Some Rules of Thumb for School Leaders from My Experience as Head of School
At the Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads in Atlanta in July, I had the great privilege to work with a cohort eager to pursue school leadership. My class was on managing the internal/external dance of headship — being a demi-celebrity out of school and being the boss in school, making time for self and family, coping with the vicissitudes that punctuate a head’s year, making decisions that have far-reaching implications for your school.
“How do you balance it all?” a participant asked, innocently enough. And suddenly I was off!
“I don’t,” I exclaimed. “I don’t even try. Balance is an illusory concept — it’s a horrible word designed to punish school leaders by making it sound as if we can do it all if we just get everything into alignment — in my experience it is a word that I makes us feel inadequate. I do believe in sequence. Sometimes my family gets more of my time and sometimes my school gets more of my time.”
I took a deep breath. That was surely more than the innocent questioner had intended.
I do believe in common sense. And I believe that experience is a powerful teacher and ally, not just my own experience as a head, but the experiences wise mentors and friends have generously offered, sharing strategies, mantras, techniques and phrases over three decades. Here is a list I use to guide my practice — ranging from the lofty to the intensely practical.
When I first became head, I was struck by my presumed omniscience. People may think you know everything, and they don’t always volunteer information they think you know by osmosis. Ask: “What other questions should I be asking?”
Say less in email than you want to.
Wait before pressing send and do not respond to email at 3:00 a.m.
Invoke the 24 hour rule — a faster response is not always a better one.
Walk down the hall and have a tricky conversation in person — we think email is so much easier, but there is no reading for tone.
Always be mindful of the power differential when you are in a position of authority.
Take time to breathe, to slow down, even in a crisis.
Sleep and self-care matter; don’t make an important decision when you are too tired to think clearly.
The late great Herman Hall, a consultant in many New York schools, taught me, “The situation didn’t get like this in a day; we’re not going to fix it in a day.”
Be abstemious in public — parties, events. You are always the head or the division director or the department chair or the dean, even on Facebook.
Anything you write needs to be okay on the front page of The New York Times (or Twitter).
Think before you speak — Calpurnia says to Scout, “You don’t have to say all you know.”
The weather in your office is often stormy; be careful not to spill your stress on others when you walk out into the school.
People look for what they hope for in your leadership. They will ascribe to you all the qualities they seek or revile in a leader — you can only take responsibility for yourself, not for anyone else’s experiences with authority. (Reread The Essential Conversation by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot.)
My wise colleague, Laurel Consulting Psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour, taught me this line from the show Cops: "Fair, firm, and friendly.” It's a good one for school leaders and teachers.
If someone sidles up to me at the grocery store or the soccer game with a school-related issue, I use this stock response, “Perhaps this is a conversation better had at school — please phone my assistant to set up a time.”
Or, if it’s a really sticky wicket, sometimes I’ll take the lead and say, “I’ll ask my assistant to phone you.”
We don’t get every conversation right. Diane Spillios, my friend and mentor at The Chapin School in Manhattan, taught me this lovely way to return to unresolved issues, “I’ve been thinking about our conversation...”
Valuable questions to pose as a group discusses a complex situation include, “What other info do we have about this?” And, “who else needs to know?”
We can’t get to the curtain call before the play is over.
And another version of that is this adage, “First we’ll see and then we’ll know.”
It is never wrong to say, “I’m so sorry that happened,” to be empathetic and compassionate.
If I’m really stuck, sometimes I’ll say, “Tell me more,” or “What else?” So often, people need you to listen, not to jump right to solving the problem.
The more I can be my authentic self wherever I am, the less stressed I feel.
A good sense of humor is essential — we have to be able to laugh at some of the bizarre situations that come up.
Even as an adult, cultivate a growth mindset. With effort and persistence and practice, you can get better at tasks, reactions, solutions.
It’s easy for us to get caught up — gerbil on exercise wheel mode — in the busy grind of the school year. We face the natural stresses of enrollment and retention, the need to stretch the budget, the particular challenges kids and families present, the routine of grades and comments, the tension between innovation and tradition, the development and refreshment of strategic plans, the everyday work of the year.
But when I can remember to retain perspective, I’m a better leader.
Those of us who love schools love being part of a community, love the possibility a school calendar offers — a new start and fresh school supplies every late summer, the opportunity for another beginning in January. We love teaching and the “Aha” moments. We adore our colleagues. We’re good at seeking solutions. We do not need to be superheroes. Our strength is our humanity, our humility, our wonder, our curiosity. May the beginning of this new school year feel full of optimism and possibility.
Ann V. Klotz is head of Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, home to Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls. She blogs on The Huffington Post and can be found on Twitter, @AnnKlotz.