The Headship: History Matters

Your school needs yo (1)Ok – so you wanted to be a head of school and you applied for a job and then you got it. Congratulations.

Among all the things that you now have to make a priority is becoming the expert on the history of your school. This will take time.

Schools are not alike and independent schools often take pride in flourishing as distinct and variegated institutions. They are independent after all. This generalization applies schools that operate within religious networks and other affiliations. This Montessori, Catholic, Episcopal or “progressive” school may have a deal in common in educational approaches to the one across town but it remains a distinct entity.

Schools with a rigid and prescribed curriculum may diverge less but because these are human institutions they vary widely nonetheless.

And the history of who did what with whom when why and to what ends helps get beneath the surface appearance to the substance beneath. It’s both a trip in a murky wood and an adventure of discovery.

A walk in a dark and murky wood

A walk in a dark and murky wood

Why does it matter?

History is what gets remembered. The cultural narrative of any institution – or country for that matter – is always skewed. The circularity of facts, misinformation and disinformation creates a picture of a wobbling journey through time.

Banner years, low points, controversial dramas, newsletters, press releases, signature events and reports of institutional milestones combine with the underground word-of-mouth lore of staffroom, park bench/ carpool gossip and social media to create the institutional entity that is now your school.

And everybody owns it and the sense of propriety is strong. So, best to proceed with some caution and always armed with the broadest possible perspective when stepping up to the challenge of initiating the change. But also know that change is both essential and inevitable. And managing that change is now your job. After all, for a school to fulfill its mission there must be constant evolution. 

How did the school respond to the big public events and movements. Did it change educational course as a result of Sputnik? What about the era of the open classroom and the new romantics? What happened on campus during the civil rights era. On 9/11? When were computers first introduced? How did the students respond to the OJ Simpson verdict or Rodney King or any of the traumatic events small and large that often roil a school community at least for a moment in time.

What has changed and what has not? What was the mission back then and what did it mean in practice? What is it now? Is it still relevant, distinct, meaningful and true? How is it expressed in the day-to-day workings of the school and its cultural climate.

Knowing the history of your school can help in avoiding the pitfalls, pratfalls and minefields of that often hotly contested zone known as school identity. And doing all this – indicates you can listen, learn and that you care about the school. It also shelters you from the dangers of the single story – the lone dominant narrative that is incomplete at best and dangerously misleading at worst.

If you are lucky enough to arrive in a school where there are many who are passionate about the work and the mission then you will come head on with those keen to tell you what the school was and what the school stands for and why it must continue on the same track. This passion is “a good thing”. It’s good because it’s an indicator of dedicated people committed to the work. And the more of them the better.

Of course, if it means managing a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” crowd who refuse to acknowledge the need for change then there’s work ahead.  At times like that it’s worth remembering the words of Margaret Wheatley: “The things we fear most in organizations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are the primary sources of creativity.”

Wheatley Twitter

Knowing the history becomes its own set of teachable moments. Why was the school founded? Was it purely for the purposes of providing a different approach to learning, a distinctive pedagogy or a religious context?

What other social forces were at work? Knowing the history may mean facing uncomfortable facts about segregation, privilege and white flight. Look at the founding date. What was going on in public education in town at that time?

And there are always the scandals. Best to know them so you don’t get surprised by ghosts and skeletons resurfacing from the dim and distant.


Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti, Albert Edelfelt, 1887

Listen to the Elders


Well – first and foremost of course are the people. Most schools seem lucky enough to have at least a small handful of people who see themselves as guardians of the history and mission. – people who have delved into the backstories and who cherish knowing the school’s past. Talk to them, ask questions, read things they have written or preserved.

And ask everyone past and present – teachers, trustees, parents, students, alums, colleagues in other schools, the janitor, those in the local community.

Over time layer on as many perspectives and stories as you can. This has the additional bonus of signaling that you are interested in, and care about, the school – its traditions, its place in the world and most importantly its significance in people’s lives.

Dig into the Archive

If you are lucky these will be neatly ordered, stacked and carefully preserved. If you are not you will find them moldering in a damp basement in a disordered heap.

Read the old board minutes. Sift through the old promotional materials, newsletter, press cuttings and photographs. All are a treasure trove of information about the school. Which of the people you’ve heard the old timers talk about are represented in the record?. And how and for what? And those board minutes – while many may seem dry and formal they can be stuffed with entertaining nuggets and the work of the board over time is always informative.

Local Newspapers and the Intertubes

Local newspaper archives can provide a trove of information. Do searches by the names of the school and its prominent people. Fascinating because you will unearth the details thought newsworthy at the time – the Christmas pageant of 1941, the arrest for disorderly contact, the school trip to the sewage plant, the fire in the library, visiting dignitaries, scandals, anniversary celebrations, athletic victories, academic achievements and those members of the school community who managed to draw attention to themselves for whatever reason.

Do a thorough and extensive search online. Try variations on your search words. Examples: “attended Wayward Academy”, “graduated from St. Ethelred’s”. Who is linking to your school and why? And do you like what you find and if you don’t, what can you do about it?

Check out the founders. Who were they? What did they believe? And how do we know?

And of course do a deep scan of school review sites and social media.


What’s the story on the school buildings? How were they acquired? What was added when and for what? Re-purposed or custom-built? What are the legends – the school ghosts, beloved campus pet, the secret passages?  And whose name is on what and who were those people?

Photo by Laura GraceffaIt’s Not Just the Head

Institutions that know their past, understand their purpose and work to create and become their future have the best chance of thriving.

The responsibility is collective. Margaret Wheatley points the way forward with:

Relationships are all there is.

The more that members of the community – trustees, parents, faculty, staff – have a strong sense of, and relationship with, the identity of the school the better.
Understanding that culture means to know how it weathered the storms of adversity, took advantage of opportunities and how and why change happened. It reveals that nothing is iron-clad and unchanging. And it can provide guideposts for how to tackle current challenges.and inform decision-making and direction-finding.

What about the students?
Photo by Laura Graceffa

What do your current students think? Do they know about the institution’s history and the wider context of educational thinking? How can they be introduced to the history that goes beyond the story of the school colors, the rivalry with the school down the road and the reason for founders day?

My former colleague Jake Lahey teaches history in the middle school. He routinely introduces students to local history.

In 2015 he taught a course on the history of Poughkeepsie Day School as part of the celebration of the 80th year of the school.

They dug into the archives and created their own sense of that story. The culmination was two four-by-eight feet murals celebrating that rich and changing history.

Photo by Laura GraceffaAnother example was a high school student who did an extraordinary independent study of Piaget’s theory of child development. She used the school’s classroom as her research lab and tackled the issue of standardized testing and its effect on learning. It situated the school in the context of the history of learning theory. You can watch Thinking Outside the Bubble here.

As with the adults – knowing the history and philosophy of your school can become a point of pride for students providing a unifying sense of connection. It can bring together the disparate elements and idiosyncrasies and help create a more coherent sense of identity. School loyalty is too often just for a team, a house or specific activity or department. Pride in a mission or institutional ethos is invaluable. For schools that seek to stand for something it can be the glue that binds the alumni to the legacy and inspire their ongoing support.

The past of any institution is a microcosm of a wider world. It is a lens through which to look at that world in a more personal and intimate way just as family genealogy connects the individual with the idea of change over time.

Like family history, it gives a sense of where we came from and who we were then and what we are now. This is often really interesting as the history will show how the school navigated the competing and contested ideologies of education.

A Personal Note: Keep, Change, Dream

A Cigar Box of Keep, Change, Dream.

A Cigar Box of Keep, Change, Dream.

One of the activities since rewiring has been sporadic trips to the basement in a never-ending quest to get stuff sorted.

This has been both daunting and fascinating. Daunting because of the sheer scope of the task and fascinating for the finds from 45 years of working in schools.

Here’s one find: It’s a cigar box stuffed with 300 plus hand written notecards. They were written at an all-school assembly in the spring of 2006 on one of my first visits to PDS.

I had asked three questions:

  1. What must we keep about PDS, what must not change?
  2. What  changes would you like to see?
  3. Name something a bit wild and crazy that you would like to see.

I read them all back then and I’ve been reading them again now.

It’s an interesting window on the past.

PDSPhotos: Laura Graceffa


  1. Love this post, Josie! When I became head here, at my first admin retreat I rolled out a big piece of butcher paper and asked the team–several of whom had been there a long time– to create a timeline of the school for me. I learned a great deal; they had a blast reminiscing; and they saw I wanted to sense the foundational heart and soul of the place.
    Knowing the history is a big part of celebrating who you are and what a place is. It can provide an anchor is turbulent times, and it can keep you true in the face of the current buzz.
    Of course, if we’re really honest, I suspect most heads also wonder about their place in the school’s history, especially at the start and end of tentures. Ultimately, I just hope I’m remembered for making the place at least a bit better than when I got here.

    • The butcher-block paper timeline of school history – what a good idea Mark. What a great way to have everyone involved, sharing what they know and being a part of valuable process of collective learning. And a way to lead without being in command and control.

      I think you are on target with that thought about our own place in the history. Heads are as prone to “legends-in-our-own-mind” thinking as anyone. Being a head of school takes such a full commitment of time, learning and energy that it commandeers more than a reasonable chunk of psychic space.

      Cheers Mark and thanks for the comment. Best of luck for 2016-17 and see you online.

  2. Dulane ponder:

    As always Josie, you have managed to weave a garment from the threads of a particular experience so that all of us can see what all that spinning somewhere else was all about. Plus, I’d love to get into that basement where all history sleeps inviolate and true.

    • Not a surface left uncovered, not a box fully empty and no clear plan for resolution – the basement is a disaster zone of basement epic proportions. But I remain optimistic in the face of all the distractions I find in (almost) every item.

  3. SteveInTexas:

    “Knowing the history may mean facing uncomfortable facts about segregation, privilege and white flight.” A whole lot of schools were started as segregation academies and there are some that still are. Those that have moved beyond that founding past need to know their history and then use to teach the current generation. Thanks for the post.

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