“So you want to be a head of school ….” Communication

Nerves of the Army, C.R.W Nevinson IWM (Imperial War Museums)

Nerves of the Army, C.R.W Nevinson IWM (Imperial War Museums)

I’ve been asked on occasion to add my two cents on a panel at the NYSAIS conference for assistant heads and division directors in a session they call “So, you want to be a head.”

My participation has more to do with the geographical proximity of Poughkeepsie to the conference venue at Mohonk Mountain House than with any presumed super expertise. Although, just being in that most peculiar role of head does automatically allow for some rather rarefied and unique points of view.

Anyway – over the years I have accumulated a lot of notes on the topic. I started to expand on them them as the subject for a blog post.  When those notes hit 15 pages I knew I was going to have to break it up into more digestible chunks.

So here, in the first of a series in no particular order of relevance or importance is: “So you want to be a head…Communication.”

And to break that down further: I don’t mean newsletters, web-sites, publications, marketing materials and all that essential megaphone stuff. That is a topic for another time.

Nor do I mean the high wire act of social media. I’ve written about that before here and here.

Lesson #4- The pen has power

Nor do I mean the relentless demand for various forms of writing that Annette Raphel spoke so well about at NAIS. See the side bar for her summary and go here her presentation slides.

No, this is just about the conversational culture within a school – the day-to-day chatter and buzz of stories that make up any organization’s communications culture.

School Climate

Years ago ISM created  The Faculty Culture Profile  – a non-evaluative instrument used to assess the prevailing pattern of customs, ideas, and assumptions within a faculty. A kind climate gauge to test for collective professional attitudes and behaviors.

Question 7 reads:

In my division/school, casual conversations among faculty members tend to be constructive, upbeat, and professional.

1               2               3               4               5

Participants are asked to circle their response with 1 being “absolutely inaccurate” and 5 being “absolutely accurate”.

And I’ve always thought that a most useful and telling indicator of school health.

All the others on the list matter too but the way we talk to each other about everything speaks volumes about the place to which we belong, the people we are and the community we have created. And of course –  while a head sets a tone – it is a mission-essential collective responsibility to create the community ethos that works for all learners within it.

The anonymous nature of the ISM questionnaire either allows for an honest and authentic take on the climate.  Or it empowers a passive aggressive fuck-your-buddy-now’s-my-chance-to-get-even approach. I’ve seen both.

Under observation

An artillery officer observing the effect of the shells of his battery. The results of fire are telephoned back to the guns, some miles behind the lines. James McBey 1917

You are Under Observation

Arriving in a school as a new head means to be at the central focus of everyone’s attention. In the searchlights. At least for a while.

A new head of school can mean a change of direction, new priorities, different spoken and unspoken agendas and an upheaval – intentional or not – in all the power arrangements, systems and structures.

The routines of the hive are disrupted challenged, poked and provoked.  And this means hyper attention to the tea leaves.

Is this a threat?  Is that an an opportunity? All kind of attention will be paid to the minutiae of behavior. Little things acquire larger significance. People are watching, thinking, talking and making assumptions accordingly. Where does she park? Who does he sit with? What did she say when …? Will he be able to redress my long-ignored grievance? What does she think is important? Will I be able to finally promote my pet project? Does he know what this school is? Does she care? Who’s in? Who’s out? Does he see what is so obvious and will he finally do something about it? Does she get who we used to be before the last head screwed things up? This is like a breath of fresh air. Finally.

caught in the searchlights

Caught in the Searchlights

So – get ready to be scrutinized.

This is the hive of community making the adjustment to change. Things will be different. And everyone will adjust. And the new head has the opportunity to send some clear signals. Not so much by saying and writing them (both are important) but through behavior.

So the first priority is to think: What kind of message, what values do I want to convey? What is important to me about how a community communicates and what it stands for? What is the mission of this school?  How does that translate in how we treat each other? How do I feel about it?  And how do I communicate those feelings in what I say and do? How will I listen and to whom about what? And how will I assess what I learn.  And when must I act?

Simple example: If command and control are important – don’t smile before winter break.

If however mutual respect, inclusivity and embracing change matter – pay attention to how you spend you time talking to whom about what. People are watching.

OK – so here are a few simple off-the-cuff thoughts. What would YOU add to the list. Or take away or edit?

1. Find ways to listen to everybody.  This not always as simple easy as it sounds because you need to figure out how to ask the right questions. It’s time-consuming but essential for learning the community and as a way to convey who you are and what matters to you. In general don’t ask people what they want (you can get their ideas on that later as you start to build something) but rather what it is they want to do, achieve and accomplish. Out of those answers about dreams and aspirations it is possible to develop a template for the changes that will work for the community. You’ll get to know people – and how they think – really well too.

gas alarm rattle

Gas alarm rattle. WW1. Empower people to swing their own.

2. Make it clear that people should speak for themselves. Try to blunt the shop steward approach of “I think this and many others do too.” Request that those others speak up. And of course allow them and encourage them to do so. Create the opportunities.

3.  Clean out the conduits. By conduits I mean the people who are used to funnel to you what others have said to them in the hope that somehow you will get the message. Get people to take responsibility and not expect others to do their speaking-up.  Because they are the ones to distribute the Handbook, business managers are frequently the recipients of tattle-telling. They are sometimes perceived as rule-keepers, risk managers and enforcers with a special relationship with the head. (People tell them stuff in the hope of seeing something fixed – usually about the behavior of a co-worker: This person is breaking this or that line item from the handbook.) Send the message back that the complainer should “Tell the head of school”. Meanwhile of course, thank the conduit for letting you know.

Do not stand about

Get moving. Advice from the Canadian Army on the Western Front

4. Get people talking and working together on things that matter. Wherever possible break down the walls and let the light in. Encourage cross-fertilization of ideas across departments and divisions. Figure out productive ways for teachers and staff to work together across the usual fault lines. Get people out of their bunkers, learning, contributing, connecting and sharing.  And preferably within sight of the students so they too can learn and follow suit. And – when they need a break from all that – how about providing comfortable and quiet (no talking, no devices) zones where people can take a twenty-minute nap? (Never done that but I think it’s a great idea.)

5. Send the message: We are all responsible for our own morale. Don’t let the grousing and grumbling of others wear you down. (It’s why many teachers avoid faculty rooms!) As Pat Bassett advised: Hire happy people. Because you can’t make people happy who are destined and determined not to be. Seek out and support those who rise above circumstances to do amazing things for and with others. There’s plenty of them and always room for more.

6.. Don’t buy the line that people are afraid to speak up. While there are tyrants in the world few of them work successfully in schools. Find out what it is that they are allegedly afraid to say? Is it just that they have had their say but didn’t get their way? What’s it actually about? If it’s mission-related and appropriate then a dose of community sunshine is the best disinfectant. Or is it just weaselly whining.

7. Understand that gossip is the stuff of our lives. It’s the stories we tell and the meaning we create. Gossip is not necessarily something negative or bad. But it can be. And when it is – deal with it. ISM has suggestions here and here.

walking wounded

And always know that whatever you say or do will be misinterpreted and distorted and will be used against you by someone at some time. If it’s the right thing to do – do it anyway.

And when the blowback starts to feel unfair and you feel like you are making unjust sacrifices and not being rewarded for them and self-pity kicks in – well, that’s a signal it’s time to move on.

“Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it”

The Pigeons Come Home to Roost

pigeons coming home to roost

A London double-decker bus, camouflage painted and re-purposed as a traveling loft for carrier-pigeons. Pigeons returning to the loft at the top of the bus. The Royal Engineers Signals Service on the Western Front 1914-1918


  1. Leslie:

    Thank you for your words of wisdom, Josie.

  2. Dulane:

    Although no longer within earshot of the gas rattle of School, I was intrigued by the possibilities of applying the micro to the macro society at large. Surely what is human can also be enlightened and humane. I look forward to other installments. You’ve put forth your argument in the spirit of the 18th century writers of social tracts but with a slyly trenchant sense of humor and, yes, even kindness.

    • Hey Dulane. Thanks for that comment. I think we are all always within the gas rattle of school – it’s the kind of thing that never leaves our inner world but is rather embedded like an axe in a tree stump. But speaking up about things that matter – and not just expecting others to do it for us is – a key habit of courage. Not precisely sure what you are thinking about with the micro and the macro. With this election now swinging into action we will all have some great opportunities to speak out and do the right thing. We need to get those gas rattles swinging!

  3. Sherri Spelic:

    I once considered a move into administration. Sticking with teaching though. This post offers both clarity and detail specific to the demands of headship. Will share w/ my head who is no longer new but may appreciate some of the reminders.

    • Thanks Sherri – I hope my words have not deterred you from further consideration of headship and administration. It’s actually a wonderful position to have although it may not be for everyone. I think the most important issue is the philosophical match between the head and the school. Institutions are so very different and – while leadership can have a big impact – if there is a cultural and philosophical mismatch it can be a recipe for disaster. But don’t rule out stepping into such a role. Schools need good people – and leaders and learners – at every level.

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