This summer, Liz Gray, Belmont Day’s Middle School Head, started an intensive professional development program that will ready her for what may be the next challenge in her career as an educator and administrator. Gray joined more than 50 of her peers from across the country in the National Association of Independent Schools’ Fellowship for Aspiring Heads program.
The NAIS program started with a week-long Aspiring Heads Institute held in mid-July at the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta, GA. A faculty team of ten current heads of school, supported by NAIS staff and NAIS president Donna Orem, led the institute and will serve as mentors for the fellows throughout the coming school year.
Gray answered a few questions about this professional development opportunity:
What sparked your interest in this NAIS institute?
I have always been interested in school leadership and was curious to know what were the most important skills and competencies for someone interested in becoming a head of school.
Brendan (Largay, Belmont Day’s Head of School) and I worked together to identify goals for my professional development and he encouraged and supported me to apply for this (the application requires a letter from your current head of school). I actually got in last year but deferred because it was all virtual last summer. So I became part of the 2022 cohort instead, which was a very good decision to be in-person.
What was the structure of the institute and what work was involved?
The institute offered a packed program, Monday to Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Every morning started with a daily gathering led by one of the faculty members and then we attended workshops/classes on key topics related to the head of school role, including leadership, current independent school market trends and demographics, governance, caring for community, advancement, “expecting the unexpected,” finance, DEIBJ (diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice) work, legal issues, crisis management, alignment of mission and vision, identity, and the head search and mission alignment. We also regularly met with our mentors and mentor groups and worked on an action research project with our group each evening.
What are some key takeaways/lessons for you from the work at the institute?
Honestly, there are too many to list! I learned so much. One of the greatest rewards of the program was learning from the other fellows and especially the faculty, who were very candid about their experiences as heads of school and extremely supportive of us as fellows. It is an incredible national network to be plugged into.
A few key takeaways for me (in no particular order) were:
- Important questions to ask board members about the school when in the interview process like, How do big decisions get made? How do you train your board members– what is the process? What are your expectations of board members and how do you get everyone on the same page?
- When it comes to school finance, if you haven’t got a lot of background in it, don’t give in to feelings of “imposter syndrome.” Feeding them will eat up a ton of psychic energy. Focus instead on hiring an experienced, trusted, and competent CFO, who can translate the financial terms well and make them easy to understand.
- Know your school’s founding story, history, and evolution, and be able to tell the story to all constituencies.
- Each head of school will have a different way of living and manifesting a school’s mission. It’s your job to find the way that resonates with you and that makes it visionary for the school community.
- Legal issues, resources, and knowing when to reach out for support.
- What’s involved in a head of school contract and what are the most important aspects of the offer to consider before signing.
- Building a strong resumé and understanding the head search process.
Was there anything in particular that will inform your work at BDS this upcoming school year?
Yes! My cohort of fellows and I are working on our action research project and we have decided to focus on the general topic of “How to navigate polarizing conversations using your school’s mission as a guidepost.” I’ll be looking at Belmont Day’s mission and how it can help us in the work of addressing potential polarizing conversations in areas like politics, DEIBJ, curriculum, and other subjects. My cohort will then present our findings at the National Association of Independent Schools Conference in Las Vegas, in February 2023.