Several decades ago, as compelling new ideas on teaching and learning began to arise, independent schools created a new class of administrators, charged with oversight and planning of schools’ academic programs. Academic deans, assistant heads for teaching and learning—titles proliferated, and the work became ever more complex.
In 1999 I became one of these administrators in a coeducational day school serving grades 6 through 12. It was my first foray into actual administration; I’d been a department chair, but never part of an actual “administrative team.”
I was an “office” of one. I had no staff support, only the detailed working version of the school’s strategic priorities, regular meetings with the head of school, and friends and allies on a strong but independent-minded faculty. I also traded happy spring and fall afternoons coaching for chairing the weekly meeting of department heads.
Those were lonely times in my working life. We assembled a small “academic program team” consisting of myself, the chief diversity officer, the division leaders, and—ex officio—the head, and we generally worked well together, agreeing on the directions of our work and mostly on the means of getting there. But the APT was a working team, not a mutual support group.
By that time I had subscribed for a few years to a free email service and listserv in our state for K–12 teachers, a small community in those days of 600-baud modems. There were some useful discussions, and I learned a bit, but it wasn’t what I needed.
One of the reasons I could even imagine what I might have needed was that I had attended several workshops run by the late, great David Mallery. These had provided something that didn’t otherwise seem to exist in my universe: opportunities for independent school educators with similar experiences and portfolios to gather, to share stories and resources, to ask questions of one another, and to forge personal and professional connections. Those events, with David’s benevolent warmth melting any ice and shattering reserve, were bliss. I WAS NOT ALONE!!!
Shortly before the turn of the century a new listserv appeared, the Independent School Educators Listserv, soon known as “the ISED.” The ISED quickly became the locus of any amount of querying and resource sharing. Here were a bunch of school tech folks, sure, but soon there were assistant heads, deans of this and that, department chairs, and even the occasional head of school. The ISED was a community, and list members soon knew about one another’s professional aims and quandaries—more than just our names, titles, and geographical locations.
A year or so later I was privileged to write an article for Independent School magazine about how schools—all of which I had learned about from my far-flung colleagues on the ISED—were doing interesting things in the areas of curriculum and instruction. The listserv had brought this project together. So began a whole lot of moonlight work writing and researching for NAIS and other organizations. In that era of “Web 2.0,” Nings and wikis materialized that served to further demonstrate to their members the power of collaboration. I even had a few direct, meat-space contacts with listserv friends, including a young academic dean in North Carolina who was later to become my boss!
This work created for me a rich personal community, enriching my own life and my work at my own school. As I spoke with counterparts at schools around the planet, I realized how much of a hunger there was for connection and community among independent school academic leaders. When a group of ISED listeros came together over the issue of how “independent” our academic programs could truly be if our most advanced courses were driven by an externally validated curriculum and standardized testing, a small community of purpose—soon to be called the Independent Curriculum Group—came into being.
The ICG wanted to be more than a single-issue organization, and we focused on broadening our community. We even sponsored a few “Academic Leaders Retreats,” the spirit of David Mallery, that are among my happiest professional memories. When our board members and several One Schoolhouse leaders started talking, the alignment of missions and aspirations became apparent, and in 2019 the ICG and I became parts of One Schoolhouse.
I hadn’t forsaken my dream of a kind of space where academic leaders could come together to learn and share and feel at ease and at one with peers, and One Schoolhouse had the staff and the resources to start thinking about creating a structured community. The pandemic accelerated the upgrading of the sleepy ICG listserv into the robust and super-active ACADEMIC-LEADERS list, and One Schoolhouse had already co-sponsored some Academic Leaders Retreats around the country.
So now we at One Schoolhouse are rolling out the Association for Academic Leaders, for me the realization of a decades-long dream. We do our work better and more confidently when we aren’t doing it alone, and we know that in this wide world at least someone else has conceived an answer to some question that has troubled our sleep. Someone has an answer, a resource, an idea, or a new perspective that we can adapt to the needs of our own schools, our teachers, and our students.
An Association of Academic Leaders! How about that!
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)