In the Maelstrom of American Independent Education

Spring 2014

By Stephen J. Valentine

Today, independent school leaders operate at the fault line of pundits, parents, teachers, staff, students, board members, researchers, consultants, and more. They need to lead key constituents while weighing constituent expectations. They need to negotiate the swirling eddies of economic uncertainty while investing in infrastructure and faculty development. They need to weigh myriad opportunities, often technologically driven, while addressing the challenges, often technologically driven, that striate the field of education.

In particular, they need to know how to sift through the increasing flow of evolving practices, research, and viewpoints regarding what matters most for their schools.

Clearly, there is much to consider... and no more time in a day. Which leaves us with what psychologist Robert Evans calls a dilemma. Problems can be fixed; dilemmas need to be managed continuously.

How do school heads and other key school leaders manage well in such a landscape? First, it helps to realize that many people working in other industries feel the same way — and that the broader conversation can inform our approach in schools.

The Aspen Institute's Communications and Society Program recently released a report that can help us map the territory. Assembled by David Bollier, a writer and speaker on issues related to the commons (the cultural and natural resources accessible to everyone), this report reflects the insights of a wise and robust group of thinkers regarding the "broader economic and social implications of an economy being redefined by new networks, behaviors, and rules." Not surprisingly, if you've been in the workforce over the past decade, the group expressed some common refrains. John Clippinger, cofounder and executive director of ID3, a research and educational nonprofit, said, "It doesn't even make sense to get a Ph.D. in certain fields because the skill set is obsolete by the time the person finishes." Likewise, John Seely Brown, cochairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, personalized the issue by saying that "about every 18 months to two years," he has to "completely reinvent the skills and practices" he uses. In other words, leaders in this climate need to prepare themselves and their institutions for "periods of constant two- or three-year cycles of change." It's not enough to work an idea through its phases, Seely Brown says. "We have to be able to pick up new ideas all the time."

That last nugget of wisdom — "pick up new ideas all the time" — can act as a powerful focusing agent for school leaders. Yes, our mission statements are our guiding light. But how we deliver on these missions has been changing steadily in this promising but complicated new century. If the world continues to shift as fast as it has been shifting, if the latest tech update is but a precursor to another update, if "cycles of change" are truly contracting, we could do worse than to think like Seely Brown — flood our systems with new ideas and encourage people to try them on, keep what fits, and pitch what doesn't. Addressing the maelstrom by embracing the maelstrom may sound counterintuitive, but it's really just a shift in mindset. Approached in the right way, adopting a school culture of openness and experimentation — of continuous learning — is the best way to leverage our missions in our time.

So what does this shift look like? How would leaders think and work if they managed change by steadily changing their own practices and encouraging constant experimentation in their schools? Here are three approaches.

Focus on Growth

In Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning, business experts Chip Bell and Marshall Goldsmith place "helping employees grow" at the top of the list of crucial success factors for all managers today — including those of us in schools. Whether you are the head of school or dean of students or department chair, the growth of other adults in the school must be a priority if you want your school to succeed year to year. Enabling growth helps teachers stay current in their field; also, it distributes leadership across the school community, imbuing the community with a sense of shared commitment to that growth.

How do you help your teams grow? Let's say you're a dean of students. You are largely responsible for the conduct of the students in your care. You serve as a disciplinarian and a mentor. But now you are also charged with helping students — and faculty — understand what community could look like in an excellent 21st-century school. Given the changes wrought by both technology and research, it's safe to say that you can best build this understanding by helping others to be mindful and reflective, to embrace new perspectives, and to alter behavior as needed.

If you're a department chair, you must straddle the line between tried-and-tested methodologies and steadily emerging technologies. The other teachers in the department will look to you to help them balance current successful practices with new ones that will enable them to stay fresh. They should focus primarily on the daily needs of students; you can support that work by evaluating new ideas and technologies that bolster evolving classroom practices, and then sharing that information with teachers. A valuable department leader today helps his or her team adapt, adopt, or discard teaching strategies and tech tools at a steady pace.

If you're a head of school, you need to take care of business — raise money, make strategic decisions, work with the board, inspire and engage parents, etc. But you also need to set the agenda for programmatic and faculty growth, taking into account the forces of change pressing on the school's physical and psychic boundaries.

About five years ago, my school took just such a cue from just such a head, Tom Nammack, and we shifted from a faculty evaluation model (wherein administrators observed classes and wrote reports that were then placed in a file) to a growth model (wherein individual teachers drive their own professional learning and keep their own files). Our system is guided by the bold vision of putting professional growth into the hands of teachers. In this system, teachers receive a steady stream of feedback about their classroom work, relying on colleague observations, student evaluations, and a guided review process of their own students' work.

Bell and Goldsmith define learning "as an expansive, unfolding process rather than an evaluative, narrowing effort." Under the visionary direction of Karen Newman, a colleague of mine at Montclair Kimberley Academy (New Jersey), our summer professional development program has always tried to be "expansive" and "unfolding," and it's no surprise that it has been incredibly robust for many years. By treating faculty learning during the school year in a similar manner, we have seen that vigorous and thoughtful professional development can continue "in season." Last year, for instance, in spite of the scheduling restraints placed on primary school teachers who must stay with their students continually, every primary school teacher observed a colleague at work in his or her classroom. This energizing event had never happened before in our school, and it started a spread of knowledge and a conversation about teaching that is still taking place, both formally and informally. At the same time, a handful of upper school teachers opted to visit middle school classes, while middle school teachers visited upper school classes. These cross-campus visits helped us to strengthen the bonds between our campuses, and more important, the understanding of the best ways to facilitate student transitions between campuses. Last, our middle school history department engaged in an act of courageous transparency when each teacher shared with the rest of the department the results of his or her student surveys. Separating the teacher from the taught (the worker from the work) is a powerful reminder that teaching goals and methods can be viewed objectively — and improved objectively.

Stories like these — and I know there are many such stories in other independent schools — show us the power of a growth model for faculty support. The system we crafted at Montclair Kimberley Academy is a work in progress. But that's the point. We try to do better. We talk openly and honestly about our teaching. We look at real student data (about our own teaching) with each other. We look at student work to identify trends and the ways in which our own instructional methods drive those trends. We try — and try again — to be in a constant state of becoming, befitting the 21st-century institution we aspire to be. And we've adopted a leadership mindset that encourages and supports all this work.

Run Controlled Experiments

Whether your school runs a traditional evaluation program or a growth-based program, many teams in your school are probably knee deep in initiatives, in the effort to improve. For instance, English departments might be looking at how they teach reading in a digital age or how they help students learn to write across multiple platforms or how they ensure that their book selections represent a diverse set of voices or how, when, and why they use certain tech tools. The first challenge here is figuring out which initiatives to pursue. The second challenge — and the one I want to highlight — is evaluating the selected initiatives to know if they actually work, and if they continue to merit the department's time and energy.

It's no secret that independent schools suffer from initiative-itis. Mark Crotty, head of St. John's Episcopal School (Texas), offers a useful commentary on this subject in a recent post on his ever-thoughtful "To Keep Things Whole" blog. While reflecting on the biggest changes he has seen in independent schools over the past 30 years, he acknowledges the impact of technology but brushes past it. The biggest change, he argues, is, "How much more schools are expected to do." He then offers a 16-point list (along with a sub-list) as evidence of the more-is-better trend. Crotty's observation implies the need for a crucial discipline: Leaders of initiative-rich schools should establish what I call "parameters for continuation" at the launch of every new initiative. Leaders have to know when to take an initiative off the table or move resources elsewhere.

If you launch an initiative, how do you know if it's going well? And once you know it's going well, how do you know if it should be continued? Some of the language and technique of the "lean start-up" movement can help here.

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, defines a start-up in terms that fit nicely alongside the work in which many school teams engage. A start-up, for Ries, is "a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty." Although we do not often create
products in school, much of what we do could be reasonably called a service. And much of that service is implemented and tweaked in conditions that could often be called uncertain.

If we accept that many teams in our schools function like Ries's concept of a start-up, then we can learn, too, from Ries's defined goal for a start-up: "to figure out the right thing to build — the thing customers want and will pay for — as quickly as possible." Again, we have to scrub his language of its business speak in order to make educational hay out of it, but once we do that, we can move on to the useful part. For Ries, a start-up figures out its path by making a "strategic hypothesis" and then judging it. If the hypothesis is correct, then it should continue to define the work of the team. If, however, it is not correct, the team should "pivot" or make a "structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth."

If you've tolerated this business speak thus far, you can probably guess where I'm going. In schools, we make plenty of hypotheses; I'd wager that we make far fewer pivots than we should. Thus, we face the problem of too many demands on our time.

Let me raise the stakes a bit with some questions derived from a concrete example. In an interview on, Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen riffs on the state of online learning and, in the process, reveals a rather startling fact about accounting instruction at Harvard Business School: "[Online learning] will take root in its simplest applications, then just get better and better. You know, Harvard Business School doesn't teach accounting anymore, because there's a guy out of [Brigham Young University] whose online accounting course is so good. He is extraordinary, and our accounting faculty, on average, is average." So, according to Christensen, Harvard Business School was willing to drop its entry-level accounting course (i.e., its "fundamental hypothesis") and move in a completely new direction (i.e., pivot).

I don't know how Harvard Business School determined that the online program out of BYU was better than its in-person program, or why Christensen felt the need to highlight the move; but the school clearly had certain conditions in place to determine when to stop a traditional program and when to start a less traditional program. Chances are, it will stop the less traditional program, too, if it fails to meet Harvard's needs or if something better comes along.

Would you be bold enough to try something like this in your area of school life? Would you be willing to say that a program of yours didn't work, or that some other program might work better? We need this kind of discipline and fluidity in independent schools today.

Ensure that Your Teams Are Well Networked

Even if it's clear that schools need new ideas, questions remain: Where do you find new ideas? How can you ensure that your school has access to the best information to grow in the right ways? How can you stay aware of what's possible — and what's necessary?

Your team, or at least someone on your team, needs to be connected to other thinkers and doers, other leaders in education, and other fields — and not just via the occasional conference. Your team, or someone on your team, has to dedicate part of each day to exploring ideas — and then have a regular forum for sharing those ideas.

In a paper titled "Institutional Innovation," John Hagel III and John Seely Brown push organizations to become true learning institutions. They encourage us to ask how we can learn well enough and fast enough, and ensure that what we learn scales appropriately in our organizations. First, and best, they nudge us outside the walls of our schools, citing a pithy remark from Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems: "No matter how many smart people there are within your firm, remember that there are far more smart people outside your firm."

We may have good ideas, but there are many more good ideas outside our school communities, and we have to search for them. That search, meanwhile, should not be solitary. The solitary idea seeker gathers and hoards; the modern idea seeker finds and shares, contributing to and deriving benefit from "flows of knowledge." To lead, we need to combine access to a broad network of people with the ability to search continuously.

In independent schools, one of the best examples of networked professionals is the community of educational technologists. They are in constant discussion about technology issues large and small. On the day that the Evernote website was hacked in March last year, for example, they alerted each other quickly. At my school, Reshan Richards, director of educational technology, pushed out a proactive email to our community — many of whom rely on Evernote — telling them to reset their passwords before teachers and their students started discovering the problem on their own. Without Reshan's access to a constant stream of information, without his network, we might have lost many valuable hours of instructional time or homework time trying to untangle a mess.

People who cultivate and maintain strong networks of colleagues should be celebrated, especially when they become adept at translating their network gleanings into useful fuel for their schools.

In addition to finding solutions to problems, being networked encourages a mindset of inquiry, which in turn prepares one to make connections and see possibilities in one's work. As contributor Gretchen Rubin notes in the book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, "You're much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I'm deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that's absolutely exhilarating."

We need to network because it helps us to be deeply, continuously engaged in our work, prompting creative, mission-related associations all the time. Someone on your team has to have a pole in several streams, whether they be listserves, Twitter feeds, or good, old-fashioned phone conversations. Someone on your team has to be exhilarated, always, by what's possible.

In and Out of the Maelstrom

I borrowed the maelstrom concept here from the great William James biography by Robert D. Richardson: William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Best known in the field of psychology, James lost some credibility during his lifetime for hanging around supposed charlatans like Leonora Piper, a psychic. Additionally, his family and friends worried about him when he started taking daylong walks in the mountains. However, according to Richardson, James wasn't interested in drawing simple lines between people or disciplines or experiences. He was interested in leaving no stone unturned in his quest to understand consciousness and to accurately describe its potential. Yes, this quest for understanding meant involvement with unconventional thinkers and, at times, extreme physical exertion. But it also led him to some of his most important insights. I'm not encouraging us to replicate James's connections with psychics or his daylong wanderings (although that's fine if these interest you), but I am implying — strongly, I hope — that independent schools ought to be equally open, curious, and unwilling to leave any stone unturned as they seek to figure out the best ways to organize their work, develop their faculties, and serve their students.

James thrived because he lived and thought in the fault lines of modernism rather than trying to build sturdy intellectual structures that would withstand modernism's shifts.

As a school leader, the forces moving toward you will crush you if you lock your legs. But if you first acknowledge that these forces exist, and then aim to use them to energize and steer your work, they will propel your teams into a healthy and interesting future. Opportunity exists everywhere in our restless and varied independent school community. When we connect with others, stay open to ideas, and embrace inquiry, we move fluidly through the maelstrom of our own modern times, turning up solutions that help us become better schools, day after day after day.
Stephen J. Valentine

Stephen J. Valentine, an administrator and teacher, works with great people at Montclair Kimberley Academy (New Jersey), blogs at, and is the coordinating editor of the Klingenstein Center's Klingbrief. He is the author of Everything but Teaching (2009) and coauthor of Leading Online: Leading the Learning, Leading by Learning (2014).