Ask the Expert
Knowing how much wisdom comes from peers, we asked Reshet Head of School members to answer this month’s question: What do you know now that you wish you knew in your first year?
I wish I had known that although many things require swift action, there are also many things that will partially or even completely resolve on their own. For me, as a novice head, it was very tempting to try to address every issue completely and immediately. Now I know that some things really do just ‘fix themselves’ given some benign neglect. I worry that this might sound like advice to ignore problems, which is not what I mean. I do think, though, that taking time to reflect and sometimes consult with others can help you discern what stuff really is both important and urgent and what stuff can either wait or is perhaps more noise than substance.
Shalom School, Sacramento, CA
I wish that I knew how much time was needed to spend on donor and alumni development. Depending on your school’s administrative structure, a lot of the time for a Head of School who runs a school in a smaller community’ may be spent on marketing, donor relations, grant writing, and/or facilities maintenance. Even though I had read the books on time management and prioritization, I had no idea what a constant juggling act it was going to be.
I also wish that I knew and had been confident that the struggles I faced early on with my board, parents, and faculty would lead to positive changes that needed to be made. As long as the mission guides your choices, struggles will lead to positive culture changes that increase students’ engagement, learning and achievement. Trust your instincts, remain empathetic and professional, in order to lead your school in a forward direction.
Hillel Community Day School, Rochester, NY
Whereas my first year of school leadership was almost 40 years ago, some wisdom has become clear.
First, I would have appreciated an understanding of the vital, synergistic, and existential relationship between the Head and the Board. I would have appreciated clearly defined roles, where responsibilities overlapped, how to resolve differing priorities, and how to engender a “value-added” and mutually respectful relationship among caring lay leaders and professional school administration.
Second, I wish I had had a deeper understanding of the inseparable priorities of mission, vision, philosophy (MVP), program excellence, full enrollment, and robust fund-raising. In other words, how could I have spent more time on real leadership and less time on management, i.e. parent calls, student drama, teacher issues.
Finally, whereas I am mightily blessed with an amazing life partner, I spent too much physical and psychic time on my schools, and might have missed important time with my children. Even when I was with the kids, my mind was often elsewhere. Thank God Debby was “there” at every turn so our kids turned out more than ok. (Some would argue I just would have messed things up anyway.) I am making up for it now with grandchildren. Don’t wait for grandchildren.
Bruce J. Powell, Ph.D.
deToledo High School, West Hills, CA
I wish I knew that as much as I’m the single employee of the board of trustees, it is my obligation to nurture my trustees and to shape the direction of the board. I wish I knew how important a Growth Mindset and Design Thinking is to problem solving.
Wornick Jewish Day School
Design an entry plan (The Entry Plan Approach, by B. Jentz, is enormously helpful). Listen more and speak less. As Rabbi Hillel said, the rest is commentary.
Perelman Jewish Day School
Ask to see not only the school’s budget, but also the bank account (and possibly credit report). Know who is going to be the next Board President.
After their own first year:
Since I’m only ending my first year, I’ll keep it brief. Others have wiser words to offer. I will just say one piece of advice. Always make decisions through the lens of “what is best for the kids?” Once you do that, seemingly complex things become a lot more clear.
-Rebecca Cole Lurie
Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, Newton, MA
I know now and wish I had known sooner how pleasurable the job can be, what a joy it is, in fact, along with a privilege. I spent a good number of years in school administration before I became a Head, thinking I never wanted to be one. That reluctance had internal sources, no doubt, but I also wonder if all the time we spend focusing on the challenges and sharing the war stories can end up clouding other meaningful parts of the picture: that working with a Board can be an intellectually engaging and satisfying partnership uniquely available to Heads, that leading a school gives an extraordinary platform for influencing for the good the lives of children and families and entire communities, that as true as it is to say “it’s lonely at the top,” it’s also true that Heads of School have rewarding opportunities to be connected to lay leaders, professional colleagues, and community partners, not to mention students and teachers. Yes, there are challenges, but this too is part of the joy and privilege. Facing those challenges can be intellectually invigorating, and it can, in surprising ways, open avenues for creativity and making a positive difference. I enjoy the job a whole lot more than I anticipated.