Important Questions for Finding School Heads and Board Members with Grit

The prolonged patterns of sexual abuse of students at Michigan State University and the University of Southern California have me thinking again about similar tragedies in independent schools. All of us are shocked such abuse can take place in universities and schools but in utter disbelief that these organizations are not able to root out such horrific actions sooner.
How do we prevent these terrible situations from occurring in our schools? I believe the answer begins with the way that independent schools search for and select school heads and board members. Being a school head or trustee is rewarding, but these roles are also very demanding and, at times, can require great courage and toughness. Independent schools across the nation work to instill “grit” in their students, yet I have never seen this word in any job description for school heads, board members, or any school employee for that matter. Having served as a head of school, I now view the core work of heads of school and trustees as ensuring the physical and emotional safety of the students and preserving the school’s mission. This is gritty work.

The Head and Board Search Process Today

As someone with extensive training and experience in Total Quality Management, I fully recognize the importance of having sound processes and systems in place to deter bad actors. Unfortunately, numerous cases involving the sexual abuse of students in schools have made it clear that background checks, annual faculty/staff training on sexual assault prevention, having two adults always present, and so on, are not sufficient. School leaders must be constantly vigilant and create a culture that drives students, faculty, and staff to promptly report concerns and administrators to quickly investigate and engage the authorities when warranted. To do this well, schools must find the right type of people to be in charge.
Independent head of school job descriptions typically include a lengthy section on the school’s many strengths and a much briefer section on the current challenges it faces. The desired personal and professional qualities are also listed, including things such as honesty and integrity, a love for children, commitment to diversity, and so on. Some of these same qualities are found in statements of trustee responsibilities along with the process for overseeing their one employee—the school head. Generally speaking, these are promotional documents designed to convince the prospective head or board member that this is something that he or she should want to do…or at least can survive.

Updating the Process to Find the Right People

To be more effective in finding and selecting leaders with grit, schools need to describe the work required of heads and trustees more comprehensively and authentically, in writing and throughout the interview process. It’s OK to include in a job description the skills that a school head will need during a crisis situation and to explore these same skills during the interview process. The same goes for board members. The parent who is friends with everyone in the school community and leads the annual school fundraiser so beautifully might not be a successful trustee. How is he or she going to react when a problematic parent or teacher has to be separated from the school?
The entire search process needs to be laser-focused on the specific skills and traits that the individual school requires in its leaders at that point in time. The traditional, impossibly comprehensive list of desirable attributes only perpetuates the unhealthy myths of the perfect school and the perfect school head. Recognizing that 80 percent of the results often come from 20 percent of the causes (Pareto Principle), search committees need to narrow their list of required skills and experiences and create behavioral interview questions that really challenge the candidates to demonstrate their goodness of fit.
Questions for heads could include:
  • Cite three examples when you demonstrated courage and tenacity at a previous school despite significant professional risk.
  • Provide three examples of how you effectively set boundaries for a problem parent.
  • What mistakes have you made? (Frankly, the more mistakes the better, as they are not likely to make them again.)
Also in school head interviews, search committees could use case studies, which are often effectively used in management consulting interviews. Prospective heads of school could demonstrate how they think about situations in real time and allow committees to better determine the fit with school and board cultures. Likewise, case studies that schools can create based on real school situations would better demonstrate how a prospective board member is likely to react to an actual school crisis.
Trustees today often find themselves defending the long-term mission and approach of their respective school against the immediate needs of highly emotional parents. These parents typically are desperate to help their child avoid discomfort associated with the learning process or just growing up, and their behavior can often be characterized as bullying. To determine if prospective trustees have what it takes to deal with such parents, they should be asked to share examples when they upheld the mission of an organization that was under intense, shortsighted pressure. Something as simple as a one-pager roughly defining the culture and approach of the school and/or board of trustees would allow for helpful questions to be asked while determining if a prospective member fits with the group. 
The head of school and ultimately board member roles set and uphold the behavioral expectations for the children and adults in the independent school community, and accordingly, schools should be more forthcoming about the difficult aspects of these roles. As the many incidents of student abuse in our schools have made it clear, we owe nothing less to our students.
Picture of NAIS.Models.AuthorPreviewViewModel.
David Amstutz

David Amstutz is a former head of school, admission director, teacher, and coach—and in an earlier life, a corporate manager.