Member Voices: A Q&A with Jennifer G. Landis

Fall 2022

Jennifer LandisJennifer G. Landis
Head of School
Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child
Summit, New Jersey
Photo by Sandra Stelmach
This is an excerpt from the NAIS Member Voices podcast. This is part of a three-episode series focused on transitioning to headship. Jennifer G. Landis was interviewed in the fall of 2021 just as she began her headship, following in the footsteps of long-serving head Tim Saburn.

You had already been at Oak Knoll before becoming head of school. What are the advantages of being hired from within?

At Oak Knoll, I was upper school division head for six years, associate head for a year, and then had a dual role the year before I transitioned to headship. As I prepared to take on the role, I realized how fortunate I was to be in an internal position succeeding the head because I knew the language, the landscape, the players. The learning curve wasn’t as steep with those things. I’m not naive enough to think it’s going to be something I’ll just sail right into, but there are a lot of things that I don’t have to figure out. I can think more strategically, which I think is a tremendous benefit.

But when you move from being on the team to being the captain to being the general manager, that’s a shift, and it changes relationships. It changes the way that you can interact with folks, and that can be a little bit tricky. But the community here has been extremely supportive, and I hope that I can maintain positive relationships with my colleagues.

How do you deal with peers who are now reporting to you?

I think I’ve benefited from the two-year transition. Before I took on the headship, Tim had an articulated transition plan in which, for example, administrative team one-on-one meetings were done jointly, so they were two-on-one meetings for the first half of the year. After winter break, I would do every other one solo, and we would do every other one jointly. After spring break, I was doing them all solo. So, it was both a true and symbolic transition for everybody. Hopefully it was helpful for the team to get used to my style so that my first year felt normal and natural.

Did you always want to be a head 
of school? 

No, I wanted to be a teacher, and that’s what I thought I would do for my life. But in independent schools, opportunities arise, and I found myself going down this path and enjoying each step of the way. I remember very clearly being at a conference for department chairs, and the woman who was running the conference said to us, “As you move into a role like this, you have to figure out if you’ll get as much satisfaction and enjoyment working with adults as you do with children.” When I stepped into the department chair job back then, I was paying attention to that. It turned out I did like it, and I continued on that path. I’ve had quite a few roles over the years, from classroom teacher to dean of students to department chair to academic dean and upper school division head. I think it’s been really beneficial to have had those different roles. Headship is always going to be daunting, but those different roles over the years in schools have given me good insight into what it means to deal with student discipline or to run a prom or to teach a class or to build a schedule or to deal with budgets.

How do you approach learning in areas in which you haven’t had direct experience in the past?

I think that the upper school head position helps one prepare for this sort of trajectory. When I was upper school division head, we would need to hire a chemistry teacher, for example. And I could sit in a classroom and tell if that person was engaging, if they were connecting with the students, if they had a nice rhythm to the lesson, if they were organized, and so forth. But I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to say whether or not their chemistry was exactly on point.

Part of why I love being in schools is that you learn to work in conjunction with people who are experts in their field. You can be successful in a lot of ways, but you need to be able to rely on one another. I had a year of transition where I was working one-on-one with the CFO. I’ve been working one-on-one with the director of institutional advancement, marketing and communications, enrollment management, and so forth. I’ve gained some know-how in those areas by working with those folks so closely. 

Working with the board is a critical part of the head of school role. How did you approach this new part of your job? 

I’ve had tremendous exposure to the board over the years. When I began as upper school division head, I was on a few board committees, so I got to know some folks that way. And then as I was heading into the associate head position, I attended every board meeting and the weekly one-on-one meeting—which were two-on-one—with the board chair. The board chair here has been incredibly supportive of me and this transition process.

It’s been a long transition, but I think that was smart because it gave us the time to build those relationships, and it gave me the foundation and background so that the learning curve wouldn’t be quite as steep.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far as a new head of school? 

There are so many different things that are challenging our nation and our world, many of which are heavy topics for adults. And kids are not escaping these topics—which are on their newsfeeds or in conversations that they are part of or overhearing. When there’s so much uncertainty in the world that adults are struggling with, I think that makes it even harder for kids.

Schools are sometimes a home for students. In our particular case, school can also be church. This past year, school was also a medical facility. There are a lot of demands on schools right now, and teachers are stretched thin. Administrators are stretched thin. So, the challenge is trying to find a way to balance all that and still find joy in being part of the academic and developmental journey with these students.

What have you found most helpful in your journey to headship? 

You need to pace yourself. You think you are going to jump in and change the world, but it doesn’t work like that. You need to take a deep breath and pace yourself and pace the community. And maintaining a sense of humor is essential; not taking ourselves too seriously is really important.

Listen to the full interview with Jennifer G. Landis on the NAIS Member Voices podcast. Download it now at iTunesSoundCloudTuneInStitcher, or Google Podcasts. Rate, review, and subscribe to hear a new episode each month.

Also check out Jennifer G. Landis'
Independent Ideas blog post, "A Reflection on the First Year of Headship."

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