From the May/June2021 Net Assets magazine
In a fall 2020 McKinsey report, “The Emerging Resilients: Achieving ‘Escape Velocity,’” the authors note that, “the experience of the fast movers out of the last recession teaches leaders emerging from this one to take thoughtful actions to balance growth, margins and optionality.” Overall, they say, organizational success coming out of the pandemic-driven recession requires flexibility and a willingness to experiment with new models. Resiliency, in other words, is about leaders reading the economic and cultural landscape and adapting wisely.
The McKinsey report is an important reminder for all organizations, including independent schools, to think about how they would like to see themselves in a post-pandemic world, and then start preparing for that world now. This kind of reverse engineering and futurist thinking enables organizations to create their pandemic “escape velocity.”
At NBOA, as elsewhere, we have been talking a great deal lately about such innovation in education — and with good reason. So much change has taken place under the pressures of the pandemic and other cultural challenges. Much of the innovation we have seen this year has been more or less forced upon us. Still, some of the resulting new practices in independent schools have been impressive and offer great promise for the direction all schools can head now.
From the curricular perspective, we are seeing the rise of student-directed learning, a shift in thinking about assessment and a greater emphasis on thematic-based, cross-curricular courses with the aim of mastery learning. On the academic side, a new type of balance is emerging — one of reimagined structures that allows for greater student agency and engagement with the goal of deeper learning. Technology has a role, but it is not the driver. From a culture and climate perspective, we are also seeing a much-needed rethinking on matters of diversity, equity and justice, especially regarding antibias teaching and truly inclusive communities.
From the business side, the innovations we are seeing either run parallel to or directly support these academic and community changes. At the 2021 NBOA Annual Meeting, the days were steeped in thoughtful, engaging conversations on matters of business and institutional sustainability. Topics included new perspectives on master planning and facility use, the rise of the Index Tuition model, creative approaches to alternative revenue sources, greater financial transparency, eliminating bias in the hiring process, “future proofing” schools through predictive analytics and much more.
As important and engaging as these conversations are, I want to point out another parallel concern that requires the attention of all of us now: Wellness. There is plenty of organizational restructuring work ahead, of course. As school consultant Ian Symmonds noted in a recent webinar, “2020 will be remembered … as the year that reset education.” At the moment, he added, our schools are, “Toggling between best in class or on the path to irrelevance.” In this regard, this coming academic year may mark the true start of 21st- century education. NBOA members are engaged in rebuilding our schools in the new economic and cultural landscapes. Yet, while schools continue to focus on institutional success in the coming post- pandemic world, it is important that we do not lose track of, or downplay, wellness.
The pandemic forced us to create new forms for delivering quality education to students because we prioritized physical well-being — for students and their families; for teachers, administrators, and staff; and for the common good. What was less obvious at the start of schools’ shift to distance learning in the spring of 2020 is that we also needed to prioritize social and emotional well-being. There has been nothing easy about making these adjustments while under an ever-present existential threat.
“Fun” parts of education can take many forms. Here, new students at Millbrook School, a grades 9–12 co-ed boarding school in Millbrook, New York, spent some time “marsh mucking” as part of their orientation to the 800-acre campus. Read more about the Millbrook School’s sustainability program in the article, “360 Degree Sustainability,” when the article appears online.
Given such pressure, one of the most important innovations to emerge this past year has been the shift to greater institutional empathy.For those in the business office, some of this wellness work is personal. We are finishing what may be the most challenging school year we will ever face. In a 2020 survey conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, in collaboration with the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, 95% of school principals said they felt both overwhelmed and stressed. I assume the numbers are lower among leaders in the independent school community, but stress levels have clearly been exceedingly high all around.
This time of year, we usually get to downshift a bit before gearing up for the fall. While this summer will not be typical of previous summers, and many face the challenges of running summer programs, it’s important for business officers to assess their own physical, social and emotional health. It is not just okay to acknowledge stress — it’s essential to do so. Taking time for one’s physical and mental health must be part of the equation if we hope to serve our schools well for the coming year. Under too much stress, it is difficult to be optimistic or to engage in the kind of creative thinking that leads to important innovations in schools.
At the same time, business officers should start thinking about how they can play a part in sustainable organizational wellness. What does wellness look like from a business leadership position? For one, it means paying close attention to relationship management. In times of crisis or major transition, school leaders need to focus on building trust and connections among everyone in the school community. Maintaining this sense of community helps foster the organization’s shared commitment to the mission and to making wise decisions in an environment of uncertainty.
From a human resources perspective, this means we need to be sure we aren’t just valuing the work employees perform, but also valuing the employees. Without trust and empathy, the type of pressures put on schools this past year can lead to fractured relations among adults in schools, which in turn can undermine the ability to move an institution forward and lead to the exodus of valued teachers and administrators. Good relationship management means centering empathy and compassion. By doing so, school leaders may foster optimism and, in turn, the kind of resilience schools need to evolve in a rapidly changing environment.
I understand that, as organizational leaders, many of us tend to downplay our own physical and emotional needs. Please, fight that tendency this summer. In the 2021-22 school year, it is highly unlikely we are going back to our pre-pandemic schools — or what Tim Fish, the chief innovation officer at NAIS humorously calls, “Was Town.” What our society needs from independent schools has changed, and we will need to be ready to engage fully in the work of evolving our programs and
This past year, we led with physical and emotional health and safety. Now we are centering it in our future planning — allowing our schools to find their “escape velocity” as we enter this new, challenging and exciting era of independent education.
Projections: Restoring Our Communities (Mar/Apr 2021)
Care for Self, Care for Others (May 2020, web-only)
Wellness Reimagined: Two Schools’ Approach During COVID-19 (May 2020, web-only)
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