This is my twelfth year running and my twenty-sixth working at a very small school in Boston’s Back Bay, one that enjoys a remarkable group of teachers and motivated students. I like to think that I’ve figured a few things out, usually after a couple of significant blunders. But as I think back I realize that though I’m a slow learner, eventually patterns of what works and what doesn’t come into focus and are understood. I like to distill some of those lessons into economical rules of thumb— common sense reminders—that keep me on track. Here are a few about leadership and our schools.
There is no such thing as an interruption. I learned this one quickly, thanks to my predecessor who used to tell everyone at the start of the year that her door was open and that teachers and students were welcome to bring any ideas or concerns to her, adding that she did not promise to agree with them, but she did promise to listen. I repeat those lines at the start of every year. My office is an ornate 19th-century oval dining room whose double doors (gorgeous curved mahogany) open onto a busy landing across from our library. Teachers, staff, or students drop in frequently with questions and comments ranging from the inconsequential to the momentous. A teacher may present a problem with a proposal for a sensible solution; a student may float a far-fetched idea for a new program or sport. But if I don’t drop what I’m doing and give my full attention, they will leave feeling that they have been rejected. Even if all that I have to say is “Good idea, go for it,” it is important for all to know that they have been fully heard. The attention I give assures them of their franchise, of their responsibility for the community. The rule of thumb helps keep me from treating a teacher, student, or parent as a distraction.
The leader sets the tone. General Eisenhower realized that “optimism and pessimism are infectious and they spread more rapidly from the head downward than in any other direction.” Of his time on Gibraltar while planning the North African invasion in the fall of 1942 he wrote, “I did my best to meet everyone from general to private with a smile, a pat on the back, and a definite interest in his problem.” I have seen in schools how the Head’s treatment of colleagues and students creates the atmosphere in which all live and work. Students and adults smell suspicion and doubt; they can sense when they are trusted and liked. The rule reminds me that the health of a community depends on the leadership’s confidence, even if occasionally misplaced, in everyone’s good will and effort. Besides, if the boss is having fun, everyone will have more fun.
The facts can clear a lot of fog. What social psychologists call the availability principle ensures that what stands out will be taken as typical: people fear flying, even though it’s safer than driving, because plane crashes are dramatic, or as the pros say, psychologically salient. When teachers come to complain about an epidemic of tardiness or sloth or when students or parents tell of outrageous demands by a new teacher, it’s worth asking for specifics. Detailed, sympathetic questioning about the facts both conveys your care and attention to the matter and also clarifies the scope and nature of the issue. Two or three students who are slacking or frequently sauntering in late absorb can be dealt with more readily than an epidemic. Likewise, a couple of unexpectedly tough assignments are easier to raise with a new teacher than are charges of piling it on. The rule can quickly reduce a crisis to a manageable problem.
I’m not in as big a hurry as the teachers are. I remember my outrage in my first year as a Latin teacher when the middle school head told me that in ten years it would not really matter whether my students got to chapter twenty-five in first year Latin. I know now that she was absolutely right. Three times a year our entire faculty meets and over one or two days reviews together the grades and comments of each one of our 150 students. In the four to five minutes we spend on each child, a biology teacher or advisor will agonize to figure out what is keeping their charges from doing their best work. They want to fix the problem now. Such devotion almost justifies our tuition, but I often cut these conversations short. From outside the classroom trenches I’ve watched hundreds of students move through the school and beyond to successful, flourishing lives—including a few whom we asked to leave and who have come back to visit in their second year of medical school. I can see that time and maturation often do more than many of the interventions we can devise (though we do devise plenty). If teachers resist my suggestion that a student’s chief need is simply further growth of the frontal cortex—they are on to me—we’ll keep talking. It’s a healthy tension.
Parents have far fewer data points about young people and the school than we do. This is the home-front corollary to the rule above. Parents have had, at most, a few children pass through adolescence; we’ve watched hundreds. We have to orient parents to our school and to what they can expect in their years with us. We have handbooks and back-to-school nights to get things rolling, but they don’t know what the coming years are going to feel like. I wrote a short manual for parents on raising Commonwealth students that spells out “the interesting, frustrating, delightful, and worrisome white-knuckle ride” they may face as their children grow into young adults. It gives a year-by-year account of hurdles their kids will face, and counsels a patient ear and regular communication with the advisor. With the first set of grades we send a cover letter that prepares parents for our teachers’ sometimes frank comments and orients them to our grading, assuring them, among other things, that B’s and C’s are well within the normal range for 9th graders in the early part of the year. Parents need some sense of the normal range of behavior and performance in order to understand their children. The rule reminds us that we always have to communicate to keep parents’ expectations realistic.
Be honest about your mistakes. I recently lifted everyone’s morale when I sent a desperate e-mail to teachers asking if anyone had seen Alexis’s Language and Ethics test, which I had lost. (Language and Ethics is a short class I teach to all freshmen.) We didn’t find the test, and Alexis was gracious about having to re-take it (not to mention tickled that the Headmaster apologized to her). The teachers felt terrific relief that I had broadcast my own fallibility. They could let go of their own fear of blundering—at least some of it. I teach students that honest argument requires that we be open to the possibility that we’re wrong. Teachers—and parents—know that I’ve been persuaded to change decisions. They know, therefore, that discussion at Commonwealth matters and that we learn from mistakes. And given that this principle accords with Carol Dweck’s Mindset and Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong (both highly recommended), it’s proven a fashionable rule in school circles.
There are more where these came from. Perhaps the master of this blog could set up a bank of such adages, with glosses. This brings me to the last rule for this piece. Borrowing what has worked for others can save a lot of time, money, and grief.
William Wharton has been Headmaster of Commonwealth School in Boston since July 2000. Bill joined Commonwealth’s faculty in 1985 as a teacher of history, Latin, and Greek, and over his 25 years at Commonwealth his courses have included current events, ancient philosophy, and world religions. He also serves on the Board of College Year in Athens. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.