08/23/2021 by Mike Mersky | ,

Why the Increase in Head of School Turnover?

illustration of one man running out a door and a woman running out of another door

In recent years, I have read a significant number of articles regarding the alarming number of heads of school who are leaving their posts. Truth be told, this phenomena of seemingly abrupt departures of heads has been a trend in independent schools for almost two decades now. Long gone are the heads that are in one school for a decade or more, and it has been even longer since we have witnessed heads who have dedicated their whole headship career to one school for two decades or more. Some may think that the past era of long-term headships was a double-edged sword, and I would agree. However, there is universal agreement that this current era of revolving door headships is not a healthy trend for our independent schools. Also of interest is that many of these pieces of guidance, presented both in writing and verbally, are given by those who have never been a head of school, and who have never sat in the seat or at the helm of one or our independent schools. Herein lies a problem.

One such latest article presented the author’s version of why there had been an increase in the number of heads of school leaving their posts, stating the obvious issues related to the pandemic, to social media, to impetuous boards of trustees, and to DEI related events, which are all true. However, where the author and others have been missing the mark is around what has transpired for the past five to ten years in our schools, something I saw in my many years as head of school: parents who are too connected to their children on a daily (or should I say minute-by-minute) basis, the weakening of standards of proper behavior for students and adults alike, and the inexperience of members of boards of trustee not understanding their roles in terms of best practices, which has been magnified by the recent issues of the past two years.

Parents and Schools

Allow me to address the change in parental involvement. Why is it that mission statements have been revised, that new strategic plans have been implemented, and that most if not all schools have added clauses to their enrollment contracts not just about the behavior of students, but, as equally important, about the behavior of parents as potential grounds for dismissal or denying re-enrollment for subsequent years? It is because the terrain has changed dramatically in our schools. Our recent bout with the pandemic and racial equity issues have only highlighted the dilemma facing many of our independent schools who seem to be in a constant transition of leadership, and who will continue in that kind of cycle until some real understanding of the issues are faced and solved. Further, some of these larger issues have and will continue to affect not only heads and senior administrators, but all educators in our schools, should we continue on this same path.

It would be wise for our school leaders and boards to be aligned in the school’s mission, and to have the courage to be clear about the expectations for students and parents alike in the admission process.  Further, it would be very helpful for leaders of the school, in conjunction with the parents’ associations, to write and speak about clear guidelines for proper student-teacher-parent partnerships moving forward, keeping communication lines wide open, yet tempered by time, and even fighting against the immediacy of technology, social media, and cell phones on campus.

Boards of Trustees

In the aforementioned article, suggestions were made directly to the board of trustees, which seemed obvious, repetitive, and often not needed. They included recommendations regarding better communication by the board to all constituents of the school community, regarding a better focus on the skill sets needed on every board, and regarding changing committee structures to better serve the needs of each school. While all three points may be fair to consider, I would argue that our current dilemma has little to do with communication coming from the board, for their voice should be through the head of school. Further, I would hope that all nominating committees at the board level already consider skill sets and all levels of diversity needed for their governing body to best function in support of the school, not instead of the skill set already considered or in place by the professional staff at the school. Additionally, I would submit that much of the cited needs in that said article have already been addressed by most of our schools in terms of committees on inclusivity, and in terms of safety of campus and school.

Finally, a suggestion that there may be a need for a board committee on professional development was cited as well. I would submit that if there needed to be a board committee on that issue alone, then the leadership of the school should come into question, for that focus should be under the auspice of the head of school and the leadership team. All of us who have served as heads know clearly that integral to our leadership at any school is the support of our professional staff in terms of three key areas of recruitment/growth namely compensation, benefits, and professional development. It should be obvious to all heads of school that in order to build an outstanding school, one must attract and keep the brightest and the best teachers, coaches, directors, mentors, and advisors – those great educators who work directly with our children. They are, and will be forever, the backbone of all great schools, and we must never lose sight of that equation. Hence, the board’s role in the area of professional growth would be to support those great initiatives by the head and the head’s leadership team, and not to structure a committee solely for its purpose.

Strategies for Retaining Heads of School

With all of that said, I would like to suggest the following for our schools and for our boards of trustees, which could prove to be much more powerful suggestions in this environment of constant leadership transition.

First, boards should engage in authentic work around understanding best practices of boards in independent schools. NAIS does a great job of outlining this kind of work in writing, but hiring a trained, professional consultant to work with the board in this specific area should be a primary focus of any strong board at an independent school. All further structures and procedures will follow from this initial work, be it advanced planning sessions, a retreat, or at least some time set aside for reviewing this work annually. In addition to this kind of regular self-assessment by the board, a formal, new trustee orientation should be part of the annual entry into every school year. This kind of orientation will be important to provide institutional memory, to delivering a baseline of training and knowledge, and to setting the stage for future work.  Also, I recommend that the board of trustees chair and all board officers, along with the head of school and some key administrators, be present for the new trustees’ orientation. All these pieces will prove invaluable to the governing aspect of any independent school.

Second, boards should take the time to have their school assessed properly during any transition in headship. Again, trained professionals work in this area, and boards should afford themselves the opportunity to cast a wide net in an RFP process that truly assesses their needs as they consider several firms as professionals prior to the search process.

Third, great search firms will do an internal audit of the school’s current position and its needs, including site visits, interviews, focus groups, and surveys, which will elicit the true status of any school and which will assist the board and the search committee with their vital work of hiring a new head of school. The above process should ensure complete transparency for the new head of school, which in turn, should lead to shared goals and longer tenures for heads.

Fourth, the transition phase of any head of school’s first year is critical to the long-term success of that head’s tenure. Matching the needs of the school with the needs of the new head and family is incredibly important to the initial connection and comfort for both the school and for the head. Needs large and small must be considered, and the nurturing of the new head is vital in this phase and beyond.  Suggestions would focus upon seemingly lower priorities such as the office and the home, yet those pieces of daily life are incredibly important in any transition of the new head and family. Boards should never lose sight of one of their central roles – namely taking care of the caretaker!

Fifth, for all times and eras, the relationship between the board chair and the head of school is critical to the ultimate success of any school. When that relationship works, the school functions well. Hence, those two people must spend a great deal of time together, must have a baseline of genuine exchange, and must develop trust in each other, which will ultimately permeate to the school itself.

Sixth, the board must perform a formal, annual assessment of themselves and of the head of school based upon the mission of the school, the strategic plan, and shared, agreed upon goals for each year. With these kinds of assessments, open communication will exist and corrections and guidance can be given to assure the long-term tenure of any head, and as important, the long-term health of the school.

Seventh, and final point, is that boards, chairs, and heads have been and will continue to be faced with enormous challenges in any era. One could look back on the 60s and 70s of the past century and know that those challenges were significant in their times for sure. However, there was and will continue to be the need for strength, for open communication, and for all schools staying the course and being true to their mission, no matter the challenges. It will take a great deal of work and courage for boards of trustees to support heads of schools in these times and to assure a bright future for any school. The central roles of our boards as overseers of the mission and strategic plan, as the fiduciaries, and as the mentors for heads of school should never be lost in the obstacles of everyday life. As one looks at the role of the board, one must know that they are stewards of any school, and their ultimate charge as stewards should be to leave it better than they found, period!

Mike Mersky is a senior consultant at Carney, Sandoe & Associates. He was an independent school educator and leader for 44 years in our schools, which included 15 years as a senior administrator and an additional 19 years as head of school.

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Chris Proctor 8/27/2021 at 10:20am

Enjoyed the article and HOS tenure perplexes all independent school associations.

One thought is that many independent schools face chronic enrollment stress due to high tuition. This results in the requirement to cater to parents at a level that is unhealthy for the school leaders in the long term. Heads and Boards find themselves pressured to do what it takes to keep a family regardless of whether it is in the best interest of the child, teacher, or school. Bad parent behavior, followed by HOS fatigue sets in and transition is likely to occur. I remember a conversation with a colleague about to retire at the age of 60. I asked him if he had another school in him and he said “I am just tired of being nice to people who are not nice to me.” This was a really disappointing comment for a school head facing another 15-20 years of school leadership.

I wonder if Frank Boyden tolerated constant questioning of his daily decisions during his 66 years at Deerfield. My guess is that guys like Boyden and Pidgeon were pretty imperious in the way they ran “their” schools and that the days of Boards turning over school operations to a HOS and parents handing off kids with instructions to return them as successful young adults are gone.

Old days are often remembered as good old days. Regardless, times have changed and school heads must bring a new tool kit to their job. The 5-8 year, accomplish as much as you can, tenure may just be the new reality.

Mark Desjardins 10/6/2021 at 12:47pm

Excellent article and strong follow up comment from Chris. My own take as a HOS for the past 24 years is read chapter 5 from the Narcissism Epidemic “parenting: raising royalty.” I contend there is a direct link to permissive parenting and entitlement and HOS tenure.

kevin onabiyi 12/19/2021 at 8:00am

Thank you, Mike for this wonderful article. Am currently taking up a new role in administration, but my goal is to be a head. This article hit the nail on the head. So glad it was written by an experienced and past Head of School.