In the business world it is not uncommon for an HR manager to come into an executive’s office and ask for his or her keys, computer and company cell phone, and then march that individual to the door with security guards. But that has not been a part of the etiquette and protocol of independent and international schools. Or has it? Actually there are more examples of a very similar situation in our schools than one might think.
Joe is finishing his second year as a new head of school and feels that he is doing well overall. In fact, the Board has just renewed his contract for three more years after an overall positive evaluation with some areas for improvement noted. He had inherited a School where the prior Head had been nudged out due to inactive leadership in the face of stiff peer school competition and because parents felt that a lack of substantive teacher evaluation had resulted in the annual renewal of some underperforming teachers. In addition, the progressive, “feel good” culture of the School gave parents little concrete evidence of student progress. It was not until children went on to other private and public schools that it became apparent that some had difficulty adjusting to homework demands and to managing their time.
The Board had charged Joe with addressing these parent concerns and focusing on the quality of teaching and faculty. There was no transition plan and the Head instituted change in ways that typically draws the ire or anxiety of teachers. A few popular but disgruntled teachers made “end runs” to parent board members who in turn were hearing similar complaints from their parent friends. Lines of communication between teachers, parents and parent board members began to intersect in ways that undermined the Head. The Head was not aware of the extent of these boundary crossing behaviors although he had some suspicion about broken confidences.
At a subsequent board meeting, the Trustees grilled Joe about a range of issues from curriculum to faculty morale. A few parent Trustees expressed concerns about these issues resulting potentially in the resignation of some teachers and a loss of enrollment. Secret meetings occurred among Board Members and between Board Members and teachers. Finally a meeting of three board members with nine teachers followed. This latter meeting occurred without the Head’s knowledge but with the support of the entire board. The next day the full Board met. The Head was also unaware of this meeting and how quickly his authority, stature and reputation were eroding in the community.
With only two weeks remaining in the school year, the Chair and one other Board Member, whom the Head believed to be among his strongest supporters, informed Joe that his contract would not be honored because it was not yet in effect. He was dismissed for “cause”, i.e. whatever severance the Board might choose to give was at its discretion. For the first time, he looked closely at his contract language and realized that the definition of “cause” included “non performance”, “insubordination” and other loose, broad language. He could not afford to seek the advice of an attorney, and he was afraid that if he retained legal counsel, the ultimate board offer would be even lower. He was too late to be a candidate in searches for the upcoming school year.
The dismissal and how it transpired stunned the Head. One teacher had said to him loudly in the school corridor just a few days before: “You are gone!” Joe could not believe that teacher’s insubordination but in retrospect that teacher knew far more than the Head.
The Board reacted rashly in response to their fear about a precipitous drop in enrollment without evidence to that fact. The disgruntled teachers fueled a rumor mill about poor faculty morale, the possible departure of valued teachers, a lax, unstructured curriculum, etc. In part, these teachers were responding to the Head’s “tightening up” of teacher behavioral and curriculum standards. The Head was probably moving too fast in response to the Board’s charge, and the Board had not heeded advice about transition risks and planning.
This case study raises several unanswered questions for this School and represents many lessons for heads of school and boards. What kind of cultural message is now left at this School? Any new or interim head should be wondering: How damaged is this School because even parents who might have been concerned might now ask what happened and why? Teachers and parents who were NOT unhappy would be surprised, dismayed and uncertain. Those who helped to provoke the prior Head’s dismissal will be further empowered under a new Head. They might exercise this new found power again, though carefully.
Where were the governance protocols? Which Board Members panicked, “caved in” and why? In this School, the Chair was well intentioned but weak and the Board did not meet frequently enough. The parent Trustees were connected, powerful and when they decided to turn against the Head, they did so quickly and purposefully. This is not to say they were not well intentioned. Almost all board members who behave this way think that they are acting in the best interests of the school, its parents, faculty and students.
Boards need professional, outside advice about the pitfalls and challenges of head transition. They should take this advice very seriously. Heads need to check the language in their contracts.
Littleford & Associates advises Boards about head transition and about how to structure a head’s contract so that it protects both the school AND the head.