Making a Major Decision Upon Arrival

People sometimes ask, “Why did you go overseas?” It was not because I had a sense of adventure or a desire to promote the best of American education or another idealistic goal, although, looking back, several emerged over the next 20+ years. I actually had never thought about working overseas. In fact, I had never lived overseas or even done much traveling. I had worked all my life in independent schools, including more that 40 years in one in one capacity or another, and knew only one person who had left to go to an international school. At the age of about 30, he had barely been at our renowned school long enough to voice an opinion at a faculty meeting. When I heard that, in his second year at that African school, he had been made high school principal or assistant director, I thought, “What kind of schools are these?” Truth is that he has had a great international career, training others for school leadership and now heading one of the preeminent schools in the world. Clearly they had better judgment than I did.

The truth of the matter is that I wanted to head another school, and I had only one finalist interview in an independent school. With no public school experience or the necessary credentials, that was not an option although explored. While I could have attributed the lack of interest in my candidacy to some lack in myself, I chose to think it was because I was over 60, and the independent schools were looking for someone who would stay at least 10 years. I did not look like a good candidate.

Happily, Independent School Services thought there were some possibilities, and I was named the director of the Anglo American School of Moscow (and St Petersburg) where I stayed for eight years—years of countrywide change and the building of a fine new campus that has served the community well, although we worried about filling it following the Russian financial crisis in 1998. But at that time, the Board chair thought I should retire as was required at a certain age in the service of his country and my contract was not renewed. When offered the option of being the interim superintendent at the American School of The Hague for one year, I said’ “Why not?” Who would have thought there would be another career as an interim head of school? And so I found myself in 10 schools in 9 countries in the next 13 years, three times for a two-year stint.

I would not dare to say that each of these schools emerged stronger for my leadership, but schools rarely seek an interim head unless they are in a crisis situation-- illness of a head, death, or more frequently, dissention or stress usually between the Board and the current head of school or faculty. So, as an interim, you usually go into a school following recent unpleasantness and high emotions. You have to be a quick study, and hope to be able to get a feeling for the school and community before being called upon to make an important decision.

Unfortunately, you don’t always get the time. Fortunately, as an interim, you have the luxury of being beholden to no one including the Board. Your time at the school is preset, and you have only one agenda—doing your best for the students in the school and for the future of the school itself. Your guidelines are your experience, your judgment and your conscience.

In one school, I stepped into the role shortly after the president of the country was forced to step down and was jailed, as were his two sons. Much to my surprise and others in the school, we received a request to readmit his grandson who had been withdrawn as the family fled the city for their own safety several months earlier.

It’s hard now, to visualize the continuing high emotions that surrounded this family and the recent events. There were those in the faculty who had not only taken part in the demonstrations that led to the change of regime, but who were also wounded in the fighting. There were locals, probably on both sides, but all hopeful that the future would mean a better life for themselves and their families. There were parents who, when they heard that the boy might be back at school, were worried that mobs would demonstrate outside the school or even force their way in and possibly endanger their children. In fact, no one really had even imagined the family would return to the city so soon and that we would be asked to continue as if nothing had happened.

How does a new leader make a decision in such a situation and how do you implement it? You have to rely on your judgment and your principles. One of mine was loyalty to a family who has been through a difficult time. Once a member of our school family, I thought our greater loyalty was to the young man who was not responsible for the decisions his grandfather or father had taken or the lives they had lived.

However, once a decision is made, the challenge of implementing it has to be faced Fortunately, I had strong leadership at my side although some were also new to their positions. They also were not of one mind about readmitting the boy. However, together, we made a plan to ease the entry for the boy as well as all the other groups in the school including his classmates. First, I called in the mother to gently explain the possibility that her son would face some hostility. Then I told her he could not start on the first day of school, but could come a week later. In that week, I explained to her, I would talk to each of the groups in school with whom he might have contact to prepare the way.

The first group was the faculty. Emotions were raw, and it was an emotional meeting. There were raised voices, and some teachers even broke into tears. I explained the importance of our commitment to what’s best for each of our students and as well as our responsibility to protect them. I called in all the workers in the school community, administrative staff, cleaners, gardeners, guards, everyone, and, with a translator at my side, explained our loyalty to everyone who was a part of our school community and our support for all our students. I met with the boy’s middle school classmates and explained that a class is like a team. We commit to helping each other, supporting each other when the going gets tough and standing up for each other. Finally, there was the parent community. I said the least to them, but wrote about what it meant to support families in difficult times as well as explaining some new stronger security measures we were taking without ever mentioning the decision, although I knew it would be obvious to most. The last step was to meet the the boy himself, with his mother and the middle school principal and assistant principal to assure him that he would be safe, but also that his future depended on his own behavior.

To my relief, everything went smoothly. The boy started back at school. The teachers treated him professionally despite their emotions and political views. His classmates, as far as we could see, which included some lifelong friends as well as new students, were glad to see him or didn’t care anyway. We did keep a special eye on him throughout the year, especially at unstructured times like lunch and breaks to try to ensure that he was not being bullied—or that he and his friends, the children of prominent families who were known to do whatever he suggested to them-- were not bullying others. In the end, it was a non-incident.

It was neither the first nor the last time that I faced the challenge of making an important decision upon arrival. Every new head of school, not just an interim, may have to make a major decision almost upon arrival. Each community has a unique history, which is complicated, and you may not have the years it takes to understand it. Your job, as always, is to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community and the short-term challenges with the long term good of the school. In the end, you have only yourself as you make the decision despite the many voices around you. People will quickly forget the crisis, big or small, if all goes well and blame you if it does not. These are not the times any leader looks forward to, but there is a certain quiet satisfaction when the community continues to move forward smoothly.

Ellen can be reached at ellendstern@gmail.com

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