After a Lynnhaven School (VA) board meeting in 2020 during which Head of School Johnathan Harris worked together with Deputy Head of School Casey Hitchcock to present and answer questions, a board member joked that they were acting a lot like co-heads of school. “And that kind of stuck with us,” Hitchcock says.
It wasn’t an out-of-left-field idea. Hitchcock was interim head when Harris, who founded the school 10 years ago, took medical leave for 9 months in 2018. And given that school life had already been upended by COVID-19 and the school was moving to a new physical location, they thought why not lean further into major change and try the co-head model. The 2021–2022 school year was their first year as co-heads.
In this edited exchange, they reflect on why and how they decided on a co-headship, the benefits, and the components necessary to make it work.
Casey Hitchcock: After that board meeting, I brought the co-head idea back up. The first thing anybody does when they’re thinking about something is research. And there was an Independent School article, “Are Two Heads Better Than One?” by Claudia Daggett, in the Spring 2020 issue, which was when we were having these conversations. So, we dug into the article.
Jonathan Harris: Some of the things in the article related to us, some didn’t. But I think COVID gave us the permission to try something different.
Hitchcock: We’re an innovative school. We like to try new things in the classroom. We like to try new ways of organizing our school day. We’re not so set on this is the right way all the time. But changing a school leadership model is a little scary. So the pandemic definitely gave us permission to do it because at that point, there was no right way to do anything.
Harris: One of the questions that came up was, what is appealing about the concept? And I think you said that head of school is an exhausting job. And what better than to have another person to share that exhaustion? All of the staff work together as a team. But I tell teachers all the time, when things go wrong, and sometimes they will, the head is going to get that phone call. It’s great to be able to go through that together.
But I think it’s important to have boundaries, too. Because even though there are two of us here, you could still have burnout. And there’s got to be a time when you do turn it off.
Hitchcock: And sometimes there is burnout because there are two people and because everything you do has to be overly communicated. Everything you do, for the most part, has to be talked through. At least that's how we approach it because we have divided responsibilities but hold joint accountability. Though we talk a lot of things out, our responsibilities are often separate. That helps me understand where my autonomy is.
Harris: Next year is going to be different for us. We have hired full-time directors of admission and development. We’re going to hire a business manager. We’ve hired a principal to do the day-to-day operations of the school. We promoted from within for an assistant principal. We were doing all of those things ourselves. Now we can lead the school according to the five-year strategic plan. We’re going to still keep this co-heads model in place because there are certain aspects of leadership that you are good at and others that I’m good at.
Hitchcock: People often ask us, “You’re a small school, so how are you affording two salaries for heads of school?” And the reality is that because we, for the past year anyway, have had to do all of the other roles, the school can support us because we’re it. We haven’t yet been able to be revenue generators as the heads of school.
Harris: As we move to the next phase of the school, it is important for us to grow the school incrementally, be intentional, and put all the structures in place that we need. Then we can effectively execute our roles, which will further legitimize the school. Right now, from the administrative standpoint, it’s Johnny can do it or Casey can do it. This co-headship model helped us dive deep into what needs to happen. We’re in a better position now to support all the folks who we’re hiring.
Hitchcock: Thinking critically about the school as a co-headship—especially a co-headship that’s coming out of a founding headship—really matters for us because it’s easy to get one-sided as a founding head and get attached to certain things. Having a co-headship allowed us to have conversations about what we keep, what we don’t keep, what’s working, what’s not working, and how we can do better.
Harris: As a founder of the school, I have to really check my ego and make sure that I’m not trying to dominate because everyone looks to me as the visionary. But a visionary shares that vision with people.
Hitchcock: Checking your ego at the door is essential with a co-headship. There’s no way around it because it will get bruised, and you will get your feelings hurt. And you have to be able to have reconciliation and come back together because, at the end of the day, we’re both still responsible.
Harris: Anyone who says, “Oh no, I don’t have an ego,” yeah, you do.
Hitchcock: A question we get a lot is, How does this work, and if I wanted to do it at my school, how could I do it?
Harris: I think the person has to really know their strengths. You have to be willing to be vulnerable. You have to be willing to trust it and try it. You’ve got to be willing to fail. You’ve got to be really humble. What do you think?
Hitchcock: You can’t go into it thinking that it’s going to solve everything and it’s going to be perfect. You can't go into it thinking that it’s going to be the great fixer of whatever is happening in your school or even in yourself. Burnout is real, and adding a co-head doesn’t necessarily eliminate that.
Harris: For co-heads to work, you need two individuals who have a very common view on education, on the approach to reach students. You can have different leadership styles. But I don’t think it’s a situation where someone is really good in certain aspects of being head of school, but they don’t quite have all the skills and the ability to be a head of school. You need two individuals who can be a head of school anywhere. It’s not a situation where there’s really just one head of school and the other person is in the supporting role.
Hitchcock: When we did our research, I found a study that was done in England in 2008. Of the eight schools studied that had a co-headship model, the successful ones had co-heads saying, “This is what we want. We want to be co-heads.” It wasn’t a top-down decision where the board was putting it in place. During the hiring process, it was the person saying, “I think a co-headship model could work here. I know that I’m going to need to take X-amount of time off,” or whatever the case may be, but it was coming from the heads of school themselves. They had more success long term because they were open and ready for the model to begin with.
Harris: I think the ability to communicate with each other can’t be overstated. We used to try to eat breakfast together at least once a week away from the school and talk about what’s happening. What are we missing? Where are our blind spots? What are our liabilities? What do we need to celebrate? What do we need to highlight? That’s important.
Hitchcock: I don’t think everyone can do this. One of the things that could be really easy to do is when you disagree—because it’s going to happen—to go coalition-build. Don’t go around to your faculty or parents and try to pull people onto your side to prove your point. Disagree with each other and get to a resolution. For your stakeholders to believe in and respect this model, you have to be united.