For the last 11 years I served in various capacities at a Christian school in suburban Philadelphia. But on July 1, 2018, I officially became head of school at Redeemer Classical School, a Pre-K through eighth-grade Christian classical school located just outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia. This is my first time serving as a head of school and the first five months on the job have been a beautiful, adventurous, hectic whirlwind. And I have loved every minute of it!
What follows is a brief reflection on some of the things that I have found helpful and some of the lessons that I’ve learned as a new head of school in a new school setting. I know that every school context is different and so the needs and demands of the head of school role are different in each school. Furthermore, I recognize that I’m still wet behind the ears and have a lot to learn. Still, it is my hope that others who are new to school leadership and those who are aspiring to such roles will find my thoughts here beneficial.
Start With a Plan
I remember the day that my wife and I brought our first child home from the hospital. We set him down in the middle of the living room floor in his car seat and said, “Now what?” We eventually figured it out (I think), but the point is that we weren’t prepared and didn’t know what to expect. I can honestly say that I did not have the same sort of response to being a first-time head of school as I did to being a first-time parent. That’s not to say that I have it all figured out. There have been unexpected issues and puzzling questions, for sure. But overall I have felt quite prepared.
A major component of my preparation was the EntryPlan that I developed in the months leading up to my official start date. Based on the work of Barry Jentz and Joan Wofford, an EntryPlan is a road map of strategic priorities designed to help leaders stay focused while also avoiding reflexive decision making in the first several months (or even year) in a new position. I shared my EntryPlan with my board of directors for their input and approval in June. When I started in July I already had a list of tasks and priorities laid out to help me get started. It saved me from having another “Now what?” moment.
Listen and Learn
Starting at a new school is, in certain respects, like entering a conversation already in progress. The faculty, staff, board, and parents have already spent a great deal of time thinking through and talking about the unique set of challenges and opportunities that the school is facing at that moment when you start. It’s important that you do what you can to get caught up on the conversation as quickly as possible, so that you can start contributing positively to the conversation.
Doing so requires that you listen to the people in the school community and that you learn as much about the school as you possibly can, as early as you can. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Survey parents, and faculty and staff, to get their perspective. I also found it helpful to read through bylaws, handbooks, board meeting minutes, old marketing materials, and historical documents pertaining to the school.
Not only has this allowed me to start contributing to the conversation, but also it has provided me with greater insight into the culture of the school—and has allowed me to better see myself as a part of the school and its history. In other words, it has made it easier for me to speak in “we” statements rather than “they” or “y’all” statements (hey…we’re in the South!).
See Being New as an Asset
This is closely related to the previous point. I have found that being new to a school can be a huge asset. It can be easy to look past certain issues or ways of doing things when you’re immersed in them day after day. Being the new person at a school allows you to look at things with a fresh perspective and to see things that might be easily overlooked—so use that to your advantage. Ask the obvious questions that are most likely to get overlooked. Review the policies and procedures that have a tendency to be ignored. Probe into the unspoken or assumed ways of doing things and see if they need to be changed or codified.
Being new also gives you a great opportunity to reach out to people in the community who don’t have a relationship with the school, or perhaps had a relationship at one point, but don’t currently for whatever reason. I used this to my advantage when I walked around the neighborhood surrounding the school to meet our neighbors. It also came in handy when I wanted to meet with local government officials, the local sheriff’s office, area pastors, business owners, and other leaders in the nonprofit sector. Some of these people might find it strange that you’re knocking on their front door just to introduce yourself if you’ve worked at the school for five years. They might find an invitation to meet for coffee a little odd if you’ve been in the area for 10 years. But when you’re new in town and you’re trying to meet key people in the community, it doesn’t seem so strange.
For years I have had a habit of reading for an hour or so before I go to sleep. That habit has become a rare occurrence lately, because I find myself so tired at the end of the day. Some of it has to do with the demands of being a head of school. It is a weighty responsibility, and the days are often filled to the brim. But about a month ago it dawned on me that some of the exhaustion is due to everything being new. I’m working at a new school, living in a new house located in a new town, making new friends, and developing new routines. That’s a lot of new things, which means a lot of learning. As any kindergartner in the first few weeks of the school year can tell you, learning a lot of new things is tiring. So, if you’re thinking about or in the process of accepting a new school leadership position—especially if it’s in a new area—be prepared to be tired. And make sure to take the necessary steps to take care of your physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual health so that the exhaustion doesn’t take an unhealthy toll.
Don’t let my comments about being tired scare you. Being a school leader is a wonderful and rewarding job. I know it’s not for everyone—it really is a calling in that sense—but honestly, I can’t think of anything that I would rather being doing. It is an honor to partner with parents in educating their children. It’s a privilege to support the tireless efforts of our talented faculty and staff. It is a blessing to witness students at each and every grade level finding joy in learning deeply each and every day. So enjoy it! Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun learning about your new school and your new position, and delight in getting to know the faculty, staff, parents, and students. You only get one first year at a new school, so make the most of it.
About the Author
Ron Hoch is head of school at Redeemer Classical School. He is coauthor of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education. He received a BS from Cairn University, an MA from Reformed Theological Seminary, and an MS from The University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Julianna, have three children: Asher, Nora, and Jonah. He enjoys reading, running, and watching Philadelphia sports. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.