John Gulla’s recent commentary on independent schools includes a paragraph about how a new Head of School (for non school people, think CEO) could evolve over a decade:
There is a general trajectory to most headships. Year one is an all-out sprint to get the community to know the new head, to get the carpool commentary and general community buzz to be positive. If a new head is fortunate, there will be no divisive issue or external emergency that will derail the good efforts of a transition team setting the new leader up for success. Years two to three (and maybe longer) can be the consolidation of a new leader’s reputation and solidification of a set of relationships. In years four to seven, heads—in conjunction with the board, administrative leadership team, faculty, parents, students, alumni, and larger community—can begin to effectively weave their vision for the school into a coherent long-term plan. In year eight (or 10 or so), at the first board meeting of a year, a head might look around the board table and realize no one continues to serve on the board who’d been present when it had first offered the head the job. This is a point of inflection. Heads can now begin to spend accumulated leadership capital.
Though I tend to question narratives that appear to be too tidy, I’d be keeping this in mind if I were starting a Headship or a similar role in an adjacent industry.
Okay, my kids don’t fight or bicker or argue that often, but when they do, I have two reactions.
The first reaction, a fast twitch reaction, is: “I wish they would stop.”
The second is slower, more considered: “Good.”
Good because, as long as no one gets hurt, fighting, bickering, and arguing means that my kids have broken out of parallel play mode. Have broken out of the “I’ll be in my room / video game / feelings / friendships, you be in yours, and I’ll see you at dinner” mode.
The unpleasant sounds of true disagreement signify that my kids are sharing something, or trying to share. They are figuring out what’s fair for both of them. They are splitting up what’s left of the ice cream. The talking, yelling, arguing tells me that they are trying to leap over a chasm that they haven’t yet closed or defined or negotiated. If they’re disagreeing honestly, and get to the other side, I know they will grow as individuals and as a unit bound together by time and space and the fate of being in the same family.
I feel the same way about my school, especially now, especially when things are as difficult and uphill and consequential as they have ever been. Come September, when we’re half-in our school building, if you don’t hear us bickering, if we’re not disagreeing beyond a mere slouch or crossed set of arms, if we’re not arguing about who gets to hold the remote, then we’re not fully in it and we’re not fully building the school our students deserve.
In today’s “Money Stuff,” with the caveat that this is a “simple” if “cruel and reductive . . . explanation of how [a particular] machine works,” Matt Levine writes:
The financial industry is in the business of intermediation, and it earns its living by doing trades. It is a volume business, “moving not storage”; the job is not to do the platonically correct transaction but to keep doing transactions. If you could find the platonically correct transaction, the thing that makes your client happy forever, you wouldn’t have the client anymore. If the allocation of capital ever became perfectly, permanently correct, a lot of people would be out of jobs.
In the education industry, to apply my own simple, cruel, and reductive logic, the goal should be the opposite: to aspire to make the transactions platonically correct so as to ensure (a) transformation in each student and (b) obsolescence of the school itself for each student at the right time. Storage not moving.
Today, I received a set of resources from my school’s Dean of Student Life. The set was compiled by our school’s student President, student Vice President, and Director of Libraries and Research. It lays out a path of summer study for students and teachers to help them “to continue educating [themselves] and fighting for those who have been silenced over 401 years of systemic oppression.” It’s great — an example of what happens when urgency meets agency.
Below are some terms I pulled out; I’ve heard them over the years but never really nailed them down in my own mind. Now that I have, thanks to two students and a colleague, they are part of how I’ll be viewing the world and my place in it. Aids to reflection and necessary struggle, no doubt.
Optical Allyship: allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally’; it makes a statement but doesn’t go beneath the surface and is not aimed at dismantling systems of oppression which perpetuate that oppression (Definition adapted from @mireillecharper instagram.)
Emotional Labor: the internal effort one must make to engage “regularly”; in a contemporary context, BIPOC are experiencing the most emotional labor during this time of unprecedented police brutality, but the term is not limited to only conversations on racial injustice
Virtue Signaling: the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.
Q: What do you think of this [software product]? I’m using it and I really like it.
A: I like the way it is designed and what it proposes to do, but I’m not going to use it.
Q: Why not?
A: I don’t think I’ll like what it will do to me. I know _______ about myself, and try to deemphasize that part of my personality. This product will most likely amplify that part of my personality. So, while it might help me do _______, _______, and _______, all good things, it will cause me to do more of _______, _______, and _______, not bad things, per se, but actions that will lead to habits I do not want to build.
Conclusion: When approaching a game, high level players play themselves, not the game.
Silos got us here; they won’t get us where we need to go next.
As a writer and communicator, be wary of cutting and pasting. Cutting and pasting is a lazy shortcut that allows anything you didn’t see or tend to the first time to persist the second time. Write and speak new sentences from your most up-to-date understandings and commitments.
The work: updating your understandings and commitments.
When asked to comment on policies, job descriptions, agendas, or anything written to guide others or guide process, don’t simply update or change content. Update and change — and challenge — format, perspective, structure, the frame, the order, the implied narrative, etcetera.
Pay even more attention to language than usual.
Actively manage your inputs. How does information get to you and what is it trying to get you to do? What information — that should get to you — does not get to you?
Don’t ask the vulnerable in your community to lead education and understanding during a crisis that intensifies their feelings of vulnerability.
If you haven’t met and known the vulnerable in your community, then shame on you.
Center or decenter? Stack or Progressive Stack? Fast or slow. Understand the choices available and your own choice making.
Build into your schedule more unstructured time, more moving about, more listening, more conversations without agendas. (Efficient systems cut out, soften, and smooth over the very things you might need to hear or see.) Time on task vs. time off task.
Have a team around you that tells you when you’ve screwed up — a meeting, a speech, a turn of phrase, a decision, a blindness. Invite this intentionally; incentivize it, at the very least, with gratitude.
See and credit the unseen labor that makes your community special and that keeps your community safe and healthy and kind. (Hint: it’s often happening outside of committees and unattached to titles.) [H/T to Dr. C.]
How the system changes or stays the same should not be a secret.
Do the work/update the software. Every day. There are no shortcuts.
Insist that your community be big enough to hear and hold “Do better” and “Thank You,” to accept critique and invite repair.
There’s a passionate thread about mental health and equity in this month’s Klingbrief. Since we don’t program content in advance, or try to influence what comes in the door, I see such threads, when they occur, as genuine expressions of the independent school zeitgeist. The sample size isn’t gigantic, but it’s a sample size nonetheless.
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