Executive Assistants in a Virtual World

Being a head of school is an incredibly stressful job under any circumstance, but the work has become exponentially more difficult and stressful in recent months. The pandemic has created a new set of needs, questions, and demands from faculty, parents, trustees, and students that all require immediate attention, in addition to the already enormous task of balancing daily operational challenges and long-term strategic decisions. And heads of school need support now more than ever.
As an executive assistant who has always been critical to a head’s success, your role has taken on new dimension as well, especially as so many school staff and administrators continue to work remotely. Although serving as the physical gatekeeper aspect of your role may have dwindled—instead forcing your head to weed through hundreds of emails and field dozens of calls each day—there are ways you can remain an asset and continue to provide critical support while working remotely.

Anticipating Needs

The beginning of the academic year is a great time to get school events, board meetings, staff meetings, and other dates requiring your head’s time on the calendar. Having placeholders in advance ensures that attendees can prioritize, prepare, and plan around important events. Being proactive and staying on top of the communication with calendar invites, email reminders to attendees, and dial-in information (i.e. Zoom or WebEx) is one critical task that can have the greatest impact on a head’s day.
If your head of school is anything like the one I worked for, they probably still want to connect with students. Check in to see if they want you to set aside an hour or so each week on their calendar to check in with classrooms. Work with the teachers to build a schedule where the head might join first graders one day as a “mystery reader” or be a surprise guest at another classroom’s morning meeting or show-and-tell session. Perhaps the head can pop into a literature class to read a poem or conduct a quick at-home lab experiment for a science class.  These classroom interactions may be quick, but they are meaningful. And the logistics behind them are the hard part, which you can take on.
The start of a new school year is also an ideal time to update contact lists, organization charts, and spreadsheet templates. Initiate requests for updates and cue up drafts for review. Consider whether there’s another member of the leadership that can review the changes instead of the head and work with that person to facilitate. A head is sure to be appreciative when you anticipate these types of needs and take the initiative to act on them before being asked.

Serving as a Resource

Establish yourself as a knowledge source. If your head needs information on a particular topic, offer to do the research. Knowing where to go and how to find information can be a valuable resource to your head. NAIS is one comprehensive source of data, tools, resources, research, and content in a variety of relevant and important topics, ranging from governance, finance, philanthropy, COVID-19, and much more. As a member school, you can have your own log-in with access to this information that is specific to our industry. Get familiar with DASL and other NAIS tools such as Resilience Surveys and Market View. I would often flag articles (particularly from Independent School Magazine) that I found relevant or interesting for my former head. She found it very useful and time-saving considering all the reading material that came her way on a daily basis.
Consider becoming more proficient with software programs such as DocuSign to send virtual documents requiring signatures or the full Adobe suite for combining/extracting and editing files. Taking the time to learn new programs provides added value to those you support who may not be savvy users with the software.

Liaison with the Board

With all the turmoil, your board is also hard at work. It may help them to know that they have you as a resource and support as well. You can serve as a liaison with board members and be their first point of contact. Your head may not immediately see an important email from your board chair, so make sure the chair and trustees know they can reach out to you for urgent requests and that you will flag it for your head to review and address. Perhaps trustees need financial data or minutes from a previous meeting that you can easily provide for them. Get them in the habit of reaching out to you and being the main source of board communication. Also take this time to update your board calendar, rosters, address lists and website information as it relates to the board. And communicate this information to them so they get used to it coming from you.
As assistants, we are the multi-tasking, behind-the-scenes puppeteers striving to keep things moving efficiently and on task. We are valuable assets, and in a changing environment, our role is even more critical to the mission of our schools. The heads, faculty, staff, board, students, and parents need our support, and I know you are up to the challenge to provide it.
Erica Zematis

Erica Zematis is executive assistant to the president at NAIS. Previously she was executive assistant to Pat Walker, head of school at Jacksonville Country Day School in Jacksonville, Florida.