During my thirty-two years in independent education, one trend I've noticed is schools taking more and more lessons and directions from the world of business. Some of the topics which immediately jump to mind include strategy, branding, metrics, return on investment, scalability, distributed leadership, design thinking, innovation...I know I'm missing some. Educators read more books traditionally associated with the business world, a trend that seemed to start with Good to Great. Whatever the topic, while we always seem a large bit behind the curve, we're looking in that direction and, to use another term we've co-opted, trying to become more nimble as organizations. In many ways all these experiences, whether we do them well or not, are beneficial in that they become an important part of our paths to progress. In today's world they are particularly vital to our future as enterprises. That's all great stuff.
At the same time, however, I wonder where the tipping point lies--when it becomes "just business." As a school head, I sometimes feel as if it has because of how I spend my time and what fills my thoughts. I hope that never trickles down to faculty, although I do want them to accept on some level--as much as it feels like a gut punch to some--that ultimately we are a business. I accept it and, even though many of the business aspects still baffle me, I find them some of the most intriguing parts of my job because I have to keep growing. I can't lead unless I do.
Still, I feel pangs of discomfort with certain aspects of this trend. I worry that we can lose sight of the more ethereal, yet perhaps more eternal and valuable aspects of education. We can spend so much time measuring where a child is a this moment that we lose sight of the possible adult. We can become so concerned about next-level readiness (high school, college, career) that we suck the joy out of right now. We can worry so much about how the world is changing now and in the future that we forget about developmental changes in a child at each and every stage of their learning.
These last few lines should remind us that, yes, an independent school is a business. But I think we are truly unique. Granted, I have never worked as an adult in anything but independent schools; so this is based on conversation, reading, general impressions from myriad sources. I doubt there is another business more intense on a human level than independent schools.* Consider the number of people who form a very complex web or deep relationships based on a topic about which they all have invested a great deal of time, talent, emotion, and money: the education of children. Everyone cares incredibly. Working with children is demanding. Loads of stakes are put in the ground. Every day is packed with potentially pivotal moments. I'm sure other business have days and periods like this. But in education it's a regular day. And while there are gleaming moments of real breakthrough, progress can prove slow and elusive. You don't do a product launch and see sales skyrocket.
I'll continue to stretch myself in the business side of leading a school. We have plenty to learn from the business world. I hope, though, that I can always keep a large part of my focus on the teaching and learning. That desire expands into a dream not just for my school or independent schools, but for all schools. For whatever reason, people feel free to critique and "advise" schools with a degree of confidence and in ways I don't hear people direct towards other enterprises. My dream is this. We're the experts on teaching and learning. It's not just schools that need to keep evolving. Businesses do even more desperately. As is the case with schools, some do it better than others. I hope that someday we develop such incredible schools that businesses take more and more lessons from us. We need to achieve the perfect symbiosis.
*I don't mean this as a slight to other types of schools. It's the world I know, and I base it on what I know from people who have worked in various types of schools and what they have told me.