through engagement, motivation, and persuasion.

When every new head arrives at a school, the board gives him or her positional authority as head of school. But true power — the power necessary to lead a school well — will only be granted to a new head after he or she:

1. demonstrates that he or she knows and values the school;

2. builds trusting relationships with key stakeholders;

3. demonstrates the skills to lead the school well; and

4. articulates a vision for the future that unites and excites the community.

These steps take time. As the result, the board and the administrative team play an essential leadership role in caring for and supporting the school community as the new head earns the community’s trust and respect. After the transition is complete, the head will successfully partner with the board and the administrative team to nurture and guide the vitality of the school. Schools that focus on this process are the schools that thrive.

During the transition period, a board should:

1. Maintain and demonstrate an un-anxious presence. The words and actions of board members will be observed with extreme care, particularly when the new head does or says something that challenges or disappoints members of the community.

2. Help others in the community understand and accept that stresses, strains, and anxiety are natural during the transition. In this regard, the board should:

  • monitor and regulate the unavoidable strains of the transition;
  • work with the head to monitor the pace and scale of changes he or she wants to undertake;
  • attend to timely communications about important changes;
  • when possible, find ways to involve community members in shaping or planning future changes;
  • reassure the school community that it is in good hands and moving in the best direction for school; and
  • celebrate the school and its successes.

Caring for and Supporting the Head

While every new head is excited to arrive on campus and get to work, he or she must go through a number of transitions, personally and professionally. On a personal level, a wise board will monitor how the head and the head’s family, if applicable, settle into the school and the broader community. On the professional level, the board should recognize that the new head will face the following:

  • He or she must learn about the school through the stories of others, without the benefit of knowing which storytellers are sharing incomplete or distorted stories of the school and its community.
  • His or her every word and action will be scanned carefully by teachers, students, parents, and board members for meaning. Incorrect interpretations will occur and will be shared.
  • His or her arrival will unleash new hopes, new possibilities — and new frustrations.
  • He or she will help the school realize some new opportunities, but some of those changes will take more time than desired by one group or another, so there will be pressure coming from some corner of the community in just about every case.
  • Regardless of efforts, some problems from the past will persist, while other problems that would not have happened during the previous head’s tenure will arise.

Amidst all the hopes and dreams, frustrations and disappointments, the board and administrative team are essential in keeping the school community out of the Panic Zone.

In addition to roles noted above, the board needs to understand the difference between serious issues that can arise and the inevitable “white noise” that accompanies any significant change. And when truly serious issues arise — as in a pandemic that alters everything at a school for the short-term and raises major uncertainty about the long-term — it’s doubly important for the board and administrative team to step in with support for the head. It’s fine, and inevitable, for schools to land in the Learning/Growth Zone along the way. Those schools that learn and grow from the experience are those in which the board, head, and the administrative team are both attentive to the challenges they face and work in unison to address them.

Bob Fricker is the Practice Group Leader for Carney Sandoe’s Domestic Head of School Practice. He has also served on the boards of two independent schools and is current a member of the board of the YueCheng Education in Beijing, the parent organization of Beijing City International School.

[1] This typology comes from The Keys School in Palo Alto, California, a K-8 independent school that embeds social-emotional learning into the curriculum and where Head of School Heather Rogers is completing her first year as head.

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