This past year, Lorri Palko has taught several sections of One Schoolhouse’s online course, Building Trust With Faculty. In this course, Lorri advises leaders on how to build professional relationships that support healthy communities of trust. As she prepares to teach the summer sessions of the course, Lorri talked to Sarah Hanawald, One Schoolhouse’s Assistant Head for Professional Development and New Programs, to reflect on what she’s discovered about independent school leadership in the past year.
Academic Leaders have been under tremendous pressure for the entire year. They felt like they needed to perceive what needed to be done, make a judgment call on the action to be taken, and follow through accordingly--and to do all this quickly. This year, there were so many issues that school leaders had to react to and act on quickly that they didn’t realize their fast actions had imperiled some of their relationships with teachers on campus.
In a lot of cases, that happened because leaders didn’t have empathy skills that were adequate for the challenges they faced. Let me be clear--these are kind, caring individuals. Academic Leaders are drawn to their work because they care intensely about their communities and the people in them. But empathy doesn’t mean being understanding and warmhearted. Empathy is our ability to understand what someone else is experiencing, and to put aside our own judgment and perspective. When leaders move fast, especially under stress, it’s all too easy to overlook the way that our unconscious biases and beliefs can get in the way of our ability to really see things from someone else’s perspective.
One challenge for leaders was that many fell into the trap of listening to others with what I call a “Me Focus.” With this focus, the listener isn’t seeking to understand, but is instead focused on their own thoughts, feelings, and judgments. This leads to statements like “I know just how you feel.” The listener thinks they’re making a connection, but the speaker feels unrecognized and unvalued.
Another missed opportunity to build trust is when leaders view a conversation as a problem to be solved rather than an authentic connection with another person. If a leader is focused on constructing a response, they’re not really listening to what the other person is saying. Shifting that focus to asking questions and following another’s lead is what it takes to begin to build empathy.
Effective leaders cultivate self-awareness. Self-awareness is the gateway to being a leader who inspires trust and confidence from others. We cultivate self-awareness by allowing ourselves to recognize and name our emotions. Self-awareness allows us to quiet the inner critic who says, “You’re not good enough, you can’t do this.” When we save space and time for wisdom and intuition to come forward, we give ourselves permission to choose a higher thought and take inspired action.
Self-awareness allows us to access the highest expression of empathetic conversation, which is holistic listening, when you use all your senses and your intuition to truly understand what the other person may be saying, or not saying, but still revealing. When leaders are self-aware, they can bring all of themselves to a conversation--and they can recognize, acknowledge, and honor the complexity and vulnerability of another person’s experience. When a leader can listen this way, then real professional trust can be earned and rebuilt.
Join Lorri for Building Trust With Faculty June 14 - 25, 2021 or July 12 - 23, and learn how to better support teachers who are facing change, disruption, or challenges professionally and in their lives. Participants will learn how to lead affirming coaching conversations that foster healthy, trusting relationships, so that the resulting professional culture provides support for faculty members that mirrors the schools’ concern for and support of students.
One Schoolhouse Board Congratulates Head of School & CEO Brad Rathgeber on 10 Years of Service and Extraordinary Leadership
On behalf of the 2020-21 One Schoolhouse Board of Trustees, it is my honor and privilege to congratulate and thank Brad Rathgeber, co-founder and original board president of Online School for Girls, and current head of school and CEO of One Schoolhouse, for 10 years of extraordinary executive leadership of this dynamic educational organization.
In the winter of 2009, four independent girls’ schools – Harpeth Hall School (TN), Holton-Arms School (MD), Laurel School (OH) and Westover School (CT) – formed a non-profit consortium to become the world’s first online single-sex school and the first online independent school: the Online School for Girls (OSG). They came together with common beliefs that online education was an increasingly powerful way to learn, and that there was great value in creating an online learning environment built on the traditions of independent schools and girls' schools. Their foresight has proven to be incredibly accurate.
Brad and his colleagues have created a unique supplemental educational organization that provides courses and programs for students and adult learners across our independent school community and across the globe. A smart business model and affordable pricing has allowed all types and sizes of schools, and even individual students, to benefit from One Schoolhouse’s programming. As a result, hundreds of schools and thousands of students benefit from Brad’s leadership annually. Via One Schoolhouse's mission to empower learning and transform education, he has helped numerous schools and associations solve problems and transform their delivery channels.
This recognition for Brad in June 2021 is extremely timely because of his leadership as One Schoolhouse pivoted to support schools through the COVID-19 pandemic as they transitioned to remote instruction. He and his team provided advice, guidance, training, tools and resources every step of the way. As a result of their impact, thousands of educators were better prepared to provide quality remote and hybrid learning experiences this past fall.
During his tenure, Brad has also represented himself and One Schoolhouse with great aplomb through his service on the board of the National Business Officers Association (NBOA), 2012-2018; National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS), 2013-2019; NCAA’s High School Review Committee, 2013-2020; and Educational Records Bureau (ERB), 2019 – Present. In addition, he is a regular contributor to NAIS’ Independent School Magazine, NBOA’s Net Assets magazine and other professional publications. And he is visible at educational conferences and meetings across the country, learning, growing, and sharing industry expertise.
We thank Brad for his service to One Schoolhouse, for his stellar leadership of an innovative and impressive leadership team and faculty, for his contributions to the entire PK-12 independent school community and most of all, for his friendship and collegiality.
With gratitude and admiration,
James R. Palmieri, Ed.D.
Board President, One Schoolhouse
Executive Vice President, NBOA
Comments from prior Board Presidents:
From Kathryn Purcell, One Schoolhouse board president 2017-2020: “Working with Brad has been an incredible professional and personal experience – one that allowed me to grow and learn as much as to serve One Schoolhouse. Brad is a consummate educator and professional. He is both visionary and incredibly adept at management and operations. He is always ahead of the curve, looking beyond the horizon, and fearless about taking on challenge. One Schoolhouse has thrived under his able leadership, and for that, we are immeasurably grateful. “
From Cathy Murphree, Online School for Girls board president 2012-2017: “Brad is a multi-talented leader-visionary, master communicator, relationship-builder, networker, effective team leader – and his positive energy is unsurpassed! One Schoolhouse has been so fortunate to have Brad at the helm; independent schools, teachers and most importantly students have all benefited from Brad’s OSG/One Schoolhouse leadership.”
From Karen Douse, Online School for Girls board president 2011-2012: “I succeeded Brad as board chair when he was hired as OSG’s Head of School. Brad’s greatest gift, then and now, has been his strong vision for the role of online education in the future. It is that unwavering vision that has resulted in the success of One Schoolhouse today.”
There’s a student sitting in your office, telling you that he’s just gotten the chance he’s been working towards for twelve years: an apprenticeship at a professional dance company on the other side of the country. Another student comes in: she’s been offered a prestigious internship at an epigenetics lab in your city, but she has to be on site starting at noon every day. These are two of the most dynamic and engaged students in your school; they don’t want to withdraw, but they also don’t want to walk away from these amazing opportunities.
In the past, most schools haven’t been able to be as flexible as they wanted. When a family called to say they were planning to take a year to live with aging grandparents abroad, the typical responses were to pay full tuition for the year to guarantee the child’s spot, or take the chance of reapplying once you return--if there’s a spot at all. That binary doesn’t feel good to school leaders or families. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, showed schools that there’s a different way to imagine learning and community, one that doesn’t have to be bound by time and space.
Online courses, asynchronous work, and telepresence applications now make it possible for schools to support students who want to pursue off-campus experiences without having to sacrifice their academic growth. In 2020 and 2021, schools were forced to experiment with different modalities of learning, from “Zoom school” to self-paced course coursework. As academic leaders gained familiarity with a wide range of online learning platforms, they also learned that although learning online is different than learning in person, it can also be as challenging and engaging as any classroom experience.
For more than 100 years, educators have known that getting out of the classroom and into the real world is an opportunity to boost student learning. Online learning is an extension of that progressive approach to schooling. Students who are hungry for authentic engagement outside of the walls of a school can use online courses to create flexible schedules which allow them to pursue their passion.
At One Schoolhouse, we’ve worked with schools for years to help students make the most of extraordinary opportunities. An elite archer was able to train at the National Training Center in her junior and senior years, and still graduate with her class. Most years, we work with students who have earned apprenticeships at ballet companies, including the Bolshoi Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. Students like these complete most or all of their academic courses online with One Schoolhouse, and at the same time, stay enrolled at their home schools, which continues to provide services like academic advising and college counseling.
In the past sixteen months, we’ve learned how to do school differently. Now, many of our students are looking forward to a Fall 2021 that feels familiar. Some, however, have seen what a new approach to learning can make possible. Schools don’t have to let go of students who want new options and increased flexibility anymore--expanded partnerships and online experiences can keep students close, even when they’re spreading their wings.
Beta Eaton as told to Liz Katz -- When we look ahead to what we can expect of our students in the 2021-2022 school year, we keep thinking about the ways the past fifteen months have been both more challenging and more simple than a typical year for high-achieving students. The challenging pieces are obvious--grappling with a global pandemic, racist systems, and a norm-shattering election year is hard for adults, let alone for children and adolescents. At the same time, our students’ lives were stripped down. When school was online, social structures had less of an impact on adolescents; when sports teams and plays were cancelled, students had fewer competing priorities. For some students, the focus and independence was just what they needed to thrive; others were challenged by isolation and missed opportunities.
As a result, students are coming back to school with less practice in the soft skills that are essential for success in high school while at the same time, they’re still emotionally and cognitively processing the upheaval of the past year. Academic leaders and educators need to be aware that their student support systems have to evolve to meet the unique needs of the next few years. At One Schoolhouse, we’ve developed a student support program that meshes with on-campus services. Building a flexible program for students who are new to us every fall has taught us how to expand on schools’ existing programs to be ready for a wide range of situations. Here are some of our key strategies that will help schools prepare for Fall 2021:
Emphasize engagement: In 2020-2021, many teachers made the decision to pare down their course content as they adjusted to new modalities of teaching. Some built around competencies, and they were able to preserve their signature projects. Teachers who focused on content, in contrast, frequently gave up projects and hands-on learning--for many students, the most engaging elements of the curriculum. As a result, even when students’ performance stayed strong, enthusiasm and engagement often faltered. Expanding your course catalog with online courses and on-campus offerings, and increasing student-driven and project-based learning opportunities builds the intrinsic motivation that drives students to reach their full potential.
Be ready for the unexpected: One of the key lessons we’ve learned doing student support at One Schoolhouse is that when a student is struggling, their situation can pivot quickly from the containable to the critical. This is especially true of students who are already vulnerable. What’s different this year is that your vulnerable group includes every student in your school, no matter how on top of it they seem. Don’t assume that only some students are liable to struggle—the risk is universal and unpredictable.
Move small, move fast: Since our students’ risk levels are elevated, we can expect that they may be less able to manage the flexibility and self-advocacy that academic challenge demands. This isn’t the year to wait to see if kids solve their problems on their own. Instead, think about what the smallest possible intervention can be. It can be as simple as checking in with the student on their way out of your classroom, or sending an email reminder about an overdue assignment. Watch how they respond—if a nudge doesn’t activate the student, it’s time to lean into your school’s support networks.
Open communication lines between academics and counseling: Academic struggles often indicate that a student is experiencing challenges outside of the classroom. At the same time, known adverse events, whether at home or with peers, often presage academic challenges. In this climate of elevated risk, it’s essential that faculty keep in open communication with the counseling or guidance professionals at your school. Examine your practices to make sure your systems foster the collaboration of caring adults.
As vaccine distribution expands to teens and many restrictions are lifted in the U.S., educators and families are starting to feel hopeful going into the summer and are looking towards the fall with optimism that school will be more “normal.” The promise of an end to the health pandemic is in sight….but it’s not “over” yet. Furthermore, school leaders must continue to engage in equity work to oppose racial injustice.
Exhortations to avoid “toxic positivity” have been flooding into my inbox lately in the newsletters I get from various organizations. These articles typically remind the reader to acknowledge that many members of our community are not looking for silver linings but instead are struggling with grief, disillusionment, or other stressors they carry for themselves and others. Some of those losses have been shared. Many have not.
This reminder is a timely challenge because often, independent school leaders instinctively reach for appreciative inquiry, asking ourselves “what positives can we identify?” Further, in our school lives, we spend a lot of time helping those around us develop confidence and a growth mindset. Our growth mindsets mean that we encourage students to say “not yet” instead of “I can’t” when they face a setback. This is, in fact, one of our superpowers!
Although a growth mindset may be critical for long-term growth, this is not the moment for a “relentlessly cheerful” approach to our work with families, students, or colleagues. The next few months are a time for leaders to demonstrate their empathic awareness by acknowledging the burdens of the past year instead of rushing past them. Authentic resilience emerges not from the moment of crisis, but from the process of moving through the aftermath of the crisis into reconstruction. What’s most essential to that resilience is, unsurprisingly, our connections to one another.
Researchers Rob Cross, Karen Dillon, and Danna Greenberg studied the importance of professional networks in building resilience in their members. They write that good leaders build resilience by “shifting perspective and reminding [others that they] are not alone in the fight.” Leaders who say, “This is tough,” or “I can’t fix this for you, but I’ll help you get through it,” have more impact than those who try to minimize difficulties. The researchers identified eight things effective networks provide to their members:
Of course, not all of these factors apply in every situation. Academic leaders who are thoughtful listeners and highly empathetic will consider not just who on their team needs what kind of support, but how best to provide that support and ensure that the timing support is right.
One final note, of utmost importance for academic leaders in the coming months is self-awareness too. Leaders should be considering not only the role they play as members of these networks for others, but how to tap into their personal networks for building their own resilience too.
Creative leaders need to help their communities move forward while meeting the need for rest and reflection. Next year will call on teachers and administrators to adapt to new circumstances in ways that nourish their communities intellectually and emotionally.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)