In Context Volume I
For a glorious, packed enriching week in early July, I attended the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) Institute for New Heads. Picture if you will 85 earnest, ambitious, and hardworking educators stepping into (some sheepishly, some confidently, most somewhere between) their headship through a “boot camp” of sorts: learning and grappling about essential issues that new heads will tackle, seemingly all at once:
- Overseeing strategic finance management
- Growing diverse communities built on equity and inclusion
- Being astutely aware of trends in education
- Managing healthy governance
- Implementing effective entry plans and setting the tone at your school
- Co-creating and overseeing impactful strategic plans
- Facilitating enrollment management
- Leaning into difficult conversations
- Building and leading highly functioning teams
- Implementing effective marketing and communication strategies
At this point in my processing, I am still actively unpacking my learning and key takeaways, synthesizing and connecting the dots. The expert staff loaded us up with essential information. I collected the gem-quotes, which came at warp speed:
- “You promote what you permit”
- “Understand your school’s place in a changing market”
- “Diversity is a ‘need to have’ versus a ‘nice to have’”
- “Take your own learning public and admit your mistakes”
- “Aristotle said, ‘You learn courage by doing courageous things’”
- “Be conscious of ‘innovation fatigue’”
- “In ‘relationship-based systems,’ it’s tempting to balance harmony over truth’”
- “Be cognizant of ‘mission drift’”
I collected questions too:
- “What is your school’s capacity for change?”
- “How might you strike a balance between preserving your school’s values and encouraging healthy disruption of your school’s culture to better promote authentic inclusion?”
- “What’s going to be different about independent schools in 20 years?”
- “Where are the overall risks in your school?”
- “What are challenges that create an imperative for innovation?”
- “What are the ambiguities at your school?”
These questions and quotes are merely a sampling of the weeklong program. What I’ve left out is the powerful, and sure-to-be long-lasting camaraderie and community built among educators from independent K-12 schools, K-8 schools, nursery schools and high schools. About half of the participants were men and half were women. They represented schools in rural, urban, and suburban settings. Geographic diversity was vibrant: California, Utah, Washington (DC and state of), Texas, Virginia, Ohio, Florida, New York, and Minnesota among others. There were a few former college presidents to folks like me who grew from a classroom teacher to an administrator.
And through all of the learning, content, and conversations, I couldn’t help but be proud of place: Westland School. Our mighty mission and cultural attributes stood out, even in the midst of this national context. Tim Fish, Chief Innovation Officer at NAIS, gave a talk on – go figure – innovation, and how it relates to interesting pedagogy as well as sustainable financial models. He gave examples of schools that access their cities to inform their learning as a prime innovation example. A head from a prestigious progressive school in New York approached me and read my mind: “Um, Tim Fish is describing what our school and progressive schools across the country have been doing for decades!” When we were learning the key lessons of effective strategic plan implementation, again and again it was reiterated that the process should be inclusive with distributive ownership of the plan. I recollected with pride at the fact that our strategic plan committee had teacher voice, administrator voice, and board of trustee voice. I felt proud of the good work that’s been in place since the onset of the school to the work we are embarking upon this school year, like the comprehensive marketing study we just launched.
It was the smallest of moments, however, that has resounded most powerfully as I connected my experience at the Institute for New Heads with Westland. Before attending this training in Atlanta, most of us new heads had tucked one wobbly week of headship under our belt. At dinner one evening, I sat and listened to four new heads share hilarious (and sort of pitiful!) stories of arriving to their offices and not really knowing what to do because basically no one was around to welcome them. So they discussed unpacking their offices and figuring out what to do with the three full Ziploc bags of keys that one head discovered or what to think of the two-foot high Debate trophy that evidently had to be kept in the head’s office.
I sat in silence and then shared the beautiful fact that on my very first day, a homemade breakfast of quiche, grilled vegetables, coffee cake, and fresh fruit welcomed me in the staff room, thanks to my colleagues. My peers sat in awe and commented on how special that was. I couldn’t have agreed more. But here’s what I left out about my first days in the office:
- A Group Two dad and daughter on “Chicken Duty” popped in to introduce themselves and left me with four collected eggs that I used for dinner that evening (I’m a big fan of breakfast for dinner!)
- A colleague left a bag of apples, picked from an on-campus tree
- More casual drop-ins from handfuls of teachers, parents, and children introducing themselves with enthusiasm and ease
- Encouraging emails from the former Board President and current Board President awaited me in my inbox
- A friendly dad in a cool straw hat stopping me, “Are you Melinda? I’ve heard about you and I haven’t met you yet! Welcome. I’m…”
John Dewey once wrote (and I warn you, this won’t be the first time you hear a Dewey quote from me): “I should venture to assert that the most pervasive fallacy of thinking goes back to neglect of context.” If there’s one thing I know about context at Westland, it’s that the sense of community is deep, enduring, and powerful. These small moments of my first week are evidence of the context I am entering and being welcomed into.
It’s the same context your children will enter each year: a context built on community and serving the common good—a community context that is welcoming, friendly, and powerful. This sense of community isn’t merely “nice.” It’s essential. Because of Westland’s community-oriented context, we as learners—students and adult learners alike—feel safe and empowered to take risks, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, to ask tough questions, to speak up, to shift perspectives, and to be empathic. So I thank you Westland, for your warm words of welcome, for the apples, the eggs, and more. It has been one thing to intellectually know the context of community at Westland, and to have experienced it firsthand punctuates my excitement and hope for an energizing, engaging, hard (in the good kind of way!), and thoughtful school year ahead.