‘Professionalism’ In Faith-Based Schools: A Brief Primer

When I ask small groups of teachers in faith-based schools why they teach “here and not elsewhere,” invariably someone says, “Because God called me here.” Often, more than one person in the same interview will claim divine direction as their fundamental motivation.

Erik Ellefsen, a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE), asks good questions. During our last conversation on his podcast, he asked me about the impact of professionalization on faith-based school culture and leadership:

“Schools are changing,” he said. “They used to be more community-based, but they’re becoming more professionalized… Boards are changing; the demands on boards are changing… If so, how does that impact a leader or head of school building and guiding their board differently than maybe ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, or maybe even when some of these schools were founded?”

Considering Erik’s question over the past few months and watching leaders work together in that context, a combination of ideas on school leadership have occurred to me that inform both the question and my answer.

To start with, teaching and school leadership have always been considered “professions,” but in faith-based environments, especially, working in schools has traditionally been equated with a “calling” to a form of spiritual ministry.

While the number of non-sectarian private schools is on the rise nationally, a huge majority of private schools were founded as educational advocates for distinct religious traditions. (In Texas, for example, more than 80% of private schools are faith-based.)

Christian denominations like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), one of the largest parochial systems in the U.S., still maintain what they refer to as a “call system.” Pastors of churches and teachers in LCMS schools are qualified by the Synod and recruited to serve through very similar processes. Being hired to teach fourth grade in many LCMS schools today, for instance, is equivalent to being called to youth or adult ministry in a church congregation.

Of course, the most prominent examples of the teaching as ministry concept are the Catholic orders, whose brothers and sisters are ordained individuals who constituted the bulk of American Catholic school faculty and administrative positions for at least one hundred years, up through the end of the twentieth century.

Blending the identity of teachers with spiritual vocation distinguished notions of educational professionalism from what were commonly considered “secular” professions. On the one hand, the blend socially elevated teaching in and leading schools above professions that focus primarily on commerce. There was (and still is in many sectors) a sort of vocational hierarchy in which a calling to teach is considered spiritually superior to the competent practice of law or accounting, exemplified by common statements like, “No one goes into teaching to get rich.”

In this economy, educators primarily rely on the non-commercial, spiritual value of their work to dignify their profession. Schools and the families they serve, rely on the educators’ sincere commitments to their calling to ensure that the teaching and leading meet the highest standards. And it worked pretty well until both of these notions came under scrutiny.

Two things happened at once over recent generations. First, in a secular-trending society, the social value of spiritual vocations diminished. Teachers in faith-based schools, while admired for their commitments to students’ needs and generally recognized for the difficulty of their work, are also often pitied, and even socially disregarded, because of their earning capacity.

This shows up in numerous ways, but two stand out. Increasingly, private school teachers work within environments that are dominated by high-income families. This has always been the case in some respects, but income inequality and the defection of middle class families from private schools has made the gap between a teachers’ lifestyle and those of her students that much more pronounced. The financial privilege (including five-figure tuition) lavished on a typical private school student can easily exceed a teacher’s annual salary.

More generally, teachers are among a class of workers whose incomes have not kept pace with costs of living. According to an NCES study, public school teachers (who typically make more than private school teachers) are five times more likely than other full-time workers to have a second job. Added to that, the notion that teaching is a “part-time” job—rather than an intense full-time occupation that requires an annual sabbatical (summers “off”) to stay fresh and competent—is seemingly widely held.

The juxtaposition between the educational service-provider and the customer (private school families and their students) has never been more stark. Meanwhile, client expectations for highly individualized service, time-consuming attentiveness, and top-tier academic and athletic outcomes are greater than ever.

Which brings us to the second evolution. As demands on schools grow, and as the cost of a highly regarded education rises, many faith-based schools find themselves susceptible to criticism for a lack of quality. In some instances, the criticism is well founded and can be caused by the private school’s over-reliance on the traditional, spiritually oriented professionalism.

While American parochial schools have longstanding and distinguished educational traditions, the connotation of the word—parochial—has morphed to mean small-minded and less than relevant. The negative flip side of an educator’s motivation to serve a calling can be that the calling itself becomes protection against demands for professional improvement, or even basic competence.

In the State of New York, new curriculum regulations were issued in December 2018 for all private schools, largely in response to complaints from ultra-orthodox Jewish high school graduates of Yeshivas that allegedly failed to teach them basic subject matter. As uncommon as examples like these might be, they nonetheless serve to erode the public’s sense that faith-based schools value conventional professional conduct.

So, to circle back to Erik’s question about the impact of professionalization on school leadership, a legitimate answer requires some historical context. It may be that rather than professionalism being introduced anew into faith-based schools, the definitions are changing. And as I will explore in the next posting, the new definitions may not be adequate for, nor relevant to, a school’s complex mission.

That said, how schools respond to the challenge will have much to do with the confidence with which parents entrust their children to our care.

 

 

Advertisements

Rope Burn in the Tech Tug-of-War

Viewing School from the Inside Out–Part III

By Senior Partner Chuck Evans

For twelve years, I have spent the majority of my time on the outside of schools looking in. I typically play the role of the third party, the objective observer who has enough of a combination of distance and experience to give (mostly) good advice. I happen, though, to be writing this in my last week as the interim head of The Covenant School in Dallas, a six hundred student K-12 school celebrating its 25th year.

This year has been an interesting mix of perspectives. Though still able to work with several other schools on strategic and financial planning initiatives, much of my year has been absorbed with the daily life of a school community. Leading Covenant has provided me with something like a time warp, comparing and contrasting the patterns of activity and relationships in 2018 with my last full-time head of school position in Austin in 2006.

Rope Burn

When I stepped away from running schools in 2006, the iPhone was still a top secret project called “Purple.” My Blackberry stored my contacts, displayed a calendar, and could send text messages and email. That was it, other than to make phone calls (though it also performed well as a sturdy doorstop). Children did not have cell phones, generally until they learned to drive-and then mostly for emergencies.

Stepping back into the daily world of a school operating in the ubiquitous presence of the internet has been arresting. Call me oblivious, but just being around schools a lot, as I am, or having kids in school, as I still do, doesn’t really expose you to the impact that smart phones have on the day-to-day school experience. And my up close exposure this year has been in a school in which cell phone use is highly regulated during the school day, and among parents for whom it is almost fashionable to delay buying that first phone as long as possible.

There are so many more things to guard against today. So many more ways for students (and teachers) to technologically go off the rails, even while under our very noses! Never has a strong, positive peer culture been both more necessary and more difficult to craft.

Cell phone use in school has replaced, or at least eclipsed, other perennial controversies, too. It is the new uniform/dress code debate. Conducting parent focus groups this Spring for schools in Silicon Valley and East Texas (you couldn’t find two more divergent local cultures!), the single constant was disagreement about technology. In both schools, I encountered groups of parents who, in the same interview sessions, said, “Get rid of tablets/cell phones/computers” and then, “Allow more cell phone/tablet/computer use.”

Of course, every parent in every focus group clings tightly to a phone, most checking their screens multiple times during the forty-minute conversations.

Not unlike their clothing preferences, parent perspectives on the risks and benefits of technology in school are highly personalized. They also seem largely informed by polarizing opinions accessed, well… on the internet. From online bullying to pornography to wasted time, the risk averse have plenty of ammunition. As do the technology globalists, who want their kids to learn computer code in third grade, or who feel they need instant access to their children during the day via text or FaceTime.

This is not to say that the new tech normal is all bad. Instant internet access provides creative teachers and curious students with all sorts of resources which were much more difficult to find and use in the dark ages of the naughts. Twelve years ago, you could still purchase history or literature curriculum resources that came with CD’s full of pictures of famous art and other graphics or illustrations-for thousands of dollars! That economy is fading fast, as far as I can tell, and I would love to teach my old seminars with the technology horsepower available today.

Frankly, I don’t see a practical pathway for most schools to reverse course. It won’t be long, probably, before kids show up to school with location/communication devices embedded under their skin. Internet access is already on their watches, and a workplace version of Google Glass spectacles has found a foothold in manufacturing. It’s just a matter of time before it boomerangs back into the consumer mainstream and into schools.

Meanwhile, the tug-of-war over devices in schools will continue unabated. Glad I don’t have to referee the struggle everyday, but I’m glad I got a little rope burn, if only for a year.

 

Security Theater

Viewing School from the Inside Out–Part II

By Senior Partner Chuck Evans

For twelve years, I have spent the majority of my time on the outside of schools looking in. I typically play the role of the third party, the objective observer who has enough of a combination of distance and experience to give (mostly) good advice. I happen, though, to be writing this in my last week as the interim head of The Covenant School in Dallas, a six hundred student K-12 school celebrating its 25th year.

This year has been an interesting mix of perspectives. Though still able to work with several other schools on strategic and financial planning initiatives, much of my year has been absorbed with the daily life of a school community. Leading Covenant has provided me with something like a time warp, comparing and contrasting the patterns of activity and relationships in 2018 with my last full-time head of school position in Austin in 2006.

Security Theater

In 2006, keeping exterior doors locked and wearing visitor badges was the extent of our security protocol. Security personnel, uniformed officers with weapons, were for public schools trying to keep the lid from blowing off. Before the horrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, the idea of another Columbine-type shooting seemed far-fetched. We didn’t really consider ourselves vulnerable to an intentional attack.

Then, of course, Sandy Hook. According to the Gun Violence Archive, since Sandy Hook there have been 239 shooting incidents on school campuses. More than 400 people have been shot in these incidents, and 138 people died.

The Covenant campus is fenced, with a stone wall facing the nearest neighborhood. But its entries are off of a freeway feeder road, and there is a lot of cross-town traffic in the area, which heightens parents’ and teachers’ sense of exposure. Even though you can’t drive onto campus without being buzzed through an electronic gate, the system isn’t foolproof.

So, in January I hired a guy with a gun. It was a disheartening moment. After a handful of nearby police incidents, none of which directly threatened campus safety, I realized that the sense of security that we have taken for granted in schools everywhere is gone. The fear of external threats has overwhelmed our consciousness, and many parents can’t feel that their children are safe without weapons present in our schools.

I first encountered an armed security officer in a parochial school in San Antonio about ten years ago. At the time, I thought that the measure was an overreaction to the anxiety of privileged parents. Who would bother a school like this, I thought? Since then, security guards have become more and more of a commonplace. When I conduct focus group interviews with parents, from California to Texas, increasingly they express safety and security as primary concerns.

Just a few years ago, a colleague described tactical training that he and his staff underwent so that they could carry concealed weapons at school. Half way through the multi-day training, he told me, he realized that they weren’t being taught how to bring an attacker down. They were being taught to become targets. The goal was for an attacker to feel the need to defend himself and to shoot at adults rather than students.

I also discovered a further consequence of our collective anxiety and efforts to allay fear. The day before school resumed after Christmas break in January, when teachers would ordinarily be collecting themselves, sharing stories about the holidays, and laying out a plan for re-entry, we conducted a harrowing active shooter orientation and training. No one feels good after a day like that, and the time and emotional energy sucked up into the four-hour fear beat down probably furthered most people’s apprehensions.

While adding a well trained security officer to our staff relieved some people’s anxiety, for me it had something of an opposite effect. Though our new colleague is perfectly capable, and in just the right circumstances could likely “neutralize” an assailant, his presence made me more aware of vulnerabilities, not less. He can’t be everywhere at once, and by enlisting his cheerfully reassuring presence we have resigned ourselves to a form of “security theater”without actually having become all that more secure.

It says something tragic about our society that we have accepted lethal force as a practical necessity in our schools-a “cost of doing business,” as I found myself saying to the Covenant board-rather than a paranoid overreaction. We have, in some ways, embraced a kind of militia mentality that we used to ascribe to the lunatic fringe. But the time for choosing has passed for many schools.

In this new era, no one really feels safe at school. Even with armed guards present.

 

The Private School Board: Competency Squared

 

Viewing School from the Inside Out–Part I

By Senior Partner Chuck Evans
For twelve years, I have spent the majority of my time on the outside of schools looking in. I typically play the role of the third party, the objective observer who has enough of a combination of distance and experience to give (mostly) good advice. I happen, though, to be writing this in my last week as the interim head of The Covenant School in Dallas, a six hundred student K-12 school celebrating its 25th year.

 

So this year has been an interesting mix of perspectives. Though still able to work with several other schools on strategic and financial planning initiatives, much of my year has been absorbed with the daily life of a school community. Leading Covenant has provided me with something like a time warp, comparing and contrasting the patterns of activity and relationships in 2018 with my last full-time head of school position in Austin in 2006.

 

The Board:  Competency Squared

“For a board to really do its job, referencing best practice, concentrating on strategy, planning for the future, you have to have competency on both sides of the balance sheet.”

 

That’s how Covenant’s Board Chair J.J. Barto put it recently. Meaning that, if only the head or only the board are capably working at any given time, good governance becomes all but impossible.

 

A few years ago, I had an epiphany about independent school boards and the bad rap they often (always) tend to get. (By the way, I wrote about this in another vein here.) The epiphany came in the form of a question: What if the things we complain about regarding our boards are caused not so much by the boards themselves, but by a lack of competent leadership from heads of school and their staffs?

 

In our Transformative Boards video training series, I spend some confessional time describing how I contributed to the occasional dysfunctional relationships I had with my boards as a head of school. Pushing an agenda ahead of the board’s ability to acclimate to my ideas, insisting on legalistically bright lines between me and my staff and the board or its committees, quietly criticizing the way the board works or how individual board members conduct themselves. It’s relationship 101 stuff, and it matters.

 

Barto’s point about the competency balance sheet highlights an organizational dynamic that is easily overlooked. That is, despite a board’s proclivity to go off the rails of its own accord, it may be just as common that boards find themselves behaving badly or operating unconstructively in response to deficits in the head of school’s leadership.

 

An entirely fictitious illustration might help here. A parent complains informally to a friend who happens to be a board member about how his child is being disciplined in school. The board member dutifully directs the parent to the chain of command, but he also can’t help hearing that others have similar complaints. So our concerned board member asks around a little about what’s going on-perhaps even mentioning the concern to the head or the division head responsible for the action.

 

Now, at this point, you might say that the board member has veered out of his lane. From a legalistic standpoint, that may be true. The board manual advises board members not to invite complaints from fellow parents about problems they can’t solve and insists on a strict grievance protocol. In most independent schools, though, reality is rarely that simple. People care. They care about their friends, they care about their friends’ kids, and they care about the well-being of the school.

 

So, in this (I repeat) entirely fictitious scenario, the aggrieved parent remains unsatisfied and logically appeals over the head of school for some relief from, who else? The board.

 

And here’s where the balance sheet analogy kicks in. If the board members have a high degree of confidence in the head’s wisdom and consistency, it is a relatively simple matter to send the complaint back down to the administration and let the supplicating parent know that that’s the end of the road. Competency in governance matched by competent administration.

 

If, however, the board as a whole doubts the head’s judgment or doubts the adequacy of his supervision of his own staff, a different conversation ensues. And it’s not always a “let’s give parents who are our friends what they want” discussion, which is what is often assumed by the chain of command. It is likely more fundamental than that, and it can legitimately reside at the heart of a board’s responsibility to preserve and protect the mission.

 

Good boards, I have observed, have a fine instinct to prevent harm to the school, and for many board members that plays out in experience more than rules of engagement.

 

What could do more harm, a board might ask (if not explicitly then unconsciously): For a student or group of students to be treated capriciously in violation of our values or for a parent to be granted an unorthodox audience so we can get a clearer view of how our head does his job?

 

For many heads of school, the conundrum, if one is acknowledged, is simply resolved. Boards should always remain in their prefigured disinterested roles and defer to the judgment of the professional staff, regardless of misgivings. That’s how we maintain the balance of power.

 

From a board member’s perspective though, both as a parent and a governor, solving the riddle can be, and I might say should be, more complicated. If in fact, the head of school has made a significant mistake, should that go un-repaired? And if that mistake is one piece of a larger pattern of similar misjudgments or poor management, wouldn’t the board be derelict in its duty not to intervene?

 

Again, the formulae we learn in governance workshops (attended mostly by heads of school, absent board members) stand at the ready:

 

“If you can’t trust your head to make wise decisions you’ve got the wrong head.”

 

Or, “If a board entertains one complaint about the head’s performance it creates a precedent to adjudicate all future complaints.”

 

Neither of which are necessarily true in real life.

 

But when a board finds itself repeatedly placed in preventative mode against harm the professional staff might do, it loses its ability to govern well. And that’s not necessarily the board’s fault.

 

So, in addition to the need for boards to be developed professionally to balance the competency equation, heads need similar development.

 

When, though, was the last time you saw a workshop at an independent school conference teaching heads how to hold up their end of the leadership bargain? I envision a title like

“How Not To Do Dumb Stuff and Drive Your Board Off the Rails”.

Or, maybe “Your Board’s A Bad Board, and It’s Probably Your Fault”.

 

We’ll see who shows up at the next conference.

From “Whipping Post” to “We Are the Champions”?

By Chuck Evans
Senior Partner
If any sector of the U.S. economy is due for some good news, it’s us.  Among enterprises from service industries to manufacturing to tech to energy, private schools have found themselves more beleaguered than most, and the negative voodoo seems to have been piling up relentlessly.
Then, a glimmer.  After a decade of declines, last year, the U.S. Department of Education reported a slight uptick (1%) in private school enrollment between 2011 and 2013.  Though it didn’t even make a dent in the 13-14% enrollment decreases between 2005 and 2013, not to mention the epic collapse of traditional parochial systems over the past decades, it was, finally, not bad news.
Then, in September, the Council for American Private Education (CAPE) reported on the latest biennial count from the National Center for Educational Statistics, trumpeting an astounding 7% aggregate increase between 2013 and 2015.  Furthermore, revising earlier numbers, overall enrollment in private schools jumped a total of 9% between 2011 and 2015.  And, since 2011, the number of private schools also leaped a whopping 12%, resulting in nearly 30% of all K-12 schools in the U.S. being private schools in 2015-2016.
Even with all of the hand-wringing among private school leaders in the aftermath of the 2007 financial collapse and the ensuing Great Recession, private schooling has rebounded as a go-to option for hundreds of thousands of families either new or returning to the private school market.  Despite slow wage growth and a fits-and-starts economic recovery, the presence of private schools has re-emerged in force.
To be fair, the recession did impact many sectors of the private school universe adversely-in some cases devastatingly.  As I documented in a chapter for the book Building A Better School:  Essays on Exemplary Christian School Leadership (ed. by Timothy P. Wiens and Kathryn L. Wiens, Paideia Press 2012 Available Here), some faith-based school organizations saw as much as a 20% decline in membership due to closures and consolidations in just five years.
The recent growth, however, has not occurred as a merely automatic economic circumstance (i.e., the economy is up, so every sector benefits).  Remember, that in the throes of the Great Recession, it wasn’t only private school statespersons and researchers who were skeptical of our future prospects.  Outside forces took the opportunity to actively attack private schooling as uncivil, even immoral (remember the Slate piece “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”?).  Unlike retailing or manufacturing, private schools have real enemies, despite the positive impact we have on local communities, economies, and overall quality of life.
While the carnage ensued, a series of significant re-calibrations, largely unobserved by the press and researchers, was occurring among a handful of leading schools and associations. They vigorously asked themselves what it would take for private schools to regain a form of prominence in the 21st century.  While the numbers tanked around them, visionary leaders re-organized their thinking about and their expectations for future market growth and fiscal viability.
A significant aspect of this re-calibration has had to do with the significance of sheer numbers as an indicator of success.  One of our clients in Southern California had once proudly been one of the largest faith-based schools west of the Mississippi River, enrolling 1,900 students.  Over less than a decade in the early 2000s, enrollment dropped to less than 800 students-a stunning implosion accelerated by the Recession and leaving the school community reeling and fearful.
Since 2009, that school has shifted its thinking about success from the heady days of hugeness to the necessity of stable value, mission focus, and student retention.  The leadership set a more sustainable enrollment goal of approximately 1,100 students and has steadily climbed to that number, even in an area with tremendous socio-economic diversity and rapidly shifting demographics.
A second consistent area of focus among the schools re-assessing what the 21st century requires is to prioritize educational and experiential value that can support inevitably rising costs.  If there has been a steady drumbeat within the private school world, it is that historic, annual price increases of 4% to 7% are simply unsustainable.  At some point, the narrative goes, schools will reach tuition levels that parents will just refuse to pay, even wealthy families in the most elite schools.
Our observation, and we believe that this will continue to be borne out, is that the notion is largely, if not patently, false.  The flimsy-ness of the fear is already being challenged by robust research from Independent School Management (ISM) and, we might add, the growth in both enrollment and in the number of private schools in operation.  Working with clients who are either expanding programs or re-considering their financial plans, we are finding more boards than ever before that understand the importance of setting tuition based on objective references to the cost of doing business.  And most of these schools are growing.
Third, private schools have introduced new levels of innovation in their offerings and their missions. BetterSchools works on strategic initiatives with a good number of classical Christian schools, once considered the lunatic fringe of private schools.  Across the country, thirty years or so into the movement’s origins, classical schools are moving to the forefront in markets big and small.  In Austin, Texas, for instance, the largest K-12 independent school is classical.  In the Dallas Metroplex, classical schools are regularly competing for and winning athletic and academic state titles.
Similar things can be said for the growth in both sheer numbers and in market share for Jewish, Islamic, Montessori, and non-sectarian international and arts-focused schools.  A combination of mission intensity and educational imagination is propelling these schools to new levels of credibility and attractiveness with parent-consumers seeking unique opportunities for their children.
Finally, look at the impact of the steady advance of school choice across the country.  The past couple of years have witnessed an avalanche of tax credit, ESA, and voucher programs, providing greater access to middle and working class families.  In some states, some schools may be growing overly reliant on these programs, but as a movement, the momentum is definitely with private school choice, in both legislatures and state and federal courts.  And parents love having the choice to make!
Queen’s “We Are The Champions” might not yet be the appropriate theme song for America’s private schools.  But, unlike much of the last decade, the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” comes to mind less and less frequently as the soundtrack for our schools.
It’s nice to have some good news for a change.

The Hardest Job In School: The Board Member (Part 2)

Surveying a private school with plenty of money, strong enrollment, a winning football team, and selective college admissions during an accreditation visit, a colleague said to me, “Everything’s great when everything’s great.” What he meant, of course, is that over time, even model schools encounter difficulty. It might be a sudden financial downturn, an employee scandal, student misconduct, or vitriolic parents. Trouble comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and schools rely on their boards to minimize risk and to respond effectively to difficulties as they arise.

School boards can’t control the economy, make people be reasonable, or ensure that students follow the rules. They do, however, exercise significant influence on a school’s culture, the security of its employees, and the organization’s mission focus.

In the last post on this topic—why being a school board member is the toughest job in school—I mentioned two significant factors. First, school boards that rely on current parents as members are largely populated with people who are serving for the first time, or who have only ever served on one board. Second, most—and I mean MOST—schools make too little of an investment in professional development for their boards.

Individual v. Collective Accomplishment

Another common factor has to do with the type of people who tend to be recruited to boards. Often, they are distinguished professionals or business owners with a track record for individual accomplishment. In many instances, however, business owners and well-compensated professionals have established their reputations on the basis of what they achieve, more or less, by themselves. And they are often people who are accustomed to getting things done through those they work with or who work for them, rather than with them. Learning to lead as a collective group of peers, rather than as individuals, requires an adjustment to board members’ expectations for what they should contribute.

Misunderstanding what it means to lead collectively can cause all sorts of headaches. Individually oriented board members are more likely to see themselves as problem solvers in the school community, involving themselves in situations that they’ll probably make worse. They can be inclined to object publicly to board or administrative decisions with which they disagree or to voice their opinions about pending controversies. They can position themselves as the head of school’s direct supervisor, ignoring that the head works at the pleasure of an entire board, not just one member.

Building a disciplined culture of collective leadership helps to ensure that boards remain focused on areas of activity toward which they are best positioned to lead. Talented, capable individuals are necessary. As board members, they serve best in the context of the whole.

Success Indicators

A common effective teaching technique is to write your exam before you write your syllabus and plan your classes. Knowing what you intend for your students to know and how they’ll demonstrate their knowledge clarifies how you’ll spend your time, and theirs, from start to finish. The same is true of a strong board. Beyond the meetings and the routine decisions, what circumstances will reveal whether the board is doing its job well?

Too often, board success has a tendency to be defined more by mechanics than outcomes. Attendance at board meetings, command of budget details, attention to complaints, and tests of the administration’s performance—as important as these are—can displace broader, more telling aspects of the school’s health.

How boards and heads work together is best defined by desired outcomes, not just by what the accreditation standards dictate. Keeping a close eye on the by products of the work and the larger effects on the school community is ultimately more informative than maintaining scorecards of who did or didn’t meticulously stick to their job description.

Knowledge of the Institution

Finally, though in no way comprehensively, boards and their members can find themselves at a disadvantage by believing that they know more about their school than they actually do.

Now this can be a little touchy, but even highly engaged board members with a long history in a school, with enrolled students and active spouses, have a limited understanding of how the school works, both day to day and over time. It is easy to over assess one’s grasp of the causes that lead to observable effects, either positive or negative. We see this in a wide variety of situations, but none so clearly as in the process of conducting financial analyses and constructing models for sustainability.

A common example is board members’ ideas about enrollment trends. If a school is growing and stable, the assumption tends to be that the school’s tuition and other revenue streams are optimally situated. When schools experience stagnancy or enrollment declines, fingers instinctively point to the culprits of price increases (which are inevitable) or some unanticipated shift in the market (slow wage growth, consumer confidence, etc.). In fact, except in relatively rare circumstances, reliable research shows that the most significant impact on enrollment stems from a school’s programmatic execution: its primary value proposition. Internal, rather than external, factors play an outsized role in overall stability.

Generally speaking, a board member’s insight into the school’s reality constitutes a sliver of the total experience. As much as anything, recognizing this individual handicap commends more collaboration, information gathering, and exposure to the wider context of private schools in the 21st century.

The Hardest Job in School: The Board Member

By Chuck Evans, Senior Partner

As I noted in my post in January, it’s been eleven years since I was a head of school. Eleven years since I dragged myself home after a late night board meeting to complain for two hours. Eleven years since my staff and I strategized about how to get a controversial policy adopted over the objections of “that” board member. Eleven years since I fielded a call from a board member with a lot to say about yesterday’s goings on in the middle school.

And in those eleven years, I’ve learned something: Being the board member of a private school is hard.

Boards, though, remain our favorite whipping boys. When a head of school resigns prematurely or is fired, no matter what the circumstances, our professional educator instincts immediately suspect that the board, not the head, is the real problem. We magnify their faults, and we minimize their contributions. We speak of them as “the board,” not as the generous, self-sacrificing individuals of whom most school boards are made. They get much of the criticism, and little, if any, of the credit. I mean, when was the last time someone said of a head of school who thrives in the role for fifteen years, “Man, she must have had a great board!”?

What I didn’t have as a head of school, I’ve gained over a decade of watching many boards go about their business. As a school head, my primary interest lay in accomplishing objectives that stemmed fundamentally from my personal and professional vision of what a school should be. It was easy to take my boards’ agreement for granted, and easier to be frustrated when they disagreed. What I often lacked in those relationships, and what I think I’ve gained, is what one might call empathy.

In addition to my evolved perspective on how hard it is to be a good board or a good board member, I’ve also developed an explanation for why this is so. First and foremost, as I’ve just described, being the board member of a private school is a largely thankless job. It’s a poor fit for people who crave affirmation or who are highly sensitive to criticism, especially the unfounded criticisms aimed at many boards by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

But beyond personality and motivation, there are common structural reasons that make board service difficult. Some are within a school’s control, and some are not. Knowing what they are, however can help boards, their members, and the people who work for them to make better sense of the job and its challenges.

Experience

I’ve observed that many school board members are serving for the first time on a school board, and, in many cases, for the first time on any non-profit board. For schools that tend to populate their boards with a majority or all parents, this is especially likely to be true. A board member whose children are in third, fifth, and seventh grade, for instance, hasn’t had much time to do more than work and raise kids. At the typical age of, say, thirty-eight, as accomplished as she may be, she is twenty or thirty years younger than the likely average age of board members at the hospital or symphony or museum, or even the religious congregation she attends.

Furthermore, she is surrounded by fellow members who have also only served on one board. They came to the position the same way that she has, and they only know the inner workings of one organization. They do things the way they do things, and, if the school’s situation is relatively stable, there don’t seem to be compelling reasons to do otherwise. (Actually, it is not uncommon for boards whose schools are in big trouble to entrench themselves in the way they do things, expecting different results from the same approach.)

This experience deficit can contribute to at least two negative outcomes. First, the longer a board operates with only its own experience to compare with, the more likely it is to accept inefficiencies and indicators of ineffectiveness as normal. Every board has its policy and procedure quirks based in historical precedent, and those quirks, however small, can accumulate over time into major obstructions to vision, innovation, and the school’s vitality.

Second, operating more or less instinctively based on years of un-evaluated habit can effectively embed an assumption that the circumstances of a particular school are wholly unique to that school. A board that is convinced that organizational norms that apply in business or government or even in other schools don’t apply to them or their school has barricaded itself from opportunities to learn and improve. The “that might work for other schools, but we’re different” mentality (and, believe me, I’ve heard that exact phrase a lot) stifles prudent analysis and progress.

Investment

Exceptional schools tend to make exceptional investments in professional development. They adhere to industry standards of a certain percentage of the budget allocated for teacher training, administrative networking, and participation in educational and operational associations.

But the boards that approve these expenditures and encourage their employees to hone their craft seldom make similar investments in their own growth. Whether the need for a board’s professional development is simply overlooked or intentionally set aside to reduce cost, the effect is the same: the people who are ultimately responsible for the school’s health and well-being become professionally malnourished.

So, what can your school do to do make board service, as difficult as it is, more manageable?

  1. Support one another with accountable affirmation. Establish the indicators that define your success, collectively and individually, hold each other to those expectations, and celebrate good work.
  2. Embrace a learning culture. Adopt for yourselves similar expectations for evaluation and improvement as your school has for the employed staff. Make the effort to become better part of your board’s routine, not just an occasional aside.
  3. Give yourselves the advantage of time and money to be trained, to network with other boards, and to explore approaches to governing that prove effective in schools that you admire.

Above all, keep your school’s mission at the center of every decision, initiative, and effort. That’s what makes the difficulty worth it.