December 5, 2022
We’re coming up on that time of year again, of resignations for the end of the school year, hiring fairs, and issuance of letters of appointment for the next academic year. One of the paradoxical facts of independent school life is that while there is greater freedom in the curriculum than in the public system, the specific fabric of a school is created by people and personalities over time and that creates its own opportunities and limitations. Independent schools really aren’t about the latest and greatest trends in education. And whatever a school leader might think about the school culture — whether it is student-centered (or not), whether it supports flexible mindsets (or not) — it is the air we breathe. It is what students and families perceive when they tour our schools during admissions season. It’s what makes your school, your school. So the pandemic Great Resignation with faculty and administrative turnover has brought a wave of change.
Culture is impacted profoundly by the departures of faculty and mid-level administrators, particularly experienced contributors who are so steeped in the school’s culture that they might even have a hard time articulating what that culture is when asked. And as we turn the corner into the second half of the academic year, many of these departures loom.
Leaving is hard and intentionality is needed. When you have dedicated a large part of your adult life to a school, a departure is a major life event. Sometimes it’s time for something new after the remarkable grind of pandemic teaching — retirement, more time with loved ones, or a new opportunity presents itself. Sometimes it’s because the school has changed and you’re not sure whether what you loved to do and where the school is going match up anymore. And sometimes you may even have trouble recognizing the school you love so much.
There is no avoiding that this is a challenging transition, even if it’s purely driven by positive anticipation for a new chapter. While expectations and commitments between independent schools and their employees are currently shifting, in the past, many idealistic, energetic, and talented people gravitated to independent schools and built a long, meaningful career in one place — really, a meaningful life. I left Walnut Hill School for the Arts after twenty years, by my choice and for an exciting opportunity, and even so, it was no simple thing.
And as the person leaving, you need to acknowledge the loss that comes with separating from a beloved community. And you can take it. You are talented and you have contributed so much in your career. It will sting. Transitions are hard and they involve grieving. But you’ll move on. That’s the beauty of “the only constant in life is change.” Cliche, sure, but also humans are designed to adapt. I doubt anyone at your school sees you as a fragile flower, and you have been an inspiring role model for so many. See in yourself that same inspiration and strength.
For administrators and colleagues, even when it has awkward elements, normalizing the topic of leaving in your one-on-one interactions with the person departing is far preferable to sweeping it under the rug. We often aren’t good in schools at naming awkwardness, loss, and grief and prefer to march on with unfettered optimism. But you need to set the tone. And while you don’t want to bombard the person from all sides to discuss the complications of departure, decide which role and relationship might be best suited to engage in that conversation and be the ear for the departing person. And sometimes just opening the door and expressing a willingness to be a good listener in a complex time in a person’s life hits the spot. Maybe it’s the head of school because she isn’t in the trenches. Maybe it’s the department head because he is in the trenches. Or maybe it’s a mid-level manager such as a division head or academic dean.
Being open about the fact change is happening is also the best way to limit rumors and grumbling because, with so much change in the air, there will be rumors and grumbling. But the more everyone avoids the topic of change and loss, the weirder it is and the more unresolved issues get pushed back down into the community and the culture, resurfacing in unproductive ways, feeding mistrust between faculty and administration. Of course, elements of this dynamic will happen anyway — and there are very good ethical and legal reasons why personnel issues have confidential aspects — but the more administrators can find ways to be human and acknowledge that change is hard rather than continually trying to convince everyone change is all good, the healthier fuel this is for the culture in shifting and adapting. It may not pay off immediately, but it will pay off.
And celebrate people! It is an occasion for celebration and good feelings, for sharing how people have changed lives over many years. It is interesting to me that some schools have very set-in-stone celebration markers for years of service or recognizing retirements or longtime folks departing. Many don’t. I would advocate throwing the door open wide. It is powerful to hear from alums, former students, and even family members. Zoom has added a new dimension to this potential. You have a moment in time when you can make this happen.
For the departing people, if you love the school, it is in your best interest to find the silver linings even while processing the harder parts of the transition. Even if you are upset about some of the changes at the school, and even if your opinion is completely correct, time doesn’t move backward. The context changes, the world changes, and today it’s changing faster than ever. Maybe some of those changes you evaluate as negative will change again — but they’re not changing back, or even if they do, sort of, it won’t look the same. There are hundreds and hundreds of students you have influenced positively and if you can leave with some love in your heart, letting it go, then you can return for reunions or games or performances in a way that feeds you.
You might need a little grumpiness to make it easier to get out the door, like those grouchy seniors every year before graduation. But bitterness doesn’t help the community that you are leaving behind and it does not help perpetuate the culture you cherish and it does not serve the current students. And it won’t help you move on to the new opportunities both personal and professional you have in front of you.
Life goes on without us, no matter how hard that can be to imagine. A few years ago, I found out that Walnut Hill was, at that time, still using a version of a departmental evaluation system I designed and I was surprised at just how delighted I was to hear it. We want to know we made a difference. On the other hand, there are other projects I worked long and hard on that are now dusty archival artifacts. We can’t choose and it’s out of our hands.
As far as school culture goes, cultures change gradually. People adapt and fill in the holes. And it is a big sign of progress when you hear people reminiscing about “the old days” or the people who symbolized “the old days,” and what they miss about them. It’s a way to process change and signals they are figuring out how to get on board the change train and let go of the past. As an administrator, when you hear these conversations, lean into them rather than trying to change the subject, even though it might feel counterintuitive.
Departures of beloved faculty and staff community members are part of the fabric of the school, the same as the ceremonial farewell we bid to the graduating students each year. It would benefit us all for schools to bring a bit of the same thoughtful process, humanity, and ritual we put towards departing students to sending off the adults into their next chapter.