NAIS Research: Head Turnover at Independent Schools, Part 2: Supporting School Leadership

By Margaret Anne Rowe, NAIS Research Analyst

Executive Summary

In 2019, more than 800 heads of school, board chairs, and trustees responded to NAIS’s Factors Affecting Head of School Turnover (FAHST) survey. The FAHST revealed some surprising disconnects between how heads of school and their boards felt about the effectiveness of their partnership, highlighting the need for increased support and training in these areas at independent schools. In early 2020, as Part 2 of the FAHST, researchers conducted a series of qualitative interviews with a group of survey respondents as an in-depth follow-up on the challenges of governance. These interviews unearthed some additional difficulties facing heads and challenging their relationships with their board chairs. Although most interviews were conducted before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the struggles and solutions that interviewees discussed have not gone away and are still relevant to schools in 2021 and beyond.

Interviews largely touched on two topics:
  • Defining the relationship between the head and the board chair
  • Understanding what it means to be a head of school in the 2020s
When it came to the relationship piece, most interviewees described it as a matter of trust. Trust looked different to different people, but trust kept heads and chairs working together through disagreement and crisis. Trust is built when heads and boards define clear boundaries, each party sticks to their predefined role, and both give each other grace; trust is maintained through open, frequent communication that leaves room for discourse without discord.

Heads of school, meanwhile, are under inordinate stress that both heads and board members agreed has become more complex over time. As leaders, heads touch every area of school life and the school community, unable to catch or take a break from increasingly communication-needy constituents. Maintaining work-life balance, coping with feelings of isolation, and juggling the many complexities of a multifaceted role were all major challenges faced by most heads, even though interviewees each brought different perspectives to these concerns. The role is filled with certain joys, yet is emotionally draining and isolating, and unless there is proper support from the board and peer education leaders, it can become an impossible job that strains the head’s personal and professional life.

The governance system of a typical independent school is an incredible thing; it comprises hard-working volunteers and their sole paid employee working in tandem toward a shared goal—a quality education for the students under their charge. It can be a difficult partnership, certainly, but a uniquely valuable one, and one that deserves the utmost care and consideration from those who build it. The issues raised by participants in both parts of the FAHST survey can be difficult to hear and even harder to tackle, yet they are worth listening and responding to. Strong governance creates stronger schools and healthier leaders. Though schools will continue to respond to pandemic-induced challenges for months and years to come, the well-being of their governance partnerships must not be relegated to the back burner.  


In fall 2018, NAIS partnered with the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) Graduate School of Education’s School Leadership Program to explore the issue of head of school turnover in independent schools. The collaboration led to the creation and release of the Factors Affecting Head of School Tenure (FAHST) survey, administered during summer 2019 to heads of school, board chairs, and other board members at NAIS member schools. The purpose of the survey was to explore more vigorously anecdotal reports and regional studies showing an increased rate of unexpected head turnover, often after three years or fewer, in order to gain a better understanding of the factors perceived as influencing it.

This first FAHST report found that unexpected head of school turnover ultimately affected a small number of schools. However, it also found that a head’s tenure was often strained by miscommunication and discord between the head and the board, with 42% of heads and about 33% of boards having experienced a strained head-board relationship in the past 10 years. Heads were often less likely to feel that the board was as collaborative, supportive, and effective in their roles as board chairs and trustees perceived themselves to be. And, though the FAHST did not explicitly ask about it, it was clear through heads’ comments that many were under an enormous amount of pressure and stress within their role.


In summer 2019, 466 heads of school, 108 board chairs, and 247 board members at NAIS member schools anonymously completed the 66-question FAHST survey. Of those respondents, 34 heads of school, six board chairs, and one board member agreed to participate in a semi-structured follow-up interview. Eleven researchers from UPenn conducted the interviews, which took place between January and April 2020. Coding of the transcripts of these interviews occurred between February and June 2020, with initial analysis taking place between November 2020 and March 2021.

This report was written by Margaret Anne Rowe, research analyst at NAIS. NAIS would like to thank Peter Horn of Horn Education Consulting for his work coding and analyzing these interview data, as well as research design; Anne-Marie Balzano, former director of leadership and governance at NAIS, and our colleagues at the UPenn Graduate School of Education School Leadership Program and the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership for their many contributions to this research.

Downloadable Content

More From This Survey

Additional Resources