Throughout this year, you will see the voices of many SAIS board members in this spot as the organization transitions to new leadership. Our January news comes from Stuart Gulley, president of Woodward Academy, a PK-12 school in the Atlanta metro area.

We’ve only just celebrated the dawning of a new calendar year, and now heads of school and administrators are turning their attention to an even more significant new year event, namely the start of the 2024-2025 academic year. In anticipation, we find ourselves actively preparing our communities for inevitable turnover in administrative, faculty, and staff positions—a task that demands substantial effort to ensure seamless transitions. Data from SAIS underscores that the peak period for job postings within our association spans from February to April, prompting a seemingly perennial question: Is the leadership pipeline robust enough to meet the nationwide demand for filling these impending vacancies?

Last week, I joined the ranks of projections outlined in the NAIS 2021 State of Independent School Leadership Survey by announcing my departure as the president of Woodward Academy at the conclusion of the 2024-2025 academic year. According to the survey, by 2026, 50% of heads of school will undergo transitions, either through retirement or uncertainty about their next career move. As my institution embarks on the search for my successor, I have attempted to afford my board ample time to identify the ideal candidate, hoping for a strong pool of leaders from which to choose.

An even more recent NAIS Snapshot Survey sheds light on the challenges our institutions face regarding potential teacher vacancies, revealing that 70% plan to renew their contracts, while 26% remain uncertain about their professional future, and 4% opting not to renew due to stress, burnout, low salaries, and a lack of support. 

There are multiple factors impacting the leadership and faculty pipeline, but I’ll highlight three in particular:

Demographic Shifts: As baby boomers retire, a gap in succession emerges, exacerbated by an incoming workforce insufficient to fill these critical roles. 

Changing Perceptions of the Profession: Evolving perceptions of roles in independent education, not always for the better, contribute to a reluctance among aspiring leaders and faculty. The perceived demands and responsibilities associated with these positions may seem daunting, diverting potential leaders and teachers toward alternative paths and diminishing overall interest in assuming these roles.

Inadequate Professional Development: Nurturing future leaders and faculty hinges on the provision of robust professional development opportunities. Regrettably, many independent schools fall short in offering tailored programs that equip educators with the requisite skills for leadership and faculty roles, or in encouraging talent to participate in programs such as the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads. This deficiency impedes the development of a resilient leadership pipeline.

Future leaders and teachers require a sturdy foundation to navigate the intricate challenges inherent in successfully leading or teaching at an independent school. As illuminated by the pipeline survey, individuals poised to assume leadership and faculty roles exist, yet they need substantial support and opportunities for growth, particularly in critical areas such as crisis/risk management, collaboration with boards, conflict resolution—especially with parents—and the shaping of organizational climate and culture. 

Here are four strategic steps for addressing the challenges: 

Comprehensive Leadership and Faculty Development: Develop and implement comprehensive development programs addressing specific areas identified in the survey, such as crisis/risk management, conflict resolution, and effective collaboration with boards. Additionally, support talented leaders to participate in programs like the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads and SAIS New & Aspiring Leaders Institute.  

Mentorship and Succession Planning: Establish mentorship programs that connect experienced leaders with those in transition, providing guidance and support. Strengthen succession planning efforts to identify and cultivate emerging leaders within the school community. For more than a decade, prior to the pandemic, Woodward offered a program dubbed Leadership Woodward, which exposed participants to leadership development theory, as well as the internal working and operation of the school. More than 120 people participated, with many of our current leaders being alumni of this program.

Wellness Initiatives for Employees: Prioritize the well-being of employees, especially teachers, by implementing wellness initiatives that address stress, burnout, and work-related challenges. Enhance support structures for teachers, including mentorship programs. 

Promoting a Positive Organizational Culture: Foster a positive organizational culture that values the contributions of both leaders and faculty, creating an environment conducive to professional growth and job satisfaction.

Happy 2024, and all the best as you prepare for the start of 2024-2025! The insights gleaned from the NAIS 2021 State of Independent School Leadership Survey and the accompanying snapshot survey underscore the need for strategic action. By prioritizing comprehensive leadership and faculty development, mentorship, succession planning, and teacher well-being, independent schools can proactively navigate the challenges posed by the declining pipeline and cultivate a resilient and thriving educational community. The forthcoming transition demands collective efforts to ensure that the legacy of excellence and innovation in independent school education endures for generations to come.

F. Stuart Gulley, Ph.D.
Woodward Academy
College Park, GA