Stephen Covey famously wrote, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” I believe that a faculty culture of excellence is the main thing in independent schools. Faculty excellence is at the heart of the value proposition for most independent schools and therefore intimately tied to their financial sustainability.
Unfortunately, for many schools, this value proposition is under siege. Nearly fifty percent of NAIS schools lost enrollment in the last decade according to the NAIS Trendbook. In response, schools are searching for different business models, seeking alternative revenue, and expanding their markets to include more foreign students. These responses feel like a betrayal of Covey’s statement, a misguided diversion from the value proposition and the culture of excellence.
Rather than looking outward, independent schools should focus on what truly matters: establishing and strengthening a faculty culture of excellence.
Here’s where to begin.
Leadership: The head of school has to be authentically obsessed with great teaching, and has to demonstrate this in the myriad of daily interactions with faculty. Indeed, if a head wants to change faculty culture, she must make great teaching an essential part of her vision. Never passing up an opportunity to explain and sell this part of her vision, the head must inspire teachers and at the same time, focus their energies on change that fulfills the school’s mission as well as the head’s vision. What a leader views as important, revealed in his or her words and actions, will indeed become valued in the school.
Clear Standards: Great teaching needs to be defined as well as understood. Rather than relying on the minimal standards implicit in parental complaints, schools should seek standards that are vastly higher than parents’ expectations. Remember that old marketing motto: “Exceed their expectations.”
Professional Development: The leadership of the school, the board of trustees and the administration need to support the professional growth of teachers. This professional development should be driven by the faculty, but at the same time, should clearly produce results that support the head’s vision. One successful head told his faculty, “Here is the sandbox you can play in. Build whatever you want in that sandbox, but know that this is the only sandbox you get to play in.” The head’s vision and the school’s money provide powerful signals to faculty about the school’s values.
A Faculty Career Path that Weeds Out Weak and Average Teachers and Rewards Excellence: A school cannot create a culture of excellence without accountability. So many schools either have no faculty evaluation system or they pay lip service to evaluation. Although money is not an intrinsic motivation for most teachers, it does demonstrate unmistakably what the school values. It’s hard to imagine creating a faculty culture of excellence without providing a concrete system of incentives.
Structures that Showcase and Foster Conversation about Great Teaching: Faculty meetings, department meetings, grade-level meetings — how is the time in these meetings used? Is the division head running through a list of announcements or is the math teacher sharing a great lesson that illustrates an insight into excellent teaching? Moreover, it is particularly important for early adopters on the faculty to have an opportunity to showcase the successful changes they are bringing to their classrooms. Again, how schools use their limited and precious time speaks volumes about what they value.
Hiring: My guess is that most school administrators and department chairs know little about how to effectively interview candidates. The candidate visit typically includes a series of interviews, barely touching the surface and mostly focused on the “likability” quotient. Teaching a class and checking references are important, but even with the latter, independent school administrators are poorly trained to ask the right questions that lead to a better prediction of how the candidate will perform. It’s a lot easier to hire a great teacher than fire an average one.
Peter Senge, a systems thinking guru, once remarked that if you want a plant to grow, you don’t stand over it and yell, “Grow, damn it! Grow!” Rather you create the conditions that encourage the plant’s growth — nutrients in the soil, water and sunlight. The same principle applies to faculty culture. By investing time and money into faculty growth and conversations about what great teaching looks like, by demonstrating an authentic belief that faculty excellence is the heart and soul of the school, and by creating a system of incentives, both psychic and monetary, heads of schools invite and encourage faculty to change. When faced with resistance, heads should not yell louder, but rather make the invitation more enticing, the encouragement more compelling.