Been There Done That: leadership of a smaller school
The 2003 – 04 school year found me finishing up a four-year stint as head of a small start up school in Grand Cayman. Having gone from 90 students to 300 during that period, I found myself wanting to make the leap from the challenges that came from counting success based on each individual new admission, to the relative stability of a larger school. In doing this, I was a bit caught off guard by the assumptions made during the interview process of what was involved in running a small school. There seemed to be a perception it was some sort of holiday in comparison to running a larger school. Throw in the location of the school I was coming from, well, let’s just say it seemed some people thought I had been doing nothing more than working on my tan.
The assumptions I’m speaking of were painfully obvious from the questions I received. While I was prepared for questions about my leadership style, educational philosophy, beliefs about the role of technology in learning, and the IB, and was certainly asked some of these, the majority of questioning seemed to pursue a different vain. It didn’t matter if I was being questioned by parents, board members, faculty, or even other heads, the most often asked questions were things like, “What makes you think you are ready for a larger school?” or, “What makes you think you can handle a school that is so much bigger than the one you are at?” My personal favorite went something like this, “Do you think you’re ready for the extra workload that comes with being head of a larger school?”
Answering these questions always required taking a deep breath and maintaining a level of diplomacy. I was seeking employment after all, and responding with some sarcastic crack wouldn’t do me any favors. Still, I felt like asking how familiar their current head was with the inner workings of the actual running of the school. When was the last time their head had fixed an over flowing toilet, or painted a hallway wall? Was their head one of the designated bus drivers for school trips? When was the last time they spent a weekend with two parents to build the play structure on the playground, laid the gravel in the parking lot, or applied bandages to hurt students? These were all things I was familiar with as head of a small school, and were of course happening while keeping the books, leading the curriculum review, overseeing the ordering of supplies, setting up and hosting parent events, leading the accreditation process, reading to students, and supervising the playground during recess, not to mention a long list of other tasks usually shared amongst a group of people in larger schools. To all of these things, I could easily raise my hand in the affirmative. Yep, been there, done that! I was aching to ask if their current head could say the same.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind being head of a small school is the best training ground there is for truly understanding the operations and inner workings of a school. I remember early on in my tenure at this smaller school a heavy rainfall revealed several leaks in the roof of the building. Buckets were set out at key locations to catch the chronic dripping. The first spell of dry days saw the only member of the maintenance staff and I on the rooftop with brooms and hot tar laying a new roof. The next time it rained, we waited anxiously to discover if our hard work had paid off and learning could continue in a dry environment. Similarly, a broken water pipe one year found me working side by side with the same maintenance guy mopping the floors, and then replacing a pipe that had rusted away.
Probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a school head occurred at this same school when Grand Cayman was hit by Hurricane Ivan, a category 5 hurricane, in 2004. The island was wiped out, and all schools on the island were shut down due to the level of damage. The maintenance guy and I stayed on the island, recruited a group of workers, and supervised the renovations and repairs to the school. This permitted me to engage in almost every aspect of the school as we worked for almost three months to get the school ready to welcome students back. I felt a sense of pride when those students returned to a warm and caring school environment. There was something else I felt as well, it was like I had a sense of every part of the school, what tools we had, where everything was stored, and what was needed to keep every part of the school running. I had a sense being head of the school meant understanding how every aspect of the school worked.
In my career so far, I’ve been head of four different schools. That school in Grand Cayman was the smallest. A school of 1800 was the largest. The other two were in between. Every school has required a different skill set, and I’ve learned the importance of being able to observe, listen, and adapt to what is needed. I can honestly say though the best education I every received in learning how a school runs was through serving as a small school head. It gave me the ability to understand, and appreciate the different roles we all play in providing a quality education for the students in our care and in running a successful school program.