By Carolyn Chandler, Strategic School Partners

Dear Friends,

It’s August, and you are more than ready to take the reins of your new school. The board’s transition committee has done a great job of helping you settle in; you’ve met all your trustees, you’re getting to know your administrative team, you’ve done a deep dive into school finance with your CFO, and you’ve even had dinner with several of the school’s major donors. Congratulations!

But what else might you need to consider? What more could you be doing to pave the way for the most exciting – and challenging – job you will ever undertake?

Here are five ideas, one for each of your constituent groups, that could help smooth the road ahead:

  1. Speak to your board chair about scheduling a board retreat early in the year so that you can get started on governance right from the start, clarify board priorities for the year, and build community with your trustees. During this conversation, be sure to ask your board chair to review with you the process for your year-end evaluation.
  2. During an early faculty meeting, establish faculty ethics regarding proselytizing of any kind – political, religious, and/or social. Remind your faculty of their power; of the importance of teaching young people how to think, not what to think; and of the moral imperative to be the teacher for all their students, taking care to avoid silencing any student with strongly held views while consistently and strongly upholding the shared, stated values of the school. While certainly not an easy task, the deep divides in our present world make this truly an important one.
  3. Clarify “chain of command” with parents in a newsletter or in an early meeting, perhaps even during your remarks at an open house when you have a captive audience. Be sure to underscore the effectiveness of first contacting their child’s teacher if something seems amiss since the teacher will be able to supply information that may complete the child’s report. Then if not satisfied, speaking with the division head or the department chair would be in order; and then finally, if the matter is not resolved, they may make an appointment to see you. “Starting at the top” may sound like a good idea but in fact, it is the least effective and least efficient approach to getting to the facts at hand. You may also wish to remind your parents of the old saw, “If you promise not to believe everything they tell you about us, we promise not to believe everything they tell us about you.”
  4. Meet with your principals and/or those in charge of student discipline and honor to ensure you understand the school’s practices in educating students about school standards and expectations and to review the processes in place for addressing infractions of both behavior and honor standards. Stress with them the importance of keeping you in the loop from start to finish on all cases since any of them could result in an appeal to your office.
  5. Find a way to be with students in a more personal way than at the podium or in the audience or in the carpool line. Perhaps you might want to host Pizza Fridays with small groups of seniors, or you may enjoy reading stories to lower school classes or participating with a middle school science class in an experiment; just find a way. It’s important to stay in touch with your students; they are why we work.

Other experienced heads will undoubtedly have other ideas for you, so be sure to make friends with your elders. By the way, if you are one of these elders and have read this far, please share your ideas. If we can contribute in even one small way to clearing the path for our successors, we should surely enjoy the privilege of doing so.

Driving near my house in uptown New Orleans, one must be continually on the lookout for potholes – big potholes. The inattentive driver can dent a wheel, bust a tire, or completely throw off her alignment if she doesn’t dodge these seemingly minor menaces. There will of course be metaphorical potholes in the road ahead of you as a new head of school, but the alert driver can start dodging now. Have fun this year, and please, drive safely!

Carolyn Chandler is a partner with Strategic School Leadership. She began her administrative career at Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga before becoming assistant head and then head of school at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans. She has served as vice-chair of the ISAS board, faculty and council member for The Heads’ Network, and member of several committees on the NAIS Board. Carolyn has served as a field instructor and member of the advisory committee for the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University. Her involvement with five New Orleans charter schools has been extremely meaningful for her, including serving as an interim CEO of Bricolage Academy

Strategic School Leadership works closely with school leaders – heads, governing boards, and administrators – in the interest of creating places where teachers can flourish in their life work and students are inspired to learn. The firm advises governing boards about a range of crucial issues including the qualities necessary for school leadership, focusing on the school itself.