The State of Headship

Spring 2010

By Amada Torres and Susan Booth

To better understand today’s independent school leaders, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) recently conducted a research study with independent school heads and administrators. A follow-up to NAIS’s 2002 leadership study, the 2009 leadership research project investigated job satisfaction, mentoring, views on leadership, paths to headship, and diversity issues. The following are highlights from that survey. A full report is available on the NAIS website.

Career Path

Independent school heads have spent most of their careers in independent schools, 25 years on average, but they move around from school to school. Seventy-eight percent of them were hired from outside their current school. In addition, heads have worked in the past as teachers, department chairs, administrators, and then later as division heads and assistant/associate heads, suggesting a traditional ascent up the independent school career ladder. 

Most heads have a graduate degree in education: 41 percent have a master’s in education and 11 percent a doctorate in education. A large number, 51 percent, reported a master of arts or master of science degree and 12 percent reported having a doctorate of philosophy.

Demands on the Head of School

School heads identify the big-picture aspects of their job — such as providing vision, managing their school’s climate and values, and working with their boards — as most demanding. They also consider managing their school’s financial health, fund raising, and strategic planning as very demanding, while legal responsibilities, student relations, and teaching are generally seen as the least demanding aspects of the job.

These results represent a slight change with respect to the 2002 study. At that time, heads considered hiring and firing and teacher relations as very demanding, while business aspects of the job were less likely to be reported as time-consuming for the head. The current economic crisis has refocused the attention of heads on the financial and business aspects of their jobs.

Job Satisfaction

Overall, heads of school are very satisfied with different aspects of their work. The majority of responding heads of school indicate that they are completely satisfied with the following aspects of their jobs: 

  • Working in independent education generally (77 percent);
  • Level of discipline and behavior of students (67 percent);
  • Sense of community at their school (66 percent);
  • Working with their administrative team (65 percent);
  • The day-to-day safety at their school (62 percent);
  • The city or town where they live (61 percent);
  • The professional development available to them (58 percent); and
  • Their interaction with students (52 percent).

The majority of heads of school are dissatisfied with one aspect of their job: the amount of time they have for themselves and/or their families. Thirty-seven percent of heads are somewhat dissatisfied and 14 percent of heads are very dissatisfied with this aspect of their job. Heads of school (51 percent) also agree that being the head of school takes its toll on their personal lives all of the time or most of the time.

People of Color and Women as Heads of School

Since 2002–2003, the percentage of women who are heads of school (31 percent) remains unchanged and the number of people of color who are heads of school has increased only slightly.1 NAIS asked heads of school what factors might be keeping people of color and women from heading schools. As in the 2002 leadership study, the majority of respondents (64 percent) indicate that there are too few people of color in assistant/associate/division head positions in independent schools and that there are too few people of color in the pipeline in other positions in independent schools. While a significant number of respondents overall noted that trustees and search committees are often reluctant to hire non-traditional heads, the majority of female responding heads of school (54 percent) viewed this as a top factor that might prevent women and people of color from heading schools.

Most Valuable Backgrounds for the Head of School

The majority of responding heads (59 percent) feel that classroom teaching is absolutely essential to helping a person become a successful head of school. Holding an administrative position in an independent school, being a parent, fund-raising experience, having a strong mentor, financial management experience, and having admissions/enrollment management experience are viewed as very helpful, but not essential. Serving as a principal or vice principal in a public school, being a trustee at a school, experience working in the business world, and coaching an athletic team or extracurricular activity are seen as only somewhat helpful or not particularly helpful. Working or teaching in higher education is seen as the least helpful type of background for becoming a successful head of school, with 43 percent of heads viewing this attribute as not particularly helpful.

Looking to the Future: An Unbalanced Equation

Like the respondents in the 2002 leadership study, a large number of today’s heads of school plan to retire within the next five years (36.8 percent) or the next six to ten years (31.6 percent). However, due to the current recession, a number of heads have decided to delay retirement by one to five years (21 percent) or indefinitely (6 percent). The number of responding heads of school who plan to retire in more than 10 years has increased from 20 percent in 2002 to 27 percent in 2009. Possible reasons for this increase include recent turnover in some head of school positions to younger individuals or the decision by some heads to delay retirement.

When asked about the number of candidates relative to the number of top positions available, such as head and assistant head, 30 percent of current heads report that there are too few candidates relative to the jobs available. As part of the leadership study, NAIS surveyed a random sample of independent school administrators and found that only 22 percent were interested in obtaining a headship at some point in the future. With 68 percent of heads planning to retire in the next 10 years and 78 percent of responding administrators indicating that they are not interested in pursuing a head of school position, the independent school community could face a serious leadership crisis in the coming decade. 


1. NAIS StatsOnline Administrator Salaries Tables, (2002–2003) and (2009–2010).
Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.

Susan Booth

Susan Booth is a contributor to Independent School Magazine.