Whether or not it is scientifically or medically true, we all would like to believe that the global pandemic is in the process of receding. We all are striving to lead schools in generative ways like we used to, without the constant disruptive barrage of attending to issues of distancing, masking, cohorting, and vaccinations. So, let’s just go with the agreed-upon understanding that we are emerging out of the pandemic. It is time to lead in a post-pandemic world.
What does this mean? What are the implications of this shift? Most of what we are discussing these days are issues that have been identified as needing the most attention in our leadership roles at schools. The mental health and wellbeing of students, their executive functioning and content readiness, the level of learner agency with which they embrace school, the importance of overall balance in their lives…all of these rightly deserve to be our priorities. Schools can no longer place these highly critical domains on the back burner. They need to be front and center. In fact, most of these areas of emphasis can also be applied to the professionals who work in our schools, the unsung heroes who deftly navigated teaching and learning throughout the pandemic. They too merit our attention to their health, wellness, work-life balance, and professional autonomy. Indeed, just about every school leader is focusing on these items on a daily basis as they slowly and steadily guide their schools out of the pandemic.
But, as leaders, we are all being very short-sighted if we solely focus on these “recovery-learning” dimensions without also attending to an even more potent, existential consideration: What is our overarching purpose now? What aims should we adopt for our educational institutions now that so much shifting has taken place in the world around us, shifts that should have been more acutely attended to in the past few pre-pandemic decades, but now take on even more prominence as a result of the past three years.
It is exactly this existential challenge that was directly addressed in a session at the recent Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE) conference in Washington D.C. A panel discussion consisting of three very well-respected thought leaders in our profession, moderated by myself, took on this challenge with approximately 35 other school leaders in the room.
Existential Conversations in International Schools: Ensuring Our Schools Thrive into the Future
With everything that has transpired in the past few years- the pandemic, social unrest, political antagonism, and economic uncertainty- we framed the conversation around the question, “What do we need to do as stewards of our educational institutions to prepare international schools for the next 20-30 years?” We really wanted to determine if there is a need now to balance institutional needs, outcomes, and expectations with social trust, and what we might need to do to consider this. After brief introductions, the panelists engaged in a spirited conversation that covered the following topics, among others.
Purpose and social position of schools
We discussed the ways our international schools are different now in terms of demographics, mission, program, and staffing compared to their initial profiles years ago. Whereas many of our international schools were originally founded upon a simple “market” premise, the need to provide a particular type of program for certain groups of students and families living in a specific geographic area, many of our schools now actually highlight ideology of some sort. They often boast about the creation of a certain type of educational product and/or advocate for some other type of achievement. Many of them consider themselves businesses and sometimes even investments that explicitly identify operational surplus and profit as intended outcomes.
Most importantly, so many international schools these days very much cater to local populations and a high number of local schools adopt an international ethos when possible. The blurring of these lines, once clear demarcations of what constitutes an international school, now leads to much ambiguity related to purpose, aim, mission, expectations, and values in our schools. Some would argue that our schools need more of a social agenda embedded within their missions in order to thrive in the future. Indeed, if we claim that our schools strive to be egalitarian, inclusive, and places of belonging, does the traditional tuition and fee model hinder this aspiration? Is it possible to consider alternative models that rely more on grants, scholarships, fundraising, and maybe even private equity in the same way that so many institutions of higher education have begun to explore? Leadership in our schools needs to clarify these foundational issues during this period of inflection.
Governance and institutional oversight
One inevitable implication of this existential challenge in international schools is the need to reconsider how they are governed. The manner in which our schools are entrusted to certain members of the community is increasingly more varied, characterized by a complex nexus of proprietary, self-perpetuating, elected, and appointed models of governance. Some schools are eager to adopt statutes that enable them to be acquired by for-profit entrepreneurs. Others, in contrast, strengthen their bylaws in order to protect themselves from acquisition. As with most iterations of change leadership, it is always best to be proactive in navigating these shifting governance needs rather than impulsively responding in a time of crisis.
In general, leaders in our so-called post-pandemic world need to intentionally think about how they work with their school boards to successfully engage in their fiduciary, strategic, and generative roles. As our schools aspire to become more sustainable in programs and resources, as they encounter an increasing number of opportunities to truly make a positive social impact, as they look for strategic and mission-aligned partnerships, and as they become more vulnerable to threats of exclusivity, it is important to focus on how we facilitate governance to better reflect the new demands placed upon our schools.
Leadership and capacity building
Assertively facilitating governance in our schools is just a subset of the capacity building school leaders need to embrace in our post-pandemic independent school environment. There is a wide array of structures, processes, and protocols that we need to create, develop, adjust, shape, and monitor in this new normal. Are we prepared for all of this? Do we have the skill set to be successful? Even more importantly, are we training and onboarding emerging and aspiring school leaders with these required competencies, all of which are grounded in a fluid and nimble leadership approach not typically embodied by our training programs and professional learning institutes? What we need to focus on when we train the next generation of school leaders are strategies that lead to success in times of great uncertainty and volatility, something we tend to avoid ourselves because of our own doubt, fear, and trepidation.
Much of this has to do with new ways of engaging with others in our communities through mutually beneficial partnerships, new technology platforms, innovative communication mechanisms, alternate accountability structures, and creative resource development. Job-embedded professional learning is key, and this will require more coaches, mentors, and advisors. In short, improving our own leadership and empowering other leaders with the skills required in this post-pandemic world must be considered one of the highest priorities as we take on this existential challenge.
Planning for the future
If our stated purpose, mode of governance, and approach to leadership are all susceptible to change in these shifting sands, then what we deem as successful needs to change as well. How will we measure the success of our institutions in the future? Does this indeed involve the expectation that students become more transformational in addressing societal needs? What is the school’s overall responsibility for advancing education and society? If our purpose broadens to include an element of “social good,” then the metrics we use to gauge success need to reflect this.
And this is where the advancement domains play a critical role in planning and shaping the future of our schools. Communication, marketing, alumni relations, and fundraising all take on newfound responsibility when we realize we need to be more intentional, strategic, and coherent in our efforts to build more inclusive communities and foster a sense of belonging for all in our schools. Institutional advancement becomes an even higher priority when we understand that the role schools play in society these days is even more central than it was in the past.
Participants in the AAIE session were invited to join the discussion themselves and asked to reflect upon the current moment of inflection for schools. Questions and comments related to the importance of diverse perspectives in our communities, the need for collaborative decision-making across institutions within the education sector, and the leadership agency we already have to address many of these issues were shared in our session. In the end, we all acknowledged that we might not have answered specific questions very well just yet, but that we have a responsibility to at least ask the right questions. It is only by doing this that we will ensure our schools thrive into the future.
Lee Fertig is the head of school at the Nueva School. He has more than 30 years of leadership and teaching experience in a wide variety of educational settings including five international schools (Ethiopia, Brazil, Spain, and Belgium), a leading independent school in New York City, and a voluntary integration public magnet school in Minneapolis. Lee has been training for the Principals’ Training Center (PTC) for many years, has taught in the College of Education at the University of Minnesota, and is a guest speaker on contemporary educational issues at a wide variety of community events. He provides consulting services for schools and educational organizations around the world in the areas of governance, development, fundraising, learning innovation, student support systems, and school-based continuous improvement.