From the first day of a headmaster’s labor of love at any school, s/he works to sustain its accumulated successes and to generate what Watkins calls virtuous cycles of improvement.
He works to sustain innumerable successes such as delivering on the school’s mission, building a quality college of faculty, admitting and enrolling students, maintaining a positive public image, and caring for the existing campus.
By generating virtuous cycles of improvement, he focuses on aligning everything with the school’s mission. He seeks to create a learning, and leadership culture that ensures fulfillment of core promises to families, improves organizational structure to support this objective, retains, empowers and educates the team to meet these promises, and provides the facilities and programs to achieve and sustain virtuous cycles of improvement.
Core promises at each school differ based on each institutional mission. They incarnate the school’s mission. They include promises about the kind of student and family the school will admit, the nature of the education
a student will receive, and how the school will treat the family. The school that promises a challenging college preparatory education for high performing students will differ from the core promises of a school that seeks to meet the needs of its entire community. The former will employ a more exclusive admission policy to assure a deep and challenging learning culture. The other may accept every reasonable applicant to embody and reflect its community. Both are legitimate but they are very different. The school needs to know its mission and then clearly articulate core promises consistent with that mission.
The school’s leadership and learning culture should focus on fulfillment of core promises. If the school promises to teach students to become independent learners its culture should coach students about how and give them time to work independently. This is a decidedly different learning culture than the typical teacher driven classroom with students sitting by rank and file. Instead, the culture would allow for a student to pursue learning at a rate consistent with capability and according to the student’s style. The more extroverted students may want to collaborate with others in the learning process, while the introverted students may enjoy individualized study. The leadership culture would need to match the learning culture by providing coaches rather than lecturers. If the leaders in a school want everything to be teacher driven then the school should not claim to develop individual learners. Instead, that should claim to provide outstanding instruction to all students in a well-ordered atmosphere. The leadership mode would be more formal in this structure. Again, the school needs to understand its own mission, articulate core promises that reflect the mission and develop a leadership and learning culture that will deliver on those promises.
The school’s organization needs to support achievement of core promises by supporting the school culture. The community school may have more of a happy family form of organization. In it the headmaster needs to know the name of every student, mother, father, brother, and the pet gerbil. The college preparatory school may engender a more competitive academic atmosphere to encourage high achievement. A military boarding school will include the unique top down command structure. A classical or liberal arts school should include an organizational structure that sets people free. After all that defines a liberal arts education. There is a disconnect when a liberal arts school employs a heavy handed top down command structure that conflicts with the core promises of this kind of education. Instead, the school should employ as much of a self-governing student government as possible so the students learn how to enjoy freedom within order. Each school feels a little different. In most schools this just happens, but rarely does is comprehensively mark a school unless a savvy headmaster acts intentionally to align the organization to deliver on the core promises.
The personnel selection and development employed in each institution needs to align with the core promises. A happy family learning culture needs a college of faculty, educational leaders and a board that work in unity to achieve the self consciously warm culture. The high achieving academic atmosphere of a college preparatory school calls for faculty with high expectations. This does not mean the faculty is pompous, or mean-spirited. They still pray for and coach students through to high academic success. But it takes a different kind of a teacher, a different kind of a headmaster, joining different school associations and pursuing different kinds of professional development to deliver on core promises. The wise headmaster aligns the college of faculty, leadership and support staff to fulfill the stated mission.
Facilities and programs of the school also need to align with the school mission, consciously developed to deliver on core promises. Whether the school is located in an urban high rise or a sprawling country campus, ideally the designers and developers of the campus will self-consciously seek to build consistent with delivering on core promises. The right architects think this way. They will seek to understand the school’s mission and core promises, and develop a program with school leaders consistent therewith. Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia as an academical village that encouraged deep interaction between faculty and students. The campus was designed for professors to live on campus in second story apartments with classes held on the first floor to encourage this interaction. It was decidedly not the industrial machine that characterizes many modern state universities. The warm community school atmosphere should include spaces that encourage family interaction with each other and with teachers. While the college preparatory school should not be cold, a great space for debate might take precedence over a café.
Virtuous cycles of improvement will naturally flow from aligning all aspects of the school to achieve the core promises that amplify on the school’s mission. The leadership and learning culture, organizational emphasis, faculty and staff, as well as facilities and programs aligned with the school’s mission will generate virtuous cycles of improvement that deliver on core promises. The headmaster leads the process.
The First 90 Days, Watkins, Michael, Harvard Business School Publishing