Levy, a retiring long-term day school head, shares the lessons that have helped her stay focused, successful and sane over her career.
Among my fondest memories as head of school is the story told to me by the mother of a young student. She reported that, on the previous Friday evening, her toddler had blown out the Shabbat candles, whereupon his sister, a kindergartner at our school, told him, “G-d is going to send you to Cooki’s office!” We laughed at that, and, of course, I am well aware of my place in the scheme of things relative to G-d. But the anecdote does highlight the role of head of school as perceived by a young child—having ultimate authority and knowledge, responsible for everything, and controlling the many strings that keep the day school functioning smoothly.
It is often not only the child, but the parents and the staff who assume that the head of school knows it all. And, in fact, to do the job well, to be truly successful, to be a long-term head of school, one must understand everything or know how to get the information needed, and, most importantly, must be able to anticipate what must be known now, tomorrow, next week or next year.
In the world of the day school, much of that knowing comes from being there—not in the office, behind the computer or on the phone, but out in the corridors, the bus lanes, the parking lot, the classrooms, and the staff room. Knowing comes from listening and speaking to kids and parents, listening and speaking to teachers and staff, being a part of the ebb and flow of school life. Knowing comes from being an active part of the community, alert to changes in mood, to the arrival of new community members and the departure of others. Knowing comes from responding to questions and concerns and from the insistence on being included in the large and the small events of daily school life.
What else must be true about successful, long-term heads of school? The community will know and understand them—what they stand for, what they value, what decisions and actions they will take. There will be few surprises, and while students, parents or staff may not always be happy with decisions that are made, they will expect nothing different, and will be reassured by the consistency of responses. For just as they know their community, the community knows and understands them. Consistency in words and actions, but not rigidity or inflexibility—that is a key to longevity as a day school head.
The successful head of school navigates the delicate balance between complete accessibility, ready to soothe, solve and resolve, advise and help at a moment’s notice, and the need to protect personal and family life. While some professions do not require the complete support of close family, the job of head of school is not one of them. Being available to the school community is critical, within reason. But maintaining close relationships with family and friends, staying connected to real life and living the day-to-day dramas that the school population faces is critical as well. This deepens the ability of heads of school to communicate with empathy and understanding, not to mention allowing them to maintain their sanity, health and good humor.
Running a school of any size requires the ability to see both the institution as one cohesive whole, and each of the many unique, distinct parts that form that whole. It requires understanding of how each of the parts relates to and depends on the others, and when one of these areas needs to take precedence. Sometimes, pedagogical issues will need one’s full attention; at other times finance, or building maintenance or community relations will demand attention. Juggling and balancing these interdependent areas and knowing how each affects the others are critical to success.
The head of school makes dozens of decisions, large and small, short-term and long-term, every day. How and when these decisions are made, what kind of collaboration should or should not take place, how consistent and fair the decisions are, and how they are communicated, determine in large measure the school leader’s effectiveness. Staff and parents are reassured when decisions are measured, clear and timely. And it’s very hard sometimes, especially when there are conflicting and equally important values that come into play, time is short, and someone is sure to be disappointed.
So many other statements would make wonderful posters in every school leader’s office:
Don’t take it all personally! Parents will be angry, teachers will complain, students will disturb. All the negativity comes to heads of school. Remember that they receive the complaints because others think they can fix them all—and many times they can. But sometimes they cannot—or will not, or should not. Remember that the parents of the most vulnerable students are themselves the most needy and the least able to deal with difficulty.
Children are not widgets, and schools are not governed by the rules of the corporate world. Solid, unbreakable rules will sometimes need to be bent. What has worked so well with others may not help in a particular child’s case. The almost desperate need of one staff member may trump firm guidelines that one holds dear. People need to be recognized for who they are, what they offer, and what challenges they face.
Love your teachers! Ultimately, the most powerful moments in the school day take place between teachers and students in the classroom, and so it is clear that among the most important tasks of the head of school is keeping teachers professionally engaged and productive, with a sense of purpose and of being valued and respected. Talk to them; eat with them; stay abreast of their personal ups and downs. Give them the gift of professional growth and development and help them to be successful. Set high standards based on reasonable demands and make certain that these demands are being met. Celebrate successes, but do not ignore the challenge of the difficult teacher.
Seek and accept help and support! School leadership used to be among the loneliest jobs out there, but it does not have to be anymore. There are numerous local, national and international organizations able to bring together, at least in the virtual world, like-minded individuals with similar positions. Stay in touch with new and current thinking, read to deepen your own thinking and gain new insights. Ask questions, and share what you have discovered.
Have fun! The head of school has to love the job, and if it’s not enjoyable, find out why. Of course, it’s not always fun, but it’s got to feel good most of the time. Seek out the good moments.
Never lose sight of the big picture. There will be good days and very annoying ones; minor irritations and major problems, inspiring teachers and incorrigible ones, reasonable and unreasonable parents. No one event, no one day or month, not even one year, defines the job for the long-time head of school. It is the collection of moments, the compilation of stories, the bank of memories, the myriad successes of student after student that are the sum total of a life’s work.
You’re not in the business to be liked and must not search for popularity, but after years in the same office, most likely you will be liked, even loved, nonetheless. That’s the bonus.
Statistics indicate that the typical head of school in the Jewish day school system remains at one position for a period of less than three years, on average. The tragedy of that statistic is that it never allows the head of school to get past the birth pangs, past the difficulties that come with all new beginnings, to harness the creativity, the sense of purpose, the satisfaction of accomplishment that are such a large part of being a long-term head of school. The challenge for our communal and school lay leadership is to find ways to support the head through that initial period to enable him or her to move into the second and more satisfying phase of long-term leadership.♦
Cooki Levy has been the head of school at The Akiva School in Montreal for the past 23 years; she serves as a mentor in the Day School Leadership Training Institute and as a consultant in the area of educational leadership. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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