Why are heads leaving….and what can we do about it?
In February 2020, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) released the research report Head Turnover at Independent Schools: Sustaining School Leadership. The report was the result of a collaborative study between the University of Pennsylvania and NAIS to examine the factors affecting head of school turnover. Prior to this collaboration, NAIS and state and regional associations had heard anecdotal reports of shorter head tenures and unexpected departures, which were further brough to light in the June 2018 article Out the Door by ISACS former director Claudia Daggett. This was the first quantitative evidence of increased turnover, specifically in ISACS member schools, demanding deeper attention across the independent school landscape.
First, a caveat: not all turnover is bad. Leadership transitions can happen for any number of reasons: retirement, interim transitions, family obligations, and new professional opportunities. Sometimes the fit between the head and school evolves and no longer aligns to the institution’s strategic vision or goals. However, leadership instability can have a profoundly negative affect on a school’s long-term sustainability. The NAIS FAHST (Factors that Affect Head of School Turnover) survey identified 31% respondents had three or more heads in the last ten years. This kind of revolving door leadership impacts enrollment, faculty and family retention, student achievement, fundraising, board effectiveness, and community perception. While the rate of all head turnover in NAIS schools has remained consistent at 10%-15% over the past decade, there has been an increase in unexpected turnover that merits attention. The percentage of new heads replacing an unexpected departure has risen from 8% in 2010 to 21% in 2019.
According to NAIS, the average tenure of headship has declined from nine years in 2010-2011, to seven years in 2019-2020, with long-serving heads inflating that number. And an analysis of the head of school turnover data indicates that 1 in 5 new heads who started in 2020-2021 will leave after three years or less. So why are heads leaving and what can we do about it?
First, we need to acknowledge how headship has evolved into a much more complex leadership role over time. Many decades ago, the head of school position often included teaching responsibilities, with a strong emphasis on pedagogy and student learning. Today, headship is likened to that of CEO or college president; with finance, development, legal, and community challenges competing for a leader’s time and attention. Back in 2009, the NAIS leadership study identified that providing vision, managing their school’s climate and values, and working with their boards as some of the most demanding responsibilities for heads of school. In March 2021, new challenges emerged from the NAIS report The State of Independent School Leadership. 64% of heads indicated that increased pressure, stress, and isolation were particularly difficult, while 57% identified helping their school communities address the pandemic, racial injustice, and economic insecurity simultaneously impacted their job satisfaction.
While the NAIS leadership studies highlight the more demanding aspects of headship, the FAHST survey revealed five main areas that specifically affect turnover:
The first four in this set of factors all align to effective governance practices: a strong partnership between the head and the board, board members understanding the parameters of independent school trusteeship, a comprehensive onboarding program to ensure trustees learn their roles and responsibilities, and a transparent head of school evaluation process that includes clearly articulated goals and metrics for assessing progress.
The final factor, head of school stress and support, has been an ongoing issue for school leaders. In the 2009 NAIS leadership survey, 51% of respondents indicated that being head of school took a toll on their personal lives either all of the time or most of the time. In 2021, less than 40% of heads are somewhat or completely satisfied with the time they have for themselves, family, and friends.
We know the pandemic exacerbated head of school stress in profound ways. While work-life balance had been a challenge well before COVID, additional tensions have risen to the forefront, including contentious parent-school relationships, community polarization, and navigating constant change. As one head of school stated, “The workload of the last year is one I don’t know I will recover from, and it makes me consider pursuing other professional options. I am just exhausted.” Despite the myriad of challenges faced by heads of school, many remain positive about their work and the impact they have on their schools and communities. The NAIS 2021 Leadership Survey revealed that, when asked what aspects of headship make it worthwhile, 92% responded seeing students grow and flourish, while 85% indicated making a difference in others’ lives.
While NAIS data showed a slight decline in head of school turnover during the pandemic, this could be because leaders and boards were less willing to engage in a transition during a crisis. However, given the ongoing stress brought on by the pandemic, along with the number of heads reaching retirement age, we expect overall turnover to increase during the next 2-3 years. In the 2021 NAIS report The State of Independent School Leadership, nearly 55% of heads of school indicated that they plan to leave their current position within 1-5 years. The implications for the broader independent school landscape are many, such as the depth of preparation and support needed for new leaders entering their first headship.
To support leadership sustainability in their schools, boards should examine the following five areas of effective practice:
Whatever the goal of a particular headship – longevity, surgical strategic impact, short-term healing, growth, or something else -- an abrupt, disruptive departure is never the intended outcome. By understanding the most recent research and examining effective practices, boards can focus on building enduring leadership partnerships that generate transitions through which school communities can grow and transform.
Dr. Anne-Marie Balzano is Mission & Data's Senior Governance Strategist, bringing over twenty-five years of experience in the field of education and leadership.