Looking Outward at a Boarding School & Why it Matters

Two Head of School pieces in the last few days share a topic that I’ve talked about with administrators over the past few months at a couple of conferences and in conversations- making sure that someone in school leadership bears the responsibility for observing and communicating with the outside world.

First, congratulations to Alex Curtis, Ph.D. who trustees chose to succeed Mr. Edward Shanahan as Choate‘s Headmaster.

My Thoughts on Great Leadership” and “New Head Poised for Success” provide my starting point. For this piece I won’t recapitulate Dr. Curtis’ career and biography or Saint James School‘s Reverend Dunnan’s thinking on leadership. I want to think about the necessity of looking outward from the daily boarding school school routine.  I certainly invite you read both pieces.

Looking Outward While Inside A School

School routines are great.  A rigorous, disciplined day- full of varied activities and demands, requiring successful quick closure and movement on to one’s next responsibilities- is, perhaps, the most influential and long lasting effect that boarding school has on students. Boarding school alumni tend to have a canny ability to get things done and move on to what’s next.

This routine however comes with a price for boarding school adults.  In order to impart the lessons and make the school effective, boarding school teachers and administrators must tightly focus on the school’s daily schedule, life and routines, to make the school as effective as possible.

This focus works for the students but hamstrings the adult in the boarding school.  Ask a boarding school teacher, or administrator, about the larger world during the middle of the school year and you’re likely to get a blank stare undergirded by the thought ‘I teach, dorm parent, and coach six days a week. You think I have time for that?’

In my experience boarding school adults ‘get to’ any external projects during school holidays. Looking outward is hard when doing the job well requires inward focus.

This commitment makes the school work; boarding schools succeed precisely because they focus on their students disconnected, and undistracted by the din of the greater world. But, this focus also hinders a school’s ability to share & communicate the school’s narrative to the larger world. Communicating with a larger, external, varied audience rates a second tier priority when focused efforts and lessons necessary for your students’ success.

Back to our two heads- it’s interesting that in each of their writings both men touch on the importance of looking and communicating outward.

In their positions it’s not enough to make sure that their school does a great job with its students. Each must ensure that their school’s story- its mission, work and success- get told, communicated and sold, to as wide a world as possible.

Dunnan, Curtis, and Looking Outward

Dunnan writes:

“…I also need to function outside the school ‘looking in,’ even as I run the school ‘from within.’ I therefore need to challenge my colleagues to remain responsive to the outside world, even as I need to ‘sell’ our distinct culture as a school to the outside world. Finally, I need to see the ‘bigger picture,’ connecting the different constituencies of the school, students, faculty, parents, trustees, and alumni, without belonging to any…

…Secondly, the leader needs to empathize and communicate well to draw the whole together, to explain the bigger picture, to inform the present of the future, and the inside and outside of each other…”(MTGL)

The Choate News describes Mr. Curtis ability to reach outward:

“…During all the interviews conducted by The News, Dr. Curtis was praised for his overall effect on the growth of Morristown-Beard and for his representation of the school to the wider world. Dean of Faculty Mascaro talked about the financial boom and increased selectivity that MBS has seen during Dr. Curtis’ tenure: ‘Dr. Curtis has raised more money in the past six years than we have probably raised in the last twenty-five as a school, so he’s been extremely successful that way. He’s also increased applications and interest in our admissions office by significant numbers. By any external measurement, he’s brought the school to a new level.’ Ms. Wetmore added that Dr. Curtis’ roles on local boards, such as those of the Link Community School and the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools, have increased the school’s visibility. Dr. Mascaro concurred, ‘I think he’s brought visibility to [MBS], and shown the successes that the school is capable of and the strengths that the school has. There are a lot of schools in this area, and we compete with them for students. Our commission in that marketplace is different now, in large part due to his leadership.’

According to Ms. Wetmore, the student body has grown during Dr. Curtis’ time at the school from four hundred sixty-six students to five hundred forty students, all day. Tedesco, who entered Morristown-Beard as a new sophomore, credits Dr. Curtis with her family’s decision to apply to the school: ‘My parents didn’t know if they wanted me to go [to MBS], but they had a meeting with Dr. Curtis, and it completely changed their perspective of the school, because he’s done so much for the school in the seven years he’s been there.’ Dr. Mascaro and Ms. Wetmore said that Dr. Curtis often participates in such meetings with parents.(TN)

Connecting to the Larger World Represents the Future

The wider world is our future; Dunnan and Curtis touch on this.

Boarding schools compete for students in a world of improving public schools, expanding, and great, day school opportunities, and against our own increasing costs. Families and potential constituent groups aren’t tuned-in, or locked-in, to sending their students to boarding school. Boarding school is another way to go to school.

We (the boarding school community) must come to terms with notion and adapt to the fact that we compete for students just like any other private institution. Families don’t have to spend money on our tuition. Our future lies in understanding that the health of our schools requires connecting with varied families most all of whom will be new to boarding school.

We must, first, communicate our stories and strengths to a larger world, and, secondly, to execute and plan our communications. Many schools have taken steps in this area by creating and filling the post of communication director- someone to tell and disseminate school narrative. But, my anecdotal observations and experiences, show me this post can still become to wrapped-up in daily school life with an inward, rather than outward view. Every school needs an administrator whose primary responsibility is connection to, and communication with existing and potential families.

Boarding school is great and powerful way to go to school. Absolutely, that’s what our alumni and data tell us. We must tell our stories well and regularly. We must connect to the larger world. We must show the larger world the value and lasting affects of the great things we do every day. Our lives depend on it.

Photo credit: M.Christian licensed under Creative Commons

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