When Littleford & Associates conducts strategic planning assignments worldwide there are common, very important themes that keep emerging. They come from focus groups and one-on-one interviews with board members, heads of school and senior administrators, faculty and staff, and students.
The balance between academic rigor and mental health and wellness is not a new concern, but now this is a persistent theme which poses more challenges to teachers and administrators. Parents are on edge about this. They want rigor and they want social emotional protections as a safety net.
Related to academic excellence is parents’ desire for consistent quality of classroom teaching and for administrators to identify, mentor, and if necessary, let go those teachers who are underperforming, especially those whose weaknesses have been evident over the years. Independent and international school parents who are paying rising tuitions are specifically asking about faculty evaluation processes and how accountable teachers are to both administrators and parents. Some parents are even calling for parent evaluation of individual teachers, and this idea was once taboo but apparently not anymore. Parents also want generous and targeted professional development funds to be available so that teachers are exposed to and practice the latest pedagogical trends.
Curriculum is evolving rapidly and constantly. STEM and STEAM are no longer considered “cutting edge”; these programs are expected in those schools that have the space and resources to implement them.
Recognizing that AI is part of our future, parents want education for their children about how to use it appropriately and to their advantage, especially as they head to college. Parents are wondering what kind of careers opportunities will be available to their children once they graduate from college.
On the other hand, some parents believe that college is not for every child and that there are viable and attractive alternatives. These parents want guidance counselors to present those other options.
Parents and teachers both talk about “silos” in PK-12 schools, i.e., divisions operating independently of one another. Alignment across divisions and across departments has been an age-old desire which is still top of mind. Parents want to know that independent school teachers, whom we want to exercise their independence in the classroom, cannot simply devise their own curricula.
For most parents and teachers, ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of our children and young people is equally, if not more, important than academic rigor. Parents in the same school have wildly different opinions about the school’s role over cell phone use on campus. Some parents want much more oversight over the use of social media on campus, and other parents believe this is a family decision and that the school should not intervene.
There is a growing concern about neurodiversity and students who have special needs. Increasingly schools are enrolling families who have more than one child with completely different skills sets and interests. The parents fully expect the same school to provide for all their children. There is also an increasing demand for more counselors, learning specialists, instructional coaches, and in-house tutors. Many schools do not charge extra for these services and therefore, they become very expensive.
Campus safety and security are everyone’s worry. No one wants a school to feel like a prison but large open campuses or those with too many doors invite too many risks. Many families worry and not always openly, about a shooter on campus.
Parents definitely want topflight academic, fine arts and athletics facilities but they also do not want the emphasis on facilities to undercut the need for competitive pay to attract and retain the very best teachers.
While the issue of uniforms or a dress code or adherence to and enforcement of a dress code is not a strategic issue, it is a hot button, especially in affluent communities. Uniforms or a strictly enforced dress code is an “equalizer”. The lack of either encourages cliques around the “Have’s and the Have Nots”. Some parents feel that a laissez faire attitude towards this issue undermines the moral values and qualities to which the school espouses. What indeed is the role of parents versus the school? One Head told me, “A parent came and asked me how I could let her child come to school dressed in that manner!!” Boards and heads need to address this in some way, or parents will not feel heard.
For teachers in particular, the issues most important to them remain essentially the same but now they seem more focused on their own mental health, time off, planning time, better medical coverage, larger PD budgets, and more transparency overall.
Teachers see new buildings and the addition of more non-teaching staff as necessary but a potential threat to their earning power. Even though teachers are mostly caregivers who are not overly driven by money, they can be driven away by not enough money. Teachers want both the predictability of future earning power and to know the rules of how to influence it other than by tutoring or taking on extra positions.
Teachers also feel beaten up by parents during and after the pandemic, and they want the administration to protect them more. Again, this may not be a strategic issue, but it is a repeating theme that heads and boards need to address.
While boards deliberate about financial sustainability, enrollment, planning for growth, the cost/benefit ratio of tuition to perceived outcomes, creating a culture of giving, and risk management, there are signs of underlying disgruntlement that could become a crisis if triggered by some incident, or they may be confronting heads right now. Tensions in the global, national, regional, and local context may well divide our communities.
In sum, the demands and expectations of heads and also boards and senior leaders are becoming increasingly difficult to meet in many settings.