What has Changed in Schools and How to be Prepared for What is to Come? | Jim Wickenden and Jennifer Fleischer | 5 Min Read

By James Wickenden and Jennifer Fleischer, Talent Consultant at DRG Talent Advisory Group

Making predictions is always risky because the chances of being wrong are greater than the chances of today’s Congress working together harmoniously and productively. Nonetheless, both our government and we are willing to try. In so doing, we are relying on our collective past experiences to give us a few ideas about the future.  

In total, we have worked in schools and with schools for over 70 school years. From the classroom to the board room, and from the thickest of the weeds to the 30,000-foot views, we have seen schools and their stakeholders manage goals, initiatives, fads, lasting change, and crises throughout this time. We’ve had the opportunity to partner, consult, learn, and advise with school people at all levels. The major issues schools wrestled with during the early 2000s are quite different from the issues that are now confronting the leaders of both public and independent schools. 

For example, in the early 2000s, the following issues were frequently discussed by trustees, Heads of School, and teachers:  

  • Developing 21st Century Skills; Developing character; 
  • Linking pedagogy to brain research on how students learn; 
  • Using technology to enhance learning; 
  • Initiating a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) program; 
  • Building a curriculum with a global orientation; 
  • Developing critical thinking and problem-solving; 
  • Recognizing the importance of diversity and equity in our schools; 
  • Empowering girls’ voices in the classrooms.  

While we are certain that there were other issues that could be added to the above list, please note that many are still applicable and still receive attention today. Yet, to be relevant today, we would need to add issues that currently dominate discussions among trustees and school boards. For example, today a great deal of time and attention is focused on: 

  • Sexual harassment and assault responses and policies; 
  • Managing COVID-19 and subsequent policies and protocols; 
  • Competing with online and/or home school alternatives; 
  • Training faculty to work with students with diagnosed learning differences; 
  • Urgency towards ensuring diversity, equity, and belonging for all community members and addressing past wounds; 
  • Supporting student mental health crises; 
  • Navigating the changing landscape of college admissions; 
  • Planning for the widening income gap; 
  • Supporting gender fluidity and gender-questioning students; 
  • Managing the political divide that exists in the country. 

Of course, neither of the above lists is complete, and depending on your school’s demographics, the prevalence and intensity of these issues are likely to vary. However, many, if not most, of the items in the second list are “ADD-ONS”; items outside of the traditional academic program. And being add-ons, they complicate the lives of Board members, Heads of Schools or Superintendents, and the faculty. 

What can trustees or school board members do to reduce the pressure on the school staff to be first responders to these issues so that they can focus on the day-to-day supporting of students and student programs? We have four recommendations:

  1. Governance: The adage “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst” applies to how a school should be governed. Every school has standing committees, but there is not a standard set of standing committees. Assuming that the Board is populated with individuals who have served as leaders in a variety of organizations, each board member will likely have significant experience navigating crises. As a result, the Board could create another standing committee composed of individuals who have made both decisions and mistakes when confronted by the unexpected. As the current committee structure of most schools is not oriented to handling crises, we believe a dedicated crisis response committee is a key standing committee for schools to thrive going forward.
  2. Administrative Structure: When a crisis occurs, often the trustees, the staff, and the faculty look to the Head of School for a solution. Assuming that the Head already has a full plate of responsibilities, that administrative structure and the time intensity of crisis management is unrealistic. Thus, we recommend that someone else on the Staff, perhaps an Assistant Head of School or the CFO, be the crisis response committee chair. Key in setting this up for success would be training this leader to handle different kinds of emergencies. Additionally, their responsibilities need to have enough flexibility to allow them to thoughtfully and thoroughly devote their time and attention to managing all aspects and impacts of the current crisis.
  3. The Culture of the School: When crises or emergencies occur, we believe the school’s values should be used as the foremost grounding towards finding solutions or responses. Most mission statements include those aspects that are core in the community, and by framing the school’s approach in those values, the school can more likely ride the tide of inevitable complaints regarding the school’s responses. Additionally, by rooting decisions in what is at the heart of the school, the committee can avoid impulsive or fear-based responses.
  4. Action and Transparency: Information and misinformation, especially in the face of a crisis, are quickly pervasive in and around the community. A crisis committee operating with the school’s core values at the forefront is poised to collect and act in a timely fashion. It will likely be impossible to have complete information, and yet it is important for this group to expediently gather, research, and take the first step. Given how quickly news (and often “fake news”) gets out, school leaders will have to be prepared to communicate as transparently as possible. They should stick to the WHAT (the school’s first and each subsequent response) and the WHY (the reason they are making that particular move given the best information available at the time).

While the instinct to wait until every angle has been dissected might seem the most thoughtful; schools need to balance being deliberate and acting in the best interest of most constituents given the current information. In other words, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” As needed, they should regather and repeat the above steps. 

In sum, we encourage the leadership of schools to acknowledge that various unforeseen and even predictable but calamitous events will inevitably occur. Trying to create a structure that might manage those problems is vastly superior to simply hoping that a natural disaster, school fatality, or hate-based crime will not ever occur on our school grounds. If the Scouts of America are smart enough to “Be Prepared”, the combined talents of trustees, administrators, staff members, and teachers should take that motto to heart. 

Jim Wickenden

Jim is a Principal at DRG and Founder of Wickenden Associates, an affiliate of DRG. Having been the CEO of one of the premier education executive search firms in the United States, Jim brings unparalleled experience and networks to best serve clients. With over 30 years of experience identifying and guiding Heads of Schools and other senior administrators of schools across the country, Jim approaches each search with flexibility and openness that responds to the individual needs and concerns of schools and their leaders. Before founding Wickenden Associates, Jim served as the Dean of Admissions at Princeton University and Director of Student and Alumni Affairs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A graduate of Tabor Academy and Princeton University, Jim holds a master’s degree in Counselor Education from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in the General Purposes of Education from Harvard University, and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Boston University. As a former member of eight boards of independent schools with a wide range of missions and resource levels, Jim also knows firsthand the responsibilities shouldered by today’s trustees; and knows how to guide boards through tough transition processes and on good governance practices. Jim lives in Princeton, NJ, and when he is not at the office he enjoys reading enlightening books.

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