Hold on to Your Head!

George Sanderson | January 08, 2024

The shorter average tenure of heads of school in recent years has been well documented – both anecdotally and in data collected by NAIS. While this trend may have short-term benefits for the business of firms such as Educators Collaborative, shorter tenures result in a lack of continuity in leadership and are an impediment to long-term strategic planning. Moreover, they strain resources as boards must engage in an expensive and time-consuming search process each time there is turnover in leadership.

Explanations for the decrease in the average tenure of heads are many and varied. Some suggest that Boards have become more demanding of heads and thus open to moving on to new leadership more quickly than in the past. Others posit that heads have been leaving their positions sooner than in the past because of COVID-19 burnout, frustration with more demanding parents, concern about trustees overstepping their bounds, and the exhaustion caused by increased responsibilities of the position as the head’s role has evolved over time. Each of these factors was cited in the Survey on Factors Affecting Head of School Tenure (FAHST), conducted in 2019 by NAIS and the University of Pennsylvania. Regardless of the cause, the undisputed fact is that heads are moving on from their jobs sooner than in the past.

Trustees are regularly encouraged to “stay in their lane” and “support the head,” but there are other, more concrete steps that boards can make to maximize the likelihood that a head of school will stay in their job longer. Here are a few suggestions for trustees.

Speak regularly to your head about the future, and don’t wait until it’s too late to have them sign a new contract. It’s not too soon to begin a conversation with your head two years before the end of their employment agreement. So, if your head’s contract ends in June of 2026, start talking to them about the future this coming summer. Moreover, write a contract and present it to the head by the end of calendar year 2024 at the latest.

Make the head’s job easier. One way to do this is for trustees to make their contributions to the annual fund at the very beginning of the school year. In the case of a capital campaign, all trustees should make their pledges within two months of board approval of the campaign. Don’t make the head ask you to do this (unless the head feels that they will get a larger contribution from a trustee by having an individual conversation). Pledging generously and early to the campaign will mean that there will be fewer “asks” required of the head and will provide momentum to the annual fund and the campaign, if one is undertaken.

Don’t say “delegate more” unless you back that up with action. Well-meaning trustees often believe that they are helping their head by telling them to do less. But when something goes wrong, they are quick to acknowledge that the ultimate responsibility for the school belongs to the head. If trustees suggest that heads should do less, they should put that priority into the annual performance review of the head and reward the head accordingly – even when things don’t operate quite as smoothly without the head taking charge of every aspect of the school’s operations.

Consider mandating three weeks of summer vacation. Good heads are often loath to let go and thus, even when they are off campus, they hardly have time to relax. The board should consider requiring the head to take at least three weeks away from campus in the summer, and honor that time by not contacting them. Only by doing so can a board be sure that the head has time to recharge.

To be sure, there are dozens of factors that heads consider when they are contemplating a departure – including making the right match in the first place by using a quality search firm such as Educators Collaborative. And sometimes head turnover is an important factor in moving a school forward, especially if the head has served the school for a very long time. But if a board is happy with their head, they can’t assume they will be able to keep their leader without backing up their positive feelings with actions. Take the necessary steps that will maximize the likelihood your head of school will want to stay.

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