My personal journey in the field of education took a most unexpected turn three weeks ago. I stepped into our conference room for what I thought was a leadership team meeting only to be greeted by two members of our Board, one of whom read a letter of resignation from our Head of School. The letter was followed by a statement that the Board wanted me to serve as Interim Head of School. That is the type of experience that takes your breath away. It is like being stuffed into a catapult and hurdled into the unknown. As you fly through the air, you are confronted with a mixture of extreme emotions – from sadness at losing a friend and colleague whom you greatly admired to panic because you are suddenly in charge of…everything!
I have lost count of the number of people who have quoted Esther 4:14 to me. “For such a time as this,” is a biblical catch phrase that is intended to encourage the one flying through the stratosphere of the great unknown. The real focus should be on the first part of that story. Mordecai challenged Esther to appeal to the king on behalf of the Jews, because he saw how God had prepared her for that exact moment and need. In hindsight, when we land back on the ground, we can often see the same truth in our lives. Nevertheless, that does not eliminate the need to plan. If you are in a leadership position at your school, what are you doing to train a replacement? This is a prudent business practice whether you are considering a relocation or just aspire to a new position.
Years ago, I had the joy of working for a major home improvement retailer (think orange), while teaching full time and going to graduate school. Retail taught me a lot that can be applied to running a school. During the growth spurt in DIY in the early 2000’s, the focus was on training people to replace you so that you could move up; people who worked hard were fast-tracked to management positions. Roles in education tend to be more rigid. Advancement is often the result of going to graduate school, or it is motivated by a need to earn more income. This should not be the only path to an administrative position. While some teachers may be content to do the same job year after year, others would welcome the challenge and opportunity that comes with a career move.
I am grateful that our previous Head of School was always planning ahead and mindful of mentoring. In hindsight I see ways in which he prepared me for the unexpected change in my career path; this a model from which all faith-based schools can benefit. Formal training is one aspect of leadership mentoring. Last summer our leadership team participated in Zoom training with Bob Tiede on the art of “Leading with Questions.” According to Tiede, “Leadership is not as much about knowing the right answers, as about asking the right questions” (Leading with Questions, 2021).
Organization is an essential skill for running a school, and my mentor was a lifelong fan of the Franklin Planner. At our school it is a bit comical to see everyone enter a meeting with planners in hand. While this may seem old school to some, do not dismiss it without trying it. I have only recently begun to master full use of my planner. It was a big step to wean myself off the sticky note. The busier the day, the more sticky notes covered my desktop. Recently, I learned how to use the “Prioritized Daily Task List” as a replacement to surrounding myself with individual notes. Taking notes in my planner during meetings also provides a record of the conversation and helps me focus on being a better listener.
Mentoring also takes place through modeling. Watching how someone reacts in a variety of situations, how they make decisions, how they deliver difficult news, even what they are doing to learn and grow spiritually and career-wise can prepare future leaders. This presupposes that someone is spending time with you in these situations. Who could you include in a board meeting, a planning session, a difficult parent conference – not just to be another person in the room but also to help that one learn new job skills?
Age alone tells me that I will not be working in education many more years. Even before being thrust into a new role, I was thinking about who could be our next curriculum director. A recent conversation reminded me that it might not be the person I think is most obvious. Therefore, I need to be open and welcome conversations with those who are thinking about a change. Someone who is unfulfilled or frustrated will likely leave your school; someone who is excited about new possibilities will not. Though difficult, the void created by a sudden departure creates both the need and opportunity for others to step up. Even reassigning a small task gives another person the chance to learn something new.
Finally, leave a paper trail. One great benefit of accreditation is the fact that it forces a school to put all policies and procedures in writing. Those who have worked at your school a long time know what to do in every situation. The next person will not. Updating lists of vendors, contractors, online providers, passwords, financial data, and procedures ensures that even a sudden departure will not leave a void of information. This also provides evidence that your school operates with integrity.
I do not wish the catapult experience on anyone, but I know that nothing catches God by surprise. Whether your school is in a time of leadership transition or not, training your replacement should be intuitive in an organization that exists to teach others.