Over the last three days I participated in the Jonathan T. Glass Institute for New Heads, sponsored by the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES). Led by the Rev. Dan Heischman, Executive Director of NAES, and Ann Mellow, Associate Director of NAES, we spent our time together discussing specific issues relevant to Episcopal School Heads of both parish schools and independent Episcopal Schools. The experience was extraordinarily valuable.
I was particularly interested to learn more about small parish schools. If I had any thought that the complexity of our work as Heads of Schools was proportional to simply the size of our individual school, I abandoned that thought sometime during our sessions on Thursday as I gained insight into school headship positions quite different than my own. Overall, I find myself becoming more aware that what is important is not what one knows in a leadership position, but far more relevant: 1) how one listens carefully enough to understand the people and the culture of the school and 2) how one over time breathes his or her personal knowledge and experience into the life of the school.
At the conference, I garnered more useful insight by hearing about schools not exactly like my own than I would have trying to find one to one correspondences with schools closer to the profile of St. George’s. As I think about the future of schools, St. George’s in particular, I find myself tripping up over and over again on the idea that we should be looking for what is not exactly like us in order to learn what school might need to look like going forward. In the case of the NAES New Heads Conference, that meant learning from schools operating in a context different than my own.
However, in the larger context of heading a school in this moment in history, I believe leadership will have to develop a far keener ear for listening to what is happening beyond our school and even our schools generally. Our questions need to become smarter and more expansive. For example:
- What is happening in our cities, businesses, churches, museums, and community centers that might inform the work ahead for our schools?
- What is happening in higher education that might serve as a barometer for what might be coming in independent secondary schools?
- What small liberal arts colleges have faced challenges that might lie in wait for our schools?
- What colleges have been handling a quickly evolving financial and admissions landscape well?
- How can our school become part of the good story of our community?
The most sustainable schools will be the ones able to align with the best ambition of the communities in which they sit. We will not be able to afford to navel gaze within our own very tiny community of schools in order to find the best way forward—we must be explicitly about something greater than ourselves. Thus the central existential question grows out of “How can we be sustainable?” and into “Why should we be sustainable?”
In thinking about my own start as head of a school within the Episcopal tradition, I find comfort in knowing that Episcopal schools are situated to look beyond our individual institutions as we strive to teach our students to see beyond themselves so that they might live lives of service, leadership, and meaning. This belief grows from a recognition of the focus in Episcopal schools on what NAES calls “the spiritual dimension of learning that values both faith and reason.” Such a focus should pull our eyes not simply to look up for help and comfort, but to look out into the world that calls for us to be the help and the comfort.