Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

The Year of the School As Think Tank?


Educators are feeling about like everyone else after the economic paroxysms of the past week. Five weeks after the annual fund has been put to bed (and the ones I know about seem to have come through okay) and just a couple of weeks before the curtain goes up on the new school year, it feels like 2008 all over again, with the politics meaner and the future more occluded.

But the show must go on. With all of the reasons we can conjure up to lie awake at night, we’ve got kids to educate.

The stakes are high, and we must be at our best: to both inspire and ease the minds of the children in our charge (and their parents), to lead faculties with clarity and confidence (and humility), and to manage our institutions with wisdom and creativity. There are going to be some tough decisions to be made, and one suspects that there could be a great deal more weirdness between now and June. The last few years have been tough, but now it’s time to start digging even deeper.

What a friend calls “summer conference season” has just come to an end, and the people in your schools whom you sent off to be personally and professionally developed can fill you in on the details of the case for change as they heard it from workshop presenters and gurus—what to do and how and why to do it. I hope like heck that their summer days and hours spent listening to very smart people will pay off in the substance of some brilliant initiatives at your school—and not just as little e-news blurbs to show your constituents how busy some of your teachers are over the summer.

It’s unclear precisely what the nuances of strategic management are going to be in 2011–2012 remains to be seen, but they are certainly going to involve branding, admissions, and development as much as academic program. The good news is that we’ve learned a few things since the 2008 Crash, and there’s quite a bit of wisdom to tap. The National Association of Independent Schools is on your side, and they’ve got a mass of shared wisdom in their Sustainable Schools materials.

What I can recommend, having been (I will happily avow) a part of gathering some of those materials, is to focus strategies during the second dip of this recession on doing more thinking, more listening, and more sharing. Independent school folks have not always been the best role models for the kind of open collaboration that we demand of our kids in sports and the arts and increasingly in the classroom; for some reason our schools and their leaders don’t always find it that easy to talk and listen to each other. We need to be better.

Sometimes our brothers and sisters in other school have excellent ideas to offer; sometimes what we can learn from the example of others is how to be on the lookout for new approaches to our work—new partnerships, new ways of teaching, new approaches to doing business, new sources of revenue, new markets, even new sorts of people whose different experiences, skills, and ideas can take our schools—and our students—to new and unexpected places.

Quite a few leaders in our industry have been talking about entrepreneurship lately. It’s a cool subject, and certainly our most successfully entrepreneurial graduates and parents are becoming some of our most important supporters; they often have a certain admirable fearlessness about them, and we more timid folk running nonprofit schools or even (even? Ahem!) classrooms are excited by their boldness, energy, creativity—and success.

Well, there never was a better time to try to imitate this boldness and creativity, and there has never been a better time to start fostering the entrepreneurial spirit in teachers, and even in our boards and parent and alumnae/i bodies.

A few posts and many months ago I described schools as being like think tanks. The question is, how can school leaders model and encourage think-tank-like, entrepreneurial behavior? Maybe it’s “venture capital:” seed money to support promising ideas or even reward innovative strategies (I’ve seen this concept embedded in a school’s strategic goals, so it’s not totally outlandish). Maybe it’s ramping up the professional development program to encourage and reward not just passive participation but active leadership, the kind that strengthens a school’s academic culture and encourages growth in everyone. Maybe it’s admitting that we might not have all the answers, right now—but that we believe those answers exist. And maybe it’s just listening to new ideas and then celebrating those who make them work on behalf of our students and our schools.

Can we start the year declaring not that we’re worried about the economy—of course we are; you’d have to be an idiot not to be—but rather by declaring 2011–2012 The Year of the School As Think Tank? Boldly invite faculty to begin imagining the school as it really could be if all of its best impulses, aims, ideals, and ideas were put into play; let the voices of students be heard, too. Why, we could even listen to other schools, and share what’s happening at ours.

It’s going to be tempting in some quarters to hold fast to the status quo, but it’s time we really start drawing on the intellectual, creative, social, and emotional resources in which our schools abound. Furthermore, we need to share what we discover, what works and what doesn’t. It’s the best way, really the only way, that I can see for independent schools to move ahead.