Our recent meet-up to discuss the competencies academic leaders need in our time sparkled. My colleague Sarah Hanawald shared some competency models and then invited participants to share their own thoughts and reflections in break-out rooms. Conversation didn’t exactly lag.
There has been a relative dearth of focused thinking in the independent school world around how best to develop the skills and capacities of academic administrators and other faculty charged with planning and leading schools’ programs of teaching, learning, and professional development. Great resources and professional organizations have come into being to support business and advancement functions as well as senior leadership and governance. But, in contrast, the work of supporting academic functions has been mostly done by smaller, often regional, and sometimes for-profit entities.
When the Independent Curriculum Group began to organize periodic Academic Leaders Retreats some years ago, we sensed and uncovered a hunger for connection. Our gatherings of a couple of dozen people at a time were joyful and productive, but they weren’t quite enough to spark a “culture of collaboration” across the national and global community of academic leaders.
Over the years I have had the chance to explore many aspects of independent school operations and leadership, but my own heart has always been with the learning programs—which are, after all, what independent schools are about. As a long-time school-based “academic leader” myself, as a department chair, dean of faculty, academic dean, and director of college counseling, I believe that what and how and why schools teach is what matters. Academics first!
In these roles I’ve been part of plenty of meetings and projects involving the “administrative team,” board committees, strategic-thinking initiatives, and the like—where senior leadership and governors have laid out the agendas. I have then experienced the marketing and communication of what we were doing, and I have sometimes seen academic programs tweaked and even reworked to fit a “marketing message”—even after the academic folks had turned themselves inside-out to create something innovative, mission-aligned, and student-focused.
When I later found myself engaged in helping schools to develop their marketing and communications programs, I had to bring my understanding of the relationship between academics and messaging and identity into congruence with my belief in Academics first! What I realized was that silos do not exist in independent schools only to separate academic departments.
For reasons historical and unintentional, there has been a de facto ensiling of operational functions in schools—between academic leadership teams, advancement functions, heads’ offices, and business offices. Probably always and certainly in our time, such separation stands firmly in the way of schools’ efforts to truly define and present themselves as integral entities, where the same missions, values, and strategic priorities define not just what is being done but how it is understood and communicated both within and without the institution.
This unfortunate situation manifests itself especially when academic leaders—at all levels—undertake work that is novel. In the past forty years much has been learned about the nature of learning itself, new technologies have inundated us all, and we are at last beginning to fully appreciate the role of education in creating or impeding the development of a just and equitable world. These things are new and unfamiliar not just to the general public but also to many school people who do not have the privilege of working directly with students. We started hearing the mantra “innovate or wither” from NAIS early in this century, when “21st-century learning” and then “innovation” became essential parts of every school’s self-presentation.
But alas, and through no fault of the people involved, these terms were not always—or even often, in my experience—fully understood by the advancement (admission, development, and marketing–communications) or business functions. Nor were they well understood by board members, whose interaction with the academic leadership in many schools is funneled through narrow channels controlled by senior leadership lest the board folks be “interfering” in unwanted ways. Academic leadership teams have designed novel programs and practices, convinced those “higher up” to let them go forward—sometimes, to be sure, in conformity with “strategic plans”—but too often without full understanding or even buy-in from the offices charged with supporting and promoting them. Too many academic leaders have had to defend unfamiliar ideas—like moving “beyond” standardized advanced curriculum or incorporating more online learning—within their own communities because these practices were not fully understood or endorsed even by administrative colleagues.
Back to our academic leaders meet-up: It was clear, especially in the time of COVID where health and safety planning has added to the stew of priorities with which school leaders in all areas must cope—that there must be a more concerted effort made in all schools to ensure that academic leaders are in regular communication and collaboration with, especially, advancement offices and more generally business offices. My advice to schools contemplating anything new and unfamiliar, like creating a program of home-grown advanced curricula, is to get admission and marketing-communications in the room from the get-go so that they fully understand, believe in, and can effectively talk about the new programs.
The issue isn’t about academic leaders or those with whom they work. It’s a structural thing, but something that, once recognized, can be fixed. Yup, there will be more meeting times for more people, but the point is for the school to be able to BE, to understand itself, and to talk about itself as a coherent, mission- and values-driven place of learning where programs, practices, and policies make sense together.
It just starts with bringing the people and the ideas together in conversation and collaboration. You know, like a schoolhouse functioning as one!
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)