As I near the end of my first school year as a head, naturally many people ask about my overall experience. The questions vary, but they can be grouped into three overarching themes. How do I like St. John’s? How do I like being a head of school? What has been the biggest surprise? The first one is easy to answer. I’m thrilled to be part of this community. The latter two are a bit trickier to answer, so bear with me. There really haven’t been any true surprises in the standard head-of-school sense. That has a negative connotation. Certainly there have been things I didn’t expect, issues I had not foreseen, decisions for which I thought I would have more time. I can’t share the most disconcerting ones. As I explained to some faculty who expressed their wish for transparency from the new head, they wouldn’t really get it, but they would get a degree of opaqueness. Confidentiality and privacy simply can’t be violated.
I haven’t been totally surprised for a few reasons. One is simply my innate tendency to remain calm. I’ve prepared for this role for a long time, debating for years whether to take the leap. Several people served as powerful mentors along the way, from the very first days of my career. There is no area of school life I hadn’t experienced to some degree. I’ve studied a great deal in every way possible—observation, workshops, conferences, reading, interviews, visitations, projects, reflection. So I went into this with my eyes pretty wide open. I understood completely when my previous boss said I’d see the best and the worst of human nature. To some extent that’s already happened. Fortunately, much more of the best.
Still, the learning curve has proven steep. I’m reminded of my soccer career. With each step up—better clubs, college, adult, semi-pro—there was always an adjustment. The pace quickened; the physical contact and demands increased; pieces shifted faster and more frequently. Eventually it would begin to feel just like the game I’d always played. Players could tell fairly soon if they could compete, as the markers of success were quite clear, although not always measurable.
The move to headship strikes me as very similar…except the sense of success is much more elusive. Even when I feel it, I still wonder. Here I am, functioning as the school’s leader, at the same time I am just beginning to understand its culture. I don’t sweat just the big decisions; I deliberate on the small ones because I know each move and word carries extra gravity. I weigh the attention I give to faculty and administration and board and students and families and spouse and my own children and pray I’ve meted it appropriately.
Experienced heads have told me this is perfectly normal. This helps. At the same time, their advice can prove confusing. Some say be patient and spend a year learning; others, strike immediately, while you have the most credibility. Some say focus on internal affairs first; others, spend most of your time on board issues. Some recommend micromanaging; others emphasize delegating. However, they all agree on one point from which I take heart: the role begins to feel more natural. That already has begun.
So what does one do? Try to do it all, and eventually you’ll grow dizzy. You have to hit your own stride. I have found that it helps me to have what I’ve learned to use like a mantra. I’ve come to think of it as my P-Statement: You are in this place for a certain purpose at this point in time because of the person you are.
This helps me re-center myself. I regain that balance and move forward. I can learn from the difficulties and refocus on the long view. When this happens, I am once again surprised anew by the joy I experience in being a head of school. Particularly of this one.