On My Mind: Reflecting on a Career and Community

Spring 2023

By Donna Orem

This article appeared as "Full Circle" in the Spring 2023 issue of Independent School.

We are members of all types of communities. We physically live in them, professionally work in them, and spend leisure time in those that pique our interest. And while communities are all around us, not all of them make us feel like we belong. 

Researchers and psychologists have long studied what is in the DNA of effective communities, or what they refer to as those that create a “sense of community.” In “Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory,” an article from the Journal of Community Psychology, David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis boiled it down to three attributes: a feeling that members have of belonging; a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group; and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.
As I wind down my 40-year tenure with the independent school community and a lifetime of personal connection to independent schools, what I cherish most are my social connections, that sense of community I found at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and NAIS, as well as within the independent school community.  

Belonging Matters

My first personal experience with the kind of community that independent schools create began when I started my freshman year at Mercy High School (MD). At first, the school seemed huge and overwhelming. I was shy and found it difficult to make connections, but I quickly discovered that there were adults at the school who would ensure I wouldn’t fall through the cracks. Thanks to my homeroom teacher, I found my community and my voice in the school’s theater group. The theater community became a lifeline through all four years of high school and into college. 
As I reflect on that experience, I know how fortunate I was to find a community where I felt that I belonged and mattered. My life would have taken a different trajectory had I not. Although most students at independent schools have similar experiences, we know from NAIS’s student health and well-being research that some do fall through the cracks and, as a result, don’t thrive in school and beyond. As we build back from years of isolation, there is no more important work than ensuring that every student finds that sense of community in their school.
Early in my career, I also experienced the power of a community of professionals while managing my first Boston-based CASE-NAIS Independent Schools Conference. It was bitter cold that year, and the pipes burst in the hotel lobby mid-conference. We were forced to evacuate the hotel in the middle of the night. As we marched outside in below-zero weather, there were no complaints, just a concerned community of advancement pro-fessionals seeking to identify that all its members were safe. In that moment, I understood that these community members really mattered to each other. I remain close to many advancement professionals today. They were my professional community for many years and made me feel supported and loved.
I joined NAIS in 1998 after 15 wonderful years at CASE. It was here that I discovered the incredible power of community among schools. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and much of New Orleans and the surrounding area in 2005, it didn’t take long for school leaders to reach out to NAIS to ask, “How can I help?” Boarding schools offered up rooms, most at no charge, while day schools mobilized home stays. The offers of help were so numerous that NAIS launched a platform to match people in need of homes and schools with community members ready to assist. The effort went on for months, with some families settling long term in their new home communities.

Competition and Connectivity 

In the years that followed Katrina, I watched some of that sense of community among schools fray. Much of the collaboration that had been a defining characteristic of the independent school community waned, particularly in the most competitive enrollment markets. The war for talent also pitted schools against one another in the battle to recruit and retain experienced faculty and staff. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, many schools went into crisis mode with enrollment and endowments in free fall. 

During that time, I presented to a group of school leaders in a very competitive market. It was difficult getting them to engage in a dialogue about school challenges and strategies for success. During a break, one school head told me that the schools in the area did not want to air their challenges publicly for fear that they could be used in positioning one school against another. 
This competition also ramped up within schools, as pressure for students to get into selective colleges intensified, breaking down students’ sense of community. In the Winter 2013 issue of Independent School, which explored safety and community from many angles, then-editor Michael Brosnan shed light on the effects of competition on student health and well-being and community: 
              It seems to me that the root of our national education problems may well be this obsession with competition … The dissatisfaction with the way we do things—especially how our competitive culture undermines quality education—is growing. Nothing about it feels safe. Caught somewhere between a democratic nation and a free-market economy, we don’t know whether to take care of each other or beat each other up.

A Thread Lost and Found

My past few years at NAIS have been marked by many school challenges. The pandemic robbed us of too many lives, created an epidemic of mental health issues, and broke down community cohesion. Amid the tumult, though, the independent school community as a collective rediscovered the importance of collaboration and a sense of community. As schools sought to keep their own communities together and healthy, they leaned on and learned from each other. School leaders created communities of belonging among their own ranks, sorely needing to keep themselves going amid overwhelming feelings of loneliness and stress. And then the healing began. Much like when Katrina struck, hard times can remind us of the importance of that connective tissue.
A sense of community is what draws people to our schools and what keeps schools strong in good times and in bad; it’s what makes schools successful individually and will always be a key value proposition. It’s what creates bonds between school personnel and among professionals throughout the school community and keeps them thriving. 
But a sense of community among schools is also essential to our success as an industry. It may seem, at times, that could run counter to our fierce independence, but I believe that is the inherent polarity of our world—that tension between independence and interdependence. Let’s keep that essential tension in balance as we move forward. There’s so much we can gain when we lean into community.
Donna Orem is president of NAIS. She will retire in August 2023 after 40 years of working with independent schools.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.