“I can promise you two things:
Your child will be known.
Your child will be loved for who he is.”
A well-respected head of a boys’ school, now retired, used to end each admissions open-house talk with the above quote. To me these words capture the very essence of a great school: each child should be known and respected for who she is now and who she will become as she progresses through the school’s program. In fact, this philosophy of teaching and leading shapes my day-to-day effort to make the school in which I work a healthy one. Is each student, teacher and staff member known and truly appreciated for what he/she brings to the school? Does each member of the school community understand and strive to fulfill his/her duty to be known by and to know others in a productive manner? It is my responsibility as a leader to guide the school toward goals that will allow those questions to be answered in the affirmative.
As a teacher I tried to create a microcosm of a great school in my classroom. I made a real effort to know each child as both a student and person. I wanted my students to feel acknowledged and safe so they were comfortable taking intellectual risks. Children in my classroom learned when and how to challenge each other — and me — through thoughtful and effective communication. As each course began, I clearly articulated standards for behavior and work, and I held students accountable for both; that way, they knew precisely what to expect from me and what I expected from them. I trusted each student until I was given a reason not to trust, and if a breach of integrity arose, we worked together to repair that broken trust.
I was secure enough in myself to openly acknowledge that I was a student as well as a teacher. I brought my own curiosity and passion to each class, and I never claimed to have all of the answers. When I made a mistake, I learned from it, and I encouraged my students to do the same. I also learned about teaching, my subject matter and, most importantly, the students, from the other teachers in my department and across the grade level. I was not able to create this perfect environment every day, but I constantly strove for this type of collaborative teaching and learning. Together we built a community of learners from this foundation of trust and respect of diverse voices.
As head of school, I work with my administrative colleagues and the trustees to recreate my ideal classroom on a school-wide level. The quest is far greater, of course, because of the inherent complexity of running a school. Financial, legal and personnel challenges – as well as diverse perspectives among the community – can overshadow the real task at hand: establishing and maintaining a place for girls to learn and grow as students, individuals and community members. A good head of school recognizes this, knows how to prioritize and delegate and is always aware of the bigger picture. I understand my job is to balance the good of each individual with the overall good of the institution in order to create a healthy school.
As head of school, I surround myself with qualified, talented and passionate administrators who believe in each other, me and, most importantly, the school’s mission. It is crucial that I am able to trust the senior administration, hold them accountable, provide them with and encourage professional development and, of course, laugh with them. Together we must support the teachers in providing the best education the institution can offer each child. That support comes in the form of attracting families who believe in the school’s mission, admitting a qualified and diverse student body, developing global curricular and co-curricular programs that responsibly use technology, keeping the institution financially sound, attracting outstanding professionals who believe in the mission and continuing the school’s connection with its graduates.
If a school is only fancy buildings; a large endowment; high test scores; numerous athletic championships; and students, faculty and parents who only see it as a step to the next place, then it is only a good school, at best. But, if a school is filled with happy girls who feel safe and respected; teachers who want to teach children (not college students) and support them to produce their personal best as well as continue their own studies; administrators who are perceptive, talented and trusted; parents who support the school’s mission; and a governance board that sees itself as a strategic and supportive body for advancing it, then, and only then, will it be a great school. I want to lead a good school that wants to become great or a great school that wants to further its greatness. I want the students not only to be known, but also to know they are loved. I want to lead a community of adults not only to know each student, but also to love each girl.