NAIS Research: 2021 State of Independent School Leadership Survey

By Margaret Anne Rowe
NAIS Research Analyst

Executive Summary

In the years since NAIS last ran the State of Independent School Leadership survey in 2009, the world of independent schools—and the world at large—have changed inconceivably. The struggles of the Great Recession gave way to uneven economic growth, radical technological shifts, national polarization, and a global pandemic that permanently altered how the world does school. The independent school of now should not look like the independent school of 2009.

With such changes come, inevitably, a change in leadership. The 2009 survey revealed that 69% of heads intended to leave their position within 10 years or less, and now, 11 school years later, 80% of schools have a head who has been in their position for 10 years or less. These newer heads, though similar to their predecessors, are closer to gender parity than ever before, while heads of color and LGBTQ+ heads have made small but meaningful strides in representation. They are somewhat younger than their predecessors, often new to headship, and largely external hires. They are overwhelmingly confident in their self-assessments, with financial skills the only real area with room for growth.

Even as the pathways to headship remain overwhelmingly “traditional,” the cohort of aspiring heads is much more diverse than it was in 2009, and indeed more diverse than sitting heads and other administrative peers (although these numbers obscure an issue in gender parity). Aspiring heads are confident they have the skills they need to succeed in headships, even though the majority have yet to apply. And although most administrators do not want to be heads, the majority still have leadership ambition within independent schools—either in progress or already fulfilled.

Despite the challenges facing them, heads and administrators alike are satisfied with the relationships they form in their roles. They generally work well with their boards, colleagues, families, and local communities, and most are satisfied working in independent education. Most are fine with their school’s operations, with some caveats for their school’s DEI work, financial health, and opportunities for their own growth and advancement. They feel safe in their schools despite the pandemic, and most (but not all) administrators feel listened to in their concerns and supported in their health.

However, their roles are harder than ever, and fewer believe that headship is (or appears to be) worth it—particularly women and people of color. Nearly half have considered leaving education on occasion. The pandemic has negatively influenced many heads’ and administrators’ views of leadership and community within independent schools. And, unsurprisingly, few administrators—and even fewer heads—have enough time outside of school to take care of themselves, their friends, and their families.

Sitting and aspiring heads have similar professional development needs. Though most are confident that they are “very prepared” for the social, generative, and administrative aspects of headship, fewer—between 50% and 70% of heads and 35% to 60% of aspiring heads—feel the same about working on their school’s culture, trustees, and risk management plans. Of particular need is professional development that addresses areas where fewer than half of heads and 40% of their proteges felt unprepared. This includes training around finances and fundraising, legal and HR issues, and, most crucially, handling polarization within their schools.

Helping with their development, however, is schools leaders’ rate of mentorship and sponsorship. More than three-fourths of heads and two-thirds of aspiring heads have been mentored—and even more report that they are mentoring the next generation as well. Sponsorship is rare, however, with just 13% of heads and 8% of aspiring heads having received such a boost.

Looking forward, more than half of heads intend to transition from their current jobs within the next five years, with most either intending to retire or unsure of what they will do next. Similarly, over 60% of administrators plan to transition out of their job during that timeframe, although 54% do intend to continue working in their current job for the next five years. Very few heads and administrators credit the pandemic with changing the pace of their transition plans.

The role of the independent school head has changed, as have the people who seek the job. Although the head of school turnover that defined the last decade of school leadership may persist following a COVID-19-induced lull, schools will have much opportunity to tap into a wealth of enthusiastic, well-prepared administrative talent so long as they offer ample support and room for growth. Even as schools look to the future, they can and must sustain their existing heads of school, meeting their needs for support and self-care to keep them thriving in a difficult yet rewarding job for many years to come. 


In 2002 and 2009, NAIS administered surveys to independent school heads and administrators to learn more about school leaders’ career experiences, perceptions, satisfaction, and goals.

Though NAIS had intended to launch an updated version of the leadership surveys in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting school closures led to the surveys’ indefinite delay. However, with much speculation—and little data—about the future of school leadership and leadership turnover in a post-pandemic world, NAIS decided to re-update and launch the surveys in March 2021. The aim of the surveys was to help NAIS better understand what school leaders were thinking about their careers, how the leadership pipeline may have changed or change post-pandemic, as well as the impacts of the pandemic on school leaders’ personal and professional lives.


NAIS administered two surveys to learn more about school leaders’ career experiences, perceptions, and goals, as well as to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the independent school leadership pipeline. The two surveys were based upon prior surveys on independent school leadership from 2002 and 2009.

The first survey was emailed to all 1,768 heads of NAIS schools, and 622 completed the survey, representing a 36.6% completion rate (39 emails bounced back and 34 heads opted out). The second was sent to a sample of 3,787 school administrators holding various positions with some or all non-teaching duties. Of them, 635 took the survey, a 19.8% completion rate (444 emails bounced back and 131 administrators opted out). Both surveys ran from March 25 to April 15, 2021.

This report was written by Margaret Anne Rowe, research analyst at NAIS. Totals may not equal 100% due to rounding.

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