Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

Strategic Thinking and—School Therapy?


Over the past few years I have found myself moving in circles that involve school advancement as much as the teaching-and-learning side of the house. Here I have been made privy to both the anxieties of independent school leaders on matters like enrollment and fiscal sustainability and the solutions—or at least the paths toward solution—that schools in our time are embracing. On the one hand there’s the matter of branding, recruitment, financial aid, and enrollment management, while on the other there’s the bigger question of strategy and of setting of priorities beyond the moment. 

Tiffany Hendryx, a friend and a professional brand-and-marketing guru with whom I occasionally partner on various projects, has noted that much of her work in these areas these days is taking on the character of what used to be called “strategic planning.” My complementary observation has been that a thoroughgoing school self-analysis and marketing study makes many of the same demands on a school as the traditional self-study and committee visits that are part of school accreditation. 

Alas, the legacies of both “strategic planning” and “the accreditation process” frequently have much in common: both are big-deal productions with lots of players, lots of effort and disruption, and lots of lofty language and good intentions that all too often result in reports that live out their days in dusty binders or thick, yellowing file folders, unconsulted and unremembered as the urgencies of each successive moment determine the actual course of the school. All the hard work and high hopes are soon forgotten, or remembered just enough to breed ruefulness or (much worse) cynicism. 

The observation that Tiffany and I have shared is that a full-on, serious, intelligently and thoroughly undertaken marketing or branding effort—call it what you will—grabs a school’s attention and generates real action far beyond a “strategic plan” or accreditation. I suspect that this is because the marketing effort has a significant and easily identifiable price tag, beyond the consultant fee of a traditional strategic plan or the incidental dollar costs and uncalculated human costs of accreditation. A board allocating several (or more than several) tuition-equivalents toward helping the school find itself and its external market is likely to pay more attention in the long term to the recommendations of that effort than to a complicated report written in consultant-ese or education-ese “for internal use only.” 

The more sophisticated the people in the “marketing” world become, the more they understand and can speak the language of schools and education to those for whom this is a first language, just as they can speak the language of advancement and “business” to those within schools whose concerns are either external or operational. The best “marketers”—and I keep using quotation marks because this term seems both inadequate and too freighted to express what I really mean—have enough knowledge of trends in educational best practice to assess what their clients are doing and might be doing, or doing better, in their classrooms. This all goes to the simple mantra of know who you are—say who you are—be who you are, the fundamental goal of any school, to deliver the experience it promises. The very best of these programs offers schools a manifold path toward this goal, which ought to be the holy grail for every school. 

Tiffany and I have occasionally joked that this work needs a new and better name, beyond even strategic marketing or even strategic thinking. “School therapy” comes to mind but is probably a dog that won’t hunt because of its negative or “deficit” connotations. But the idea is to help a school understand itself more deeply and then adjust both its internal behaviors—programs and policies—and its external presentation—the so-called advancement functions—to become the whole and integrated institution that it purports and believes itself to be, acting on those propositions and beliefs consistently and to the very best of its ability. If those aren’t the goals of therapy, I don’t know what are. 

New models of strategic thinking are taking form, some fast-track and short-horizon and others, like the “zero-based” methodology developed by our friend Grant Lichtman, making rigorous demands on school personnel to examine their own practice and purposes in the most fundamental ways. All of this is to the good, toward the improvement of the independent school breed if you will, and it can only help schools find ways to serve students in better ways.

Based on my own experience and my contemplation of what could yet be, I am a fan of the idea of bringing a school’s external face and internal life together, to create an iron-bound relationship between what a school says and what it does that is both harmonious and honest. As families look for schools that can match their dreams for what their children might become, it’s going to be more critical with each passing week that schools know how to communicate what they offer and offer what they communicate. If it takes a little therapy to help a school to achieve this, it’s time and treasure well spent. 

As a kind of epilogue I’d offer one more thought: That the school that is truly doing what it says it does is going to be a happy place. The ruefulness or cynicism fed by the knowledge that a school’s rhetoric has hollow spots or that its programs aren’t all they could be evaporates when words and deeds are brought into authentic alignment. Happy, confident teachers and administrators make for happier students and families, and we all know what that means to a school’s true “brand” and its future.

  1. Peter,
    I particularly like your thoughts here as an educational leader with a background in marketing– it has always been difficult to “convince” educators that schools– and teachers– need to market themselves. It seems to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Yet, when you focus down to the one true essence of marketing– facilitating an exchange– it now makes crucial sense to educators. I believe we must continue having this conversation out loud and often!

    I offer a term for you that goes beyond the deficit connotation of school therapy but hopefully gets to your point: school actualization. Connect to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the individual and extend it to the school (both highly emotional and relational beings in their own right), and I think there is something there. Too often, educators (and schools as institutions) are focused on the lower level needs of safety, security, belonging, and esteem. Not enough energy is placed on the higher level needs of self-awareness, growth, movement, and fulfilling potential.

    Some questions to ponder may be: 1) Are school environments designed to move individuals and school institutions up the ladder of needs? If not, how might we?
    2) What internal forces encourage school actualization– especially in light of the fact that external forces demand it? I am sure there are others as well.

    • Ah, Maslow proves serviceable again! And moves us away from “therapy,” despite our desire to normalize mental health care as a preventive good.

      I’d put self-awareness high on my list of desiderata for schools; there’s quite a bit of superficial self-awareness that can be the first step toward either over-confident bluster or ambition-thwarting insecurity, but not so much of the authentic, deep thing. And your two questions are at the heart of my own concerns for the future of schools as we know them. Too many of those on the outside of education (and more than a few within, it must be acknowledged) believe that those “external forces” demand not true actualization but rather a kind of regression to the mean, when we know that there is a transcendent potential in our work that some intentional effort can identify and unleash.

      Thank you for your comments!