Parent Leadership
The Headmaster as Leader
Notes about Leading a Secondary School for Boys

Printer-friendly version | Email to a friend


This handbook is a set of ideas and convictions about how to exercise leadership of a boys' secondary school, notes drawn from my 25 years' experience as a teacher and school administrator. I have put it together to help headmasters, and especially those about to take up the job, to do what all professionals need to do from time to time—namely, reflect more deeply about their professional responsibilities and learn from the experience of others.

This set of notes does not pretend to be exhaustive or definitive. It is mostly my personal opinion, and it explores what I think are the most important dimensions of school leadership: forming and explaining the school's mission; handling significant questions and problems; using one's leadership to serve Board members, parents, teachers, students, and the community at large. Each of the topics, as well as others left undiscussed, could have been expanded considerably. Instead of delving into detailed explanations, I've chosen instead to highlight what's most important and essential to the headmaster's job of service to the school.

And what is the essence of a headmaster's service? I think it is to give ongoing encouragement. Napoleon Bonaparte once said, quite rightly, "A leader is a dealer in hope." A headmaster serves his people by forming within himself a clear, hopeful and compelling mission to his life's work, a heartfelt dedication to the welfare of his people, and then he gets everyone to join him in that collective adventure. In the notes that follow, I hope you will better appreciate how this dynamic works—and why serving as headmaster is such a great life's work.

James B. Stenson

Part I — The Headmaster's Leadership

Headmaster as Leader: The Big Picture

As Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the school corporation, the headmaster is the institution's most important figure. His is a challenging, often difficult job, one calling forth the full exercise of his powers and skills, his patience, his spiritual strength, and his dedication. At the same time, his work is immensely rewarding. Very few lines of professional work offer so much opportunity for doing good—a means of profoundly influencing the lifelong welfare of parents, children, teachers, and friends of the school.

So which personal traits should a headmaster bring to his job? What experiences should he have acquired to prepare him for the adventure of leading a school effectively?

The headmaster should have fairly extensive experience with education, at least teaching in the classroom. And because he serves in so many ways as a connector to the world outside the school, he should also have, if possible, some professional experience in a field outside of education. He must be well organized and practical as well as energetic, for the job is extremely demanding. (Average tenure for school directors in the U.S. is about five years.)

A school tends to rise or fall on the personality and competence of the headmaster. Because a school, any school, has many centrifugal forces at work all the time—an inherent tendency to spin off into chaos—the headmaster must have, above all, a strong sense of self-confidence and a clear, compelling sense of mission. He holds the whole complex operation together, gives it coherence and direction, and this he must do continually.

His main function is really to teach. He constantly instructs or reminds people—parents, teachers, Board members, students, prospects for enrollment, the general public—what the school stands for, what it is trying to accomplish, and how people's present sacrificial efforts fit into that long-term strategy. In short, his main job is to get out in front of the whole enterprise and lead others to join him—for a real leader has joiners, not followers. He must, therefore, hold a thoroughly well thought out understanding of the school's reason for being and an ability to articulate this concept attractively, even inspiringly, to the school's constituent groups. His confident decisiveness is important to everyone.

The headmaster is, moreover, the chief manager of a complex business organization. Consequently he should be competent to handle matters of budgets, finances, legal requirements, and job-performance evaluations. If he is deficient in one or more of these areas (and nearly everyone is), he should hire competent specialists to assist him and then let them do their jobs. (One of the qualities of a sound professional is knowing how to use the supportive skills of other professionals.)

His is the task of hiring new teachers, one of his principal responsibilities. He has the responsibility to direct his teachers clearly and professionally, correct them where necessary and generally oversee the quality of their performance. For all of this he answers to the Board and the school community.

His is, no doubt, a very tough and demanding job. The headmaster needs a number of personal traits, some of them so opposed to each other as to appear rarely in one person. For instance, he should have:

  • energy and initiative, as well as patience
  • strategic vision, as well as attention to detail
  • self-confidence, as well as willingness to listen and to admit mistakes
  • a flair for systems management, as well as creative enterprise
  • gracious tact, as well as the ability to say no
  • compassionate understanding, as well as a thick skin

When anyone approaches him with a grievance or other problem, he must be willing and able to act promptly; within two days, he should either take corrective action or provide the person with a reasonable explanation. He may not, in any event, let a problem remain unresolved and unexplained. Everyone with a grievance deserves either action or an explanation, and to provide this is his job. He is an executive, and an executive's job is to execute, to make things happen.

But above all, even when involved with day-to-day administrative details, his core responsibility is to articulate and remind everyone of the school's mission, its reason for being. Everything the school does must derive from this vision of the school's service. The selection of teachers and students, the program of studies, the support services delivered to parents, the athletics and co-curricular activities, the selection of books and materials, the ease with which he and others can explain the school to prospects and the media—everything derives from the headmaster's clear, focused explanation of the school's mission.

Here is an explanation of the school's overall mission of service, one that has been successfully used over the years:

  • The school is a service to parents. It exists to support parents in their all-important task of raising their children to become competent, responsible, considerate, and generous men and women committed to live by Christian principles all their lives. Every single aspect of the school is directed to this end—helping parents raise their children to become great men and women.

  • What this means is that the school seeks to complement the work of parents at home to inculcate the virtues—strengths of mind, heart, and will—inside the children. These character-forming virtues are: faith, hope, charity, sound judgment and conscience (prudence), a sense of responsibility (justice), courageous perseverance (fortitude), and self-mastery (temperance). The school, like the family, imparts these character strengths in three ways: by example, directed practice, and verbal explanation—and in that order. Children witness these virtues in the lives of teachers and fellow students. They are led to practice them repeatedly (by taking responsibility for work well done, for example, and by undertaking challenging courses of study). And they receive explanations for what they see and are led to do in school; this is done through group talks and personal conversation.

  • To look at the mission another way: Children move in three environments as they grow up—family, school, and society. Society is any environment other than family and school: television and the Internet, for instance, or peers in the neighborhood. In today's world, society holds many values that oppose and undermine those of the Christian family. Our society's dominant ethos is materialism—the belief that man is a beast, an object, and that life's purpose is merely the pursuit of pleasure and power. Today, unfortunately, many schools act to promote this life-outlook, or at least do little to help parents deflect its influence on their children. What conscientious parents need, therefore, is a school where the family's principles are purposely supported and reinforced, where teachers show and tell children, in effect, that their parents are right. If children spend their years growing up in a home and a school where these Christian values are paramount and mutually reinforcing, they can emerge into adulthood with their values intact. At the very least they will have a fighting chance to defend themselves against societal materialism and, we hope, turn it around with their later lives as responsible Christian adults.

  • In short, parents who send their children off to our school in the morning can have confidence and peace of mind that the school environment will do nothing to unravel their parental lessons of right and wrong. In fact, the school will do everything possible to reinforce these lessons, build strengths inside the judgment and conscience of the children that will last a lifetime. The school's personnel share the values and long-range ideals of the parents for the children's success in life. Outside the family itself, these teachers care most—more than any other adults—about the earthly and eternal happiness of each child. They are thus immensely valuable to parents, and are indeed their greatest friends.

It is important for the headmaster to help everyone understand that "formation" of children does not take place just through talks: group lectures, classes, homilies, personal conversations with one's advisor. Most of the actual formation in character-strengths (virtues) takes place in what the children are led to do—that is, in classroom work and deportment, taking tests, doing home assignments, working on projects, playing sports, and the everyday dealings with teachers and other students. In other words, the school's whole environment is formational. How the children are led to work and play will effect most of the changes in mind, will, and heart. In this context, the "talk" part of formation just explains to the children the reasons behind what they see and do.

In other words, the principle of formation is this: What children hear, they mostly forget; what they see, they remember; but what they do, they understand and internalize for keeps.

Someone wise once said: "An education is what you have left over after you've forgotten the material." Many schools today have lost sight of this truth. They see schooling as mostly information-transfer or skill development or (oddly) "growing in touch with one's feelings." Our school, on the other hand, seeks to impart a set of attitudes and habits permanently in the minds and wills of the children—and this through example, directed and repeated practice, and convincing explanation.

So, what does the school intend to teach the students that they will internalize and hold permanently? To list some of these, all items which can appear in the school's promo literature—and which the headmaster needs to remind everyone about from time to time:

  • love for Jesus Christ and His Church, understanding what He has taught, and a Commitment to live by Christian principles.
  • the enkindling of honorable ambition
  • a respect for learning and for intellectual accomplishment
  • habit of doing work on time and to the best of one's ability
  • powers of sustained concentration, acquired by years of practice
  • confidence in problem-solving, with the skills to solve them
  • a spirit of friendship, teamwork, and healthy competition
  • standards of excellence in written and oral expression
  • acquaintance with heroes and heroism, through history and literature
  • a sense of where we are in history, and how we got here
  • healthy patriotism, with esteem for other cultures and peoples
  • appreciation for artistic beauty of all kinds
  • habits of physical conditioning and healthy living, staying in shape

If, by collaborating with parents, the school turns out men with these traits, it will be a success. The real long-term strategy for our school is the character, conscience, and conduct of our graduates in the decades ahead—how they live as adults.

It follows from all this that the school's program of studies and sports, as such, need not be radically different from that of other schools. The key difference lies in the way things are taught and why. Our school is different because of our aim—the lifelong character and conscience of the children—and our excellent personal service to the parents by collaborating with them for their children's lifelong and eternal welfare.

To sum up, the headmaster acts as a leader. He constantly labors to counteract the ever-present tendency to entropy in a school operation. This is how he serves all the people associated with the school. Leadership is, after all, a form of sacrificial service.

Perhaps we could look here at some useful definitions of leadership. It is worthwhile for any headmaster, especially when confronted with challenges, to remind himself of what his leadership really means:

  • "A leader is a dealer in hope." (Napoleon)
  • A leader helps everyone to form the same picture, especially of the future.
  • A leader has, and conveys, wisdom—the ability to assess and set priorities and know which problems to minimize or ignore.
  • A leader makes things happen that would otherwise not happen.
  • A leader is one who can move people to do what they don't want to do (but must do) and like it.
  • A leader establishes a personal identity with his cause.
  • A leader has profound respect and sympathy for those he leads.
  • A leader knows when to listen, when to explain, and when to act.
  • A leader sets standards and rules, but also knows when to make sensible exceptions.
  • A leader is willing occasionally to stand alone.
  • A leader shows the way out.
  • A leader has to have a great heart, a clear mind, and a thick skin.

Headmaster: Job Description

Here, in outline form, is a description of what a headmaster does—those critically important tasks for which he takes responsibility and over which, therefore, he must exercise authority.

Even a casual glance at the daunting list below reveals that no one person can handle all of these tasks unaided. The headmaster must depend on his management team and delegate many of the jobs to his competent subordinates. Nonetheless, he must diligently supervise these other people's work, for their competent fulfillment of each task is his responsibility. As the business maxim puts it, an executive delegates authority but not responsibility.

Board Relationships

  • Brings to the attention of the Board such matters and information as are appropriate to keep the Board fully informed to meet its responsibilities. This includes suggestions for broad policy development as well as strategies for institutional betterment.
  • Maintains contact with the Board chairman to assure that there are "no surprises." (It is expected that the chairman will also keep the headmaster fully apprised of Board concerns and information.)
  • Functions as chief advisor to the Board, guiding it in the full range of its activities. (In turn, Board and its committees are expected to support the headmaster and his management team.)
  • Suggests philosophic positions appropriate to changes that occur in the community and students served.
  • Serves as chief communicator between the Board and the faculty and staff.


  • Creates and cultivates a strong management team. The headmaster is expected to share and delegate to his immediate subordinates in such a way that this group is prepared to lead the school collectively should the headmaster suddenly become incapacitated.
  • Sets up an internal organization that permits effective communication, up and down.
  • Labors to produce efficient day-to-day internal operation.

Planning and Analysis

  • Develops tactical plans with the help of key members of the management team. Together they undertake studies of pertinent data (financial, enrollment, academic performance, etc.) to facilitate such plans.
  • Encourages "outside perspective" via testings, comparisons with similar institutions, and external analyses and critiques by consultants.
  • Presses the Board to undertake periodic, systematic, long-range planning.


  • Designs, implements, and administers student programs and services and develops systems of scheduling to accommodate these.
  • Sets standards of participation and achievement in each category: academic, co-curricular, character development, student life.


  • Defines the teaching and non-teaching positions needed to carry out the school's programs, and selects and employs competent personnel to fill these positions.
  • Administers equitable systems of compensation, working conditions, training, and development for all school employees.
  • Determines standards and takes appropriate steps to measure and maintain reasonable performance and professional growth among immediate subordinates and, through them, all employees. He dismisses those who fail to meet the standards.
  • Establishes practices and procedures to promote harmonious and constructive relationships among all personnel.
  • Maintains contact with employees (all of them, if size permits) to foster good relations, promote high morale, and identify personnel problems as early as possible. And he encourages similar contact on the part of subordinates.

Program and Service Support

  • Administers efforts that provide sufficient support for student programs. This encompasses general equipment and facilities.
  • Assures that a comprehensive set of records is maintained in accordance with the needs of the school, its constituents, and the legal authorities.


  • Holds general operating responsibility for the safety and well-being of all students under the school's jurisdiction.
  • Approves and administers rules and procedures governing the student body.
  • Works to promote harmonious and constructive relationships among parents, students, faculty, and administrators.
  • Strives to set up and maintain an attractive environment that is compatible with the character of the institution.


  • Presents financial plans and annual budgets to the Board to achieve the objectives of the school.
  • Maintains a system of cost control to foster efficiency consistent with high standards of education and the limitations of the budget.
  • Manages a cost-effective system of purchasing, billing, accounting, investing, and insurance.
  • Recommends tuition rates and salary adjustments annually.
  • Recommends enrollment objectives with respect to student numbers, character, and quality—and executes programs to achieve them.
  • Establishes standards and procedures for student admissions and dismissals.
  • Recommends a suitable scholarship and grant-in-aid program to the Board and executes that program.

Fund Raising

  • Advises the Board with respect to fund-raising needs and plans.
  • Proposes realistic goals for annual, capital, and deferred giving programs.
  • Coordinates fund-raising efforts and events and becomes personally involved in the cultivation and solicitation of major prospects, as needed.

Public Relations

  • Encourages significant alumni, parent, and past-parent participation in events that support the goals of the school.
  • Works to maintain programs that contribute to relations with the local community.
  • Maintains cordial and constructive liaison with other educational institutions (including universities) and associations.
  • Interprets the school and its programs to the public and strives to become the personification of the institution. Acts as spokesman for the school.

Plant Management

  • Supervises the operation and maintenance of all school facilities. Within budget limits, approves expenditures for operation and maintenance.
  • Recommends changes or additions necessary to implement student programs or to maintain desired standards of appearance and safety.
  • Endeavors to ensure that the plant accommodates the program rather than dictates the program or its means of operation.

Relations with Board

Let's begin with a very important background principle, applicable to all of the school's operations: For any organization to operate effectively, authority and responsibility must be in balance. The term authority here means "decision-making power." That is, no one should exercise authority without taking on a corresponding responsibility. Nor should anyone be forced to take on responsibility without having the commensurate authority to carry it out.

Along the lines of this responsibility/authority dynamic, every good school has a division of labor between the Board and the headmaster plus his management team (collectively called the administrative council), those staff members who collaborate with the headmaster in specific delegated ways.

The Board takes on corporate responsibility for the school's viability and long-term welfare. This means it concerns itself directly and exclusively with three large strategic areas:

  • defining the nature of the school's services, along with setting and maintaining its overall mission.
  • maintaining the school's financial solvency
  • planning and acting toward the school's long-term development.

In practical terms, this means that the Board concerns itself with several broad and vitally important tasks: (a) familiarizing themselves with the school's charter and by-laws and, where deemed necessary, changing these according to circumstances; (b) setting tuition, directing all fund-raising activities, approving a budget, making a long-term financial plan; (c) holding the headmaster accountable for effectively carrying out the administrative details of the school's day-to-day operations—that is, how the school's mission is actually effected. To carry out these responsibilities, the Board counts on the headmaster to provide it with timely accurate information.

There seems to be a constant temptation for some Board members, especially when prompted by parents, to intervene in school operations and the headmaster's rightful decisions. This is a grievous mistake. One of the ill effects of Board people involving themselves with administrative details (the headmaster's tasks, spelled out in the previous section) is that their very limited time is thereby misallocated. The Board's large financial and planning responsibilities should consume all their time and attention. If that precious time goes instead into relatively minor tasks, no matter how urgent they may seem at the time, then the Board is failing to do its job and the school thereby suffers. Board people need to be reminded of this: if everyone does his job, and only his job, the school will move ahead. We can't afford to get sidetracked with relatively trivial or irrelevant matters .

It's important, therefore, that people at all levels know what's expected of them—that is, the scope and (especially) the limitations of their responsibilities and consequent authority. If these details are spelled out in writing, specifically in the corporation by-laws (or a protocol addendum to these by-laws), then these constitute what people agree to abide by before joining the Board or school administration. Therefore, if people act out of line, their transgression is evident to everyone; they can be specifically corrected and called upon to stick to their original pledge.

One of the most important protocols is this: It is a cardinal principle of business, not just in schools but in all corporate institutions, that the Chief Executive Officer (in this case, the headmaster) works for the Board as a whole, that is, as a corporate entity. He does not work for, nor report to, nor take directives from, individual Board members. All communication between the Board and the school's administration takes place between the Board's chairman and the headmaster—and this communication, especially in significant matters, is normally done in writing. The chairman alone speaks for the Board as a whole, and the headmaster alone speaks for the school's administration and teaching staff.

It follows from this that any Board member who bypasses this chairman/headmaster channel—that is, who attempts to intervene and direct the headmaster or members of his staff and thus influence school operations—is acting out of line and doing damage to the school. Any Board member who cannot or will not refrain from this intervention should resign from the Board.

All of this means that any Board member who is pressed by a parent to intervene in this manner must tell that parent that this cannot be done, no matter how awkward or socially embarrassing this refusal may be. This whole policy must be understood and accepted ahead of time by anyone who is about to join the Board.

Also, it is standard business procedure to distinguish two types of communication that the CEO (headmaster) provides to the Board.

First are matters that are submitted, usually as recommendations, for the Board's decision and approval. These are things such as the proposed budget and significant changes of school policy (for instance, altering the dress code, introducing a new foreign language or other subject into the curriculum, significant alterations to teachers' pay scale.) Because these matters come directly under the Board's responsibilities (outlined above), the Board makes the decisions. (It is also understood that the Board will act promptly on such decisions and not leave the headmaster in a bind.)

Secondly are informational matters that the headmaster forwards to keep the Board apprised of what's going on in the school, including measures that the administration has rightfully decided upon—matters spelled out in the school's by-laws. The Board needs this information for its dealings with parents and others, but it does not decide the matters or act to alter or veto the administration's (headmaster's) decisions. Examples: hiring and dismissing specific teachers; accepting or dismissing students; setting the school calendar; handling problems with specific teachers, students, or parents.

This crucial distinction—decision matters and informational matters—must be adhered to by all concerned. In informational matters, the Board may get back to the headmaster (via the chairman) and suggest some second thoughts or possible changes. But the Board understands and accepts that he retains the authority to decide. Once again, before joining the Board, prospective members should be informed of all this and agree to it.

What recourse does the Board have if they deem that the headmaster is repeatedly making mistakes or exercising questionable judgment in his decisions? Collectively through the chairman, but not as individuals, they may do the following, and in this order:

  1. Apprise him of this "sense of the Board" concerning the issue in question; this should be done very rarely and only in highly significant issues, and the communication should stick to facts.
  2. Include the issue in question as part of his annual job performance review, while affording him an opportunity to explain his position.
  3. Ask for his resignation.

In other words, the Board does not directly control the headmaster's administration of his duties as spelled out in the corporation by-laws. The Board as a whole—and a fortiori its individual members—may not rightfully intervene in his job, nor bypass him in dealings with parents or teachers, nor countermand his rightful decisions. The Board's only rightful authority is to weigh the headmaster's overall performance and then decide whether to retain or replace him.

Perhaps it would be helpful here to list a protocol of what the Board and headmaster should expect from each other, and to do this in terms of so-called "negative guidelines." A list of "Don'ts" like this is often clearer for all concerned, and it manifests respect for people's freedom.

What should the Board expect that the headmaster will not do?

  • Do not fail to inform us of significant problems with members of the school community, especially troubles with parents and teachers, and what's being done about these problems. In other words, no surprises.
  • Do not fail to submit in a timely fashion those items we need in order to do our job: budget recommendations, suggested policy or by-law changes, projected financial needs that the Board must promptly handle, suggestions for future school development.
  • Do not bypass the chairman in order to lobby individual Board members toward a course of action.
  • Do not discuss Board business or details of Board meetings with anyone except members of the administrative council—and they, too, must respect the confidentiality of Board matters. The "need to know" principle applies here.
  • Do not submit a resignation toward the end of a school year; the headmaster should give the Board at least nine months notice of his intent to step down.

And what should the headmaster expect that the Board and its individual members will not do?

  • Do not assume decision-making power over any aspects of my job that I have exclusive rights to decide upon—that is, the arrangement spelled out in our by-laws that we both agreed upon when I accepted the headmaster position. Most importantly, this includes my decisions in hiring and dismissing teachers, accepting and declining student applicants, and handling disciplinary cases with students and parents.
  • Do not assume an advocacy in behalf of any parent or group who complains to you or appeals to you to intervene in my rightful decisions or job performance. I expect that you will deflect any such appeals and will give such complaintants a tactful but principled refusal to interfere.
  • If you have any problems with my job performance, do not discuss these with anyone outside the Board. I expect our professional dealings to remain confidential.
  • Do not unreasonably delay decisions on pending matters that affect my job, especially approval of, or changes to, the budget I submitted.
  • Do not unexpectedly introduce problems, especially with my job performance, during the course of Board meetings. If there are any problems that people on the Board wish to raise with me, I expect to be informed of this beforehand so that I may come prepared to address them. In other words, I expect that problems will be part of the written agenda circulated prior to the meeting. No surprises.
  • Do not attempt to bypass me and give directives to my teachers or staff.
  • If you decide to ask for my resignation, do not give me less than nine months notice. To fire a headmaster toward the end of a school year, and to do so without significant prior warning, is unjust to him and his family.

Relations with Parents

Your school should have periodic meetings with parents, at least three or four times a year. In addition it would be helpful to set up times when parents may meet with their children's teachers. In the group meetings, we have found, parents most appreciate discussions centered on information useful to them in their role as parents. What must be avoided are abstract "philosophical" talks and anything smacking of exhortation ("You must spend more time with your children," and the like). Parents are bored by theoretical disquisitions and they rather resent preachment.

Parents show up for the meetings, and value them, when they learn something practical and insightful that is presented in an interesting way. They want information, not "formation" as such. So, practical talks on improving study methods, psychology of children and adolescents (to know what is "typical"), how to help children concentrate in studies and write and read better, the complementary roles of father and mother in children's upbringing, procedures for applying successfully to competitive universities, the role of religion in children's moral development, and so on—all these are interesting and much appreciated. What the school does, essentially, is use its enormous store of experience to help parents understand their children's developmental and educational needs. The more these talks are founded on "our experience," the better; no one can argue with experience.

Another tack is simply to explain to the parents what you are teaching their children and why. For instance: "This is what we are teaching your children about confession, working hard and well, sportsmanship, good manners, respecting others' property rights, .... and this is why...." This is a non-threatening, non-hortatory way of conveying important moral and doctrinal concepts. It is actually giving parents formation in the form of information.

Your parents should never form the impression that you are telling them how to do their job. Your approach, rather, should be one of informational service—"in our experience, the following approaches and attitudes by parents have worked successfully with children.... take it or leave it as you see fit." This instruction is a service to parents and it respects their parental rights. In other words, be descriptive, not prescriptive. People want to be convinced, not pushed, to a course of action.

If you follow this approach, each set of parents will come to see the truth about your school: that you care more for the welfare of their children than anyone else outside their own family. If you win them in this way, they will gladly seek out other families to join the school and will gratefully support you.

This being said, we must recognize that sometimes, unfortunately, individual parents, or a small but willful minority, will misjudge their proper role in the school; they will seek to intervene in school operations and make demands to change policies or practices along the lines of their own preferences. Sometimes they will appeal to the Board to enforce their will, very often with the justification that the school is a "parent-run" entity. At times, the headmaster has to deal with these people and convincingly explain why they are mistaken or out of line. This calls for tact and firmness along with a clear articulation of the school's policies and the reasons behind them.

Here are some key ideas that the headmaster should understand and, where necessary, articulate to aggrieved and sometimes unreasonable parents:

All the people involved in the school's governance and teaching staff are committed to service. That is, it's assumed that everyone is willing to undergo sacrifices for the sake of others' welfare and for the success of the school as a service institution. This means, among other things, that people's dealings with each other are characterized by ongoing courtesy, adherance to professional standards, presumption of others' integrity and good will, appreciation for people's earnest best efforts, and respect for others' rights and sensibilities, including (very important) everyone's right to presumption of innocence. Anyone who cannot or will not adhere to these ways of dealing with others is causing damage to the school's common good.

Since no one is perfect, it is a given that some of the school's many complex operations will sometimes be imperfectly done. Mistakes are inevitable. Everyone has flaws, people sometimes make misjudgments, everyone occasionally has a bad day. For this reason, everyone in the school—parents, Board, administration, teachers—must be willing to overlook occasional mistakes, presume integrity and good will on everyone else's part, and keep their eye on the long-term goal to which everyone is committed: the future welfare of the children, their earthly and eternal happiness.

As a corollary, it is also assumed that any parent who repeatedly finds fault with school personnel, and who subjects teachers or staff or Board members to disrespectful or unreasonable treatment, is manifestly out of line with the school's ethos of mutual respect and should, after sufficient warning, be pressed to disengage from the school.

The parents are the clients of the school and receive its institutional services in exchange for tuition. This client-institution relationship defines both the scope and the limits of parents' dealings with the school. Parents do not, as individuals or as groups or as a collective whole, constitute part of the school's governance. The school is run for the parents but not by them.

Because they do not take responsibility for the oversight of teachers' job performance nor the education of other people's children, parents have no authority over the school's dealings with teachers or other parents or other people's children. This means they do not set school policies nor direct its practices—nor should they expect to. Parents, like any other clients of a professional service, may make constructive suggestions to teachers and administration, as appropriate, with respect to their own children's education. And, as in any other professional enterprise, they may certainly suggest improvements in the school's operations. But what they may not do—that is, what they have no right to do—is make demands in areas that lie outside their responsibility and presume the administration's obligation to carry out their will.

To look at the matter another way: A school is not run by parents. It can't be. Each set of parents has the right to decide the education of their own children, but they have no right to decide what happens to other people's children. If a group of parents demand to change policies or practices that affect other people's children, they are acting unrightfully and the school administration must reject their irresponsible intrusion. An analogy here: Patrons of a restaurant have only three choices: they may take what's offered on a menu, or respectfully suggest menu changes to the restaurant's management, or else take their business elsewhere. They have no right, however, to storm into the kitchen and demand that management make changes on the menu to suit their tastes.

In short, any parent who is persistently dissatisfied with the school's services has three choices, and only three: (a) make constructive suggestions in a civil and respectful manner; (b) accept the situation as the best that can be expected under the circumstances and just live with it; (c) resign from the school.

Generally speaking, whenever there seems to be a tone of tension and irate criticism in a school, the fault usually lies with a small handful of individuals. In other words, the problem is less widespread than people believe. (The same holds true in a classroom, where usually only two or three students are behind what seems to be a widespread class problem.) It is worth identifying who these few problem cases are and then deal with them in a "surgical strike" manner. That is, sit down with each couple, husband and wife together, and make clear to them: "We're doing the best we can. Your repeated expressions of dissatisfaction lead us to conclude that we don't have a match here. That is, this is not the school for you. You have only two options: either accept what we're doing and trust us, or disengage from the school."

You can steel yourself for this action by reminding yourself: problem parents and students cost the school money. When you add up the inordinate time that the headmaster and school personnel (including the Board's chairman) must expend in dealing with these people, the cost runs into thousands of dollars a year, possibly even more than these problem parents pay in tuition. This is time and money, moreover, taken away from other families who are reasonable and cooperative—people whose needs are not being attended to because the problem parents are consuming so much of everyone's attention.

One interesting experience we've had in other schools: The school has a "silent majority" of parents who like the school and generally support it. These cooperative people are annoyed by the school's vocally critical parents and quietly resent all the attention they receive through their repeated, bumptious complaining. So when the school acts decisively to put the complainers in their place, or remove them altogether, these other parents are quite pleased. Their support for the school increases significantly and they go out to recruit other good families. When the headmaster exercises strong leadership, everyone has greater confidence that things are under control and that the school is going places.

Relations with Teachers

The teaching staff are the backbone of the school's operations. Since the principal operation of the school is high-quality classroom instruction, teachers must be as professional as possible, respected by parents and students alike. Here are some notes of experience:

A very important point at the outset: Because funds are scarce in a private school, especially for the first few years, the school's governance is often tempted to rely on part-time volunteers, people who are paid nothing, or next to nothing, to help out with some teaching. This is usually a mistake. Though they're nearly always moved by good will, volunteers seldom have the professional expertise and reliability needed for the school to keep its word to the parents—that the school will provide high-quality instructional service to the students. There are exceptions to this generalization, of course, but these are rare. Generally speaking, people who are unpaid will tend to take their work less seriously than paid professional teachers. Moreover, it is awkward for the headmaster to correct them, and they're inclined to absent themselves fairly often from work when they judge that personal exigencies at home must take priority. Besides, volunteers usually require, if anything, more training and supervision than paid professionals, a situation that further burdens the headmaster.

Thus a maxim: In a school, as in any other business, you get what you pay for. (As one wag put it, "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.") If you want to provide your families a high-quality instructional service—which you must do in order to survive—then hire qualified teachers and pay them what they are worth. There is no substitute for experience.

The best way to find qualified teachers who share the school's principles is through networking, word of mouth among friends. Starting from a core of one or two qualified teachers whom you know, along with the recommendations from supportive parents, usually turns up leads to prospective teachers. As in other areas of business life, the best people are found among "friends of friends." Putting ads in the paper seldom turns up much.

If a friend recommends someone as a teacher, though, please be sure that the relationship includes having witnessed the prospect at work for some time. We never really know someone unless and until we see him work. Sometimes friends know an individual socially and think highly of him, but that person turns out to be unqualified as a teacher. Some young person may be morally upright and personally gracious—but completely inept at handling a class full of active adolescents. Esteemed social skills are not necessarily transferable to job performance.

For this reason, it is imperative that all references be checked carefully. If possible, the director should telephone former employers who can vouch for the candidate's competence in the classroom as well as his moral standards. Do not rely overmuch on written recommendations from former employers; these are too often misleading or even malarkey. To get a candid assessment, make a phone call.

Teachers should have a one-year contract for each of the first three years. Thereafter each teacher should have a two- or three-year contract. Follow standard legal forms for such contracts among other independent schools.

The headmaster should provide each teacher with a handbook that details rights and responsibilities, what the school expects from the teacher in exchange for salary. This handbook, plus details of the contract, forms the basis for annual job-performance evaluations leading to renewal of contract or not. Without such a framework, you have no grounds, including sometimes legal grounds, for dismissing a teacher should this become necessary.

Each teacher needs to be directed, heard, advised, and encouraged on an ongoing basis throughout the year, and the director needs a plan for effecting this. If teachers are cultivated and encouraged, they will cultivate and encourage their students—and the parents will be pleased. In schools as in other business enterprises, poor morale nearly always comes from inept management. Nothing can hurt a school so much as a demoralized teaching staff.

As an intrinsic part of their job, teachers must maintain frequent personal contact with parents, by letter or by phone. Even brief contact is much appreciated by parents, and this communication is part of the school's personal service. As noted elsewhere, parents do not want exhortation from the school so much as information; they want to know what is going on with their children in school. So teachers should clearly understand that this communication is one of the top priorities of their job, not merely an ancillary adjunct to class instruction. A significant part of their job-evaluation will include consideration of how they render this service.

Selection and Retention of Students

Selection and retention of students is a particularly important and delicate issue for a headmaster. So this matter calls for detailed explanation.

The school's mission statement determines which students will fit in with the school's program and which will not. The school is not a day-care center or a mere gathering point for children the same age. It has a job to do, a change to effect in the minds and wills and habits of children. Hence the school can work only with students who are amenable to this activity, and it cannot work with students who are not.

If the school is intended by the Board to maintain a challenging academic program, one leading to university studies, then the school may accept only students who can realistically work within this program. This implies some sort of selection procedure, including previous school grades and standardized testing. If applicants fall significantly below these standards, then they ought not to be accepted. Indeed, to accept would be unfair to them and their parents. If slower children, trying as hard as possible, could not keep up with their classmates, they would become discouraged and might even lose the whole school year. Nobody wants this.

But even if the school were open to most students, average and above-average tracked by scholastic ability, there would still be some who should not be accepted. These are children with serious motivation or behavioral problems. Children like this are difficult to work with, even for experienced teachers. For the headmaster, being forced to deal with the problems they create is an ongoing, time-consuming and exasperating burden. Refractory students disrupt classes and require enormous amounts of time and effort to deal with, resources that the school cannot afford. A beginning school will be strongly tempted to enroll practically all applicants, including some "problem students," for the sake of the tuition income. But this is a financial mistake. Indeed, all things considered, troublesome students cost a school money.

There are even more important reasons for selection. It must be remembered that the quality and character of an independent school rests heavily on the quality of its students. No matter how well qualified the teaching staff or how sound the program, if the school enrolls a fairly high percentage of "problem students," it turns into a "problem school" and acquires a reputation that takes years to turn around. To a large extent, the character of a school depends on who is not enrolled there.

A school, therefore, must be extremely careful to exclude "problem students." Reputation in the community is extremely important. If your school selects some of the best students from other schools, and declines "problems" from those schools, then word will get out about your quality. The other schools will certainly not like your taking their better students but at least they will respect you. If, however, you accept "problems" from these schools, then they will hold you in low esteem; the teachers and administrators of these other schools will steer parents away from you.

This is an extremely important point. Please bear in mind, while you are recruiting prospects, that a high percentage (maybe half or more) of the parents who approach you—that is, who are easy to sell—will be parents of problem kids. Their children are not performing well and the parents are looking, sometimes desperately, for a smaller, more personal environment. They are thus eager to have their children enroll with you. Please beware of this situation, which is dangerous to you.

As attractive as these parents may seem (and they're often very nice people), you must principally evaluate their children's credentials and ability to work well in your program. You do this by examining previous years' records (which parents submit) and, if necessary, talking confidentially by phone to previous years' teachers. Remember that the school serves parents but it must work with children; so students must have the willingness and ability to collaborate with their teachers—that is, to meet their teachers half-way. Students who cannot or will not do this have no business being in your school.

Several other schools have made the big mistake of accepting virtually all applicants during the first couple of years. The schools' founders, in good faith and with the best intentions, concentrated on evaluating the parents of applicants, not the children themselves. For this error they paid dearly. The schools wound up with a bipolar student body—that is, many fine kids from good homes but an equal number of poorly motivated and slothful and otherwise troublesome kids. Far too much attention went into crisis-management of these problem cases and the schools almost spun out of control. Parents of cooperative children withdrew in anger and disappointment, and the schools' reputation suffered severely.

Therefore it is imperative that the school's Board and headmaster brace themselves and tighten their belts for the first few years, determined that only provably qualified students will be accepted to the program. This is an investment, really. Though problem kids seem to provide needed funds up front at a time when cash is scarce, they cost the school money in the long run. If a school has too many problem students (more than, say, 2% of overall enrollment), this causes qualified students to leave. If you do not lose students from the bottom, you lose them from the top.

To get qualified students, you must be prepared for a long period of serious selling, for the best students will be the hardest to attract, at least in the beginning. The best technique is to arrange for the headmaster to give presentations in the homes of sympathetic parents, people who invite likely prospects to their homes or wherever else you may meet. The headmaster must have clear, crisp explanations of the school's service and detailed information about personnel as well as the overall program. A scheduled entrance exam or a visit by children to the school can be the next step. A follow-up phone call to the parents can arrange an interview, and people can then be presented with an application form or school contract.

In any event, each family must be sold one at a time. There is no way to do this on a mass basis until the school has such a reputation that crowds of qualified people apply on their own initiative. This may take five years or more, but it pays off.

Students should be enrolled for one year at a time, and each year requires a separate contract. This gives both sides, school and parents, an easy way to terminate relations should this prove advantageous or necessary. It's fair all around.

If the schools opts to require newcomers to put up a no-interest loan, as some schools do to obtain working capital, then it is best that this loan be in the form of a time-mature note, not a "demand" note. That is, the loan falls due for repayment at a set date, usually the year that the student's class graduates, regardless whether the student is still enrolled in the school. The Board needs to budget from that amount and hence must count on having it for a fixed time; otherwise, if parents can withdraw the loan along with their child, the budget is uncertain. This arrangement is fair all around as long as parents understand the terms ahead of time. Reasonable people cannot complain.

In addition, the school must have a student handbook, a clear set of rules for conduct and performance, and this document should be sent to each family. Like everyone else, children need to know what is expected of them; indeed, they have a right to know this. Later, should the student fail to live up to the rules, the school has grounds, including legal grounds, for correction or even termination. Here, as in other aforementioned matters, work from the rules developed in other high-quality schools.

If school officials determine that a student cannot fit in the program and should leave, this termination ought to be done at the end of the school year whenever possible, and as tactfully as possible. Students should not be dismissed during the school year unless this is patently necessary for the common good; the action is too hard on parents and creates serious difficulties for transfer to another school. In any event, the school should ask parents to withdraw their child voluntarily—to "resign," as it were—rather than face expulsion. This approach is easier and more face-saving for the parents involved, however badly they may feel at the time. Later, when matters have cooled, they may come to appreciate the school's tact in handling matters this way.

As noted elsewhere, it is vitally important for the Board to stay altogether out of enrollment and termination decisions, which are made exclusively by the director and his staff. The Board's job is to set and maintain general admissions standards and to supervise how policies are carried out. But they have no say on who is admitted or declined, or who is retained or dropped. This is only fair to the headmaster and staff, who, after all, have responsibility for working throughout the year with individual parents and students. If parents attempt to appeal a decision to Board members, they should be informed of this "hands-off" policy. Any intrusion by Board members in such matters can lead to a great deal of complication and generate much ill will. For these reasons, nearly all educational institutions abide by this professional policy.

To sum up, the secret of a great school is selection. If you aim high for qualified students, you will wind up with a spread of kids going from average to above-average in ability and cooperativeness. But if you aim for some average/middle, maintaining virtually an open enrollment, you will have a student body that is top-heavy with problem cases. So if you keep problem cases out, no matter what the apparent initial cost, you will have an excellent school and a reputation to match within a few years. Then people will seek you out.


With enough money, you can have any kind of school you want. Since money is not easy to come by, you need to keep some experiences in mind.

The fundamental problem with financing a school is this: To educate each child costs from $12,000 to $20,000 or more per year. This is the unit cost, and most families, especially larger families, cannot afford it. So, the big question: Where is this sum going to come from? Tuition? Endowments? Fund-raising? This is the question facing every Board, and it must be answered realistically. It is one thing to hope for miracles, but you must not count on them.

If possible, the school should have an up-front endowment or some sure access to cash on short notice. This means that the school needs some financial backers, whether Board members or not. As we've seen, the Board takes full financial responsibility for the school. This is why it has authority to set tuition, approve budgets, and contract binding financial agreements.

To determine who takes responsibility in any human enterprise, including a school, you answer this question: Who takes the risks? That is, who will get hurt financially if things do not work out?

If finances are precarious in a school—that is, if the Board cannot guarantee payment of salaries and other expenses—then the financial responsibility falls on the faculty. This is unfair. Because the teachers have not set the tuition nor had any other say in the school's finances, they ought not to shoulder the risk of going unpaid. If the Board sets low tuitions and does inadequate fund-raising, they may not rightfully make up the consequent shortfall by underpaying their teachers. This is a compelling reason for the Board to stick to its job, to concentrate on its responsibility of maintaining solvency, and refrain from wasting precious time by attempting to manage internal school operations.

Fund-raising is inevitable in any educational institution, and the Board undertakes this responsibility. It can do this by setting up a committee that will solicit contributions from parents or, more likely, from outsiders who are friends of the founders and parents. Even public schools depend on outside support through taxes—that is, financial contributions from people who do not directly receive the services.

It is necessary to have one staff person who coordinates fund-raising tasks, even if only to track data and make sure that people or payments do not fall through the cracks. It is an important part of the headmaster's job to oversee this task and coordinate with the Board's finance committee.

It's also an important part of the headmaster's job as school spokesman to accompany one or two Board members and meet personally with prospective donors to convince them why they should "invest" in the school. This is time-consuming, to be sure, but a significant and necessary service. It's also, in practice, an interesting and satisfying experience—a way to meet new people and help them to serve those deserving families in the school who benefit from their generosity.

Management and Leadership

Much of the headmaster's job involves overseeing the nitty-gritty details of management—that is, keeping routine operations running smoothly. But he does much more than this. He works as a leader, someone who motivates the ideals of his people and directs them confidently toward achieving those ideals.

A useful distinction of these two areas appears in a thought-provoking book called On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, a well known management consultant. Here are his distinctions:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his eye always on the bottom line; the leader has his eyes on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.


Part II — Procedures

Effective Use of Time

Because a headmaster is Chief Executive Officer of the school corporation, he faces the same problem that vexes nearly all other business executives—that is, how to gain effective control over his time. A headmaster, like most other executives, has so many demands on his attention, often through exigencies and even emergencies, that he finds himself constantly squeezed for time, constantly struggling to control events and keeping events from controlling him.

Much of this is, of course, unavoidable; it comes with the headmaster's job. Nevertheless, he can take certain steps to maximize his time and make the most effective use of it. Let me list some of these here.

If possible, he should not teach a regular course. There is much to be said, certainly, for his "keeping in touch with classroom teaching," and some Board members may advance this as a reason (aside from financial advantages) for his doing some classroom teaching. But to do his main job effectively and with peace of mind, he really cannot afford this distraction. Having to prep classes, talk with students, correct tests and homework, be away from his office for blocks of time during the day—all take valuable time and flexibility away from his headmaster duties. Moreover, if exigencies flare up (as they fairly often do) or visitors unexpectedly drop by, he must sometimes absent himself from his scheduled class or classes, and thus his teaching suffers as well. He and the school are much better off when he can focus all his attention on the very big job of leading the school, because any complex operation, just as with a complex piece of machinery, requires ongoing, alert supervision.

In addition, he should operate from a daily and weekly plan. (See below how to set up a monthly and yearly plan.) High up on his list of "to do" tasks should be frequent conferences with his teachers and administrative staff. Many headmasters find it helpful to make up a weekly plan on the Friday or Sunday afternoon before the week to come, and to set up a daily plan at the end of the previous day rather than first thing in the morning. This bit of distance makes for a calm, rational assessment of upcoming events, much more than devising a weekly plan on Monday or a daily plan at the beginning of each day.

Another approach: Peter Drucker, the prominent management consultant, suggests that, before setting up a plan, an executive should first make a log of where his time goes. That is, spend a couple of weeks studying where your time goes now, where you are currently misusing time through dawdling or lack of delegation or lack of systematic preparation. See Drucker's excellent book, The Effective Executive, which every headmaster should read.

Use your secretary to block out calls and visitors at your optimal time of the day, usually mid-morning. Ideally you need an uninterrupted 90 minutes to think and plan or confer with people. Also, if possible, you should have your secretary stay until 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. to handle the many calls and drop-bys that occur after classes finish.

Use lunch time to confer with teachers and staff. In addition, return calls and e-mails in bunches during the later morning and later afternoon. If you know that someone you're calling is inclined to gab overmuch, make that call the last on your list. Remember that being of service to people doesn't mean being at their beck and call. You are there to serve everyone, not just those parents who make inordinate demands on your time.

Delegate tasks to busy people. It's axiomatic that busy people get things done. (People who seem to have time on their hands will probably let the task slide.) When delegating a job, especially a fairly significant ad hoc task, be sure to specify to that person when he should report back to you, and then note this in your calendar and follow up. Remember, even if you delegate a job, it's still your responsibility; you don't do the job yourself but you must ensure its fulfillment. And always, without fail, express your sincere appreciation for the service.

Monthly & Yearly Calendar

It is said that failure in any enterprise usually comes from failure in at least one of three areas: failure to foresee, failure to learn, and failure to adapt.

The best way to stay on top of routine events is to prepare a yearly planner that foresees, month by month, which tasks need to be effected and by whom, along with indication where relevant materials are kept. This scheme, which should be prepared by the whole administrative council, derives from a log of the ongoing tasks during the year. The people involved in this schematic are the headmaster, secretary, director of guidance, director of development (recruitment), and director of studies. Here is a brief sample from the yearly plan of Northridge Prep: Month: August

Location of materials Task Responsibility
HM Sec. DG DD DS    
        X Book orders DS
  X       Reserve auditorium for parent meetings, plays, etc. Sec.
X         Note to senior parents re college planning & exams HM
        X Prepare master calendar DS
        X Prepare master schedule DS
X X X     Prepare transcripts for seniors Sec/DG

Ancillary Committees

Committees are set up among parents to help out with school functions. These can be quite useful, but not always. Committees need strong leadership and clear focus on results; otherwise they tend to ramble aimlessly in protracted discussion. If possible, you should try to have some say in selecting the committee's chairman, someone who can tactfully channel committee discussion toward decisions and present to members a very clear concept of what you (or the Board) expect the committee to work towards. Draw a picture for the chairman: If everything works right in your committee, this (describe it) should be the end result. In other words, think backwards from the desired result to what the committee should do to achieve it.

If the chairman's strong leadership leads to fruitful committee results, be sure to send a thank-you note to him or her and to the committee members. If the results are less than satisfactory, send a thank-you note anyway for people's generosity with their time.

That being said, there are a couple of caveats for setting up committees, and you may have to warn Board members about these considerations:

It's a general experience that schools function best when social and business matters are kept separate. Social events are for socializing; business events are for business. Committees become a problem for a school when they are set up ostensibly for business purposes but actually (and sometimes in a hidden way) for social reasons—for instance, to become better acquainted with parents, to "get parents more involved," to mollify individuals with grievances, to gather people's "input." A committee set up mainly for these social motives—that is, without a clear, professional mission focused on some real-life problem—can easily become a directionless, fruitless, time-consuming distraction for the school's administrators. Also, it often becomes, unfortunately, a locus for ill-will among some members who don't readily accept the concept of majority vote or who assume that other people are obligated to agree with them.

Related to this, when people serve on committees, they should understand that their role is consultative, not directive. That is, similar to the role of a hired consultant, their job is only to propose suggestions which may or may not be implemented; committee members do not direct or redirect any aspect of the school's operations. If they're unwilling to serve in this consultative way, they shouldn't be on a committee.

Finally, committees work most efficiently when they are kept fairly small, five or six people at most. There's a witty maxim that says: "The efficiency of a committee decreases by one half for each additional member." This is hyperbole, of course, but it contains some truth. The larger a committee grows, the more prone it is to indecision and inaction.

Prepare to Answer Questions

When parents come to interview for the school, you should be prepared to answer the most probing questions they may pose. As the strategic leader of the school, you are expected to have a clear, crisp explanation for the school's raison d'ĂȘtre and its most important operations. In confident language, you need to articulate the school's idealistic vision and how the school functions, in practical terms, to bring that vision about.

Preparing to answer these questions helps, in fact, to focus your own thinking about the school's most significant concerns. Here are some provocative questions you should be prepared for:

  • What is your long-term vision (ideal) for your students' later lives as adults—say, 10 or 15 years after they graduate? How would you describe your students as adults? In what ways would you hope your students would be different from—that is, better than—their contemporaries as a result of the years they spent with you?
  • For what reasons is a student expelled from this school, or at least dropped from the rolls at the end of a school year? Without naming names, of course, could you cite a couple of examples over the past couple of years?
  • If we were to ask other parents what they thought were the school's strongest points and shortcomings, what do you think they'd probably report?
  • How do you recruit and select your teachers? How experienced are they?
  • What do you do to oversee your teachers' quality of instruction?
  • What skills, attitudes, and work habits do you try to have your teachers impart to their students that should last them for years?
  • May we please see copies of some past final examinations in your courses? (Final exams say a lot about a course's content and the teacher's expectations of student performance.)
  • How does homework fit into your teaching? How much is typically assigned? How do your teachers grade it and how soon do they return it to the children?
  • In what ways do you stay in touch with parents, especially when children need help?
  • What percentage of your parents support your school financially or with volunteer help?
  • What would you expect from us, as parents, to collaborate with the school?

Make Time for Breaks

Despite its many satisfactions, the headmaster's job is often stressful and always time-consuming. Aside from the normal 40-hour week, the job devours evenings for meetings and social events and interviews, along with Saturdays and even parts of Sundays devoted to more meetings and catching up with paperwork. The job can easily stretch into a 60+-hour week.

To maintain one's perspective and even sanity, therefore, it's recommended that a headmaster take a day off in mid-week once or twice a month. Stay home or go someplace relaxing, like a museum. Get some exercise, have lunch with someone, catch up on reading or writing or a hobby. From time to time, do something that has absolutely nothing to do with the school.

If you are doing your job as headmaster, the school will go along fine in your absence. In fact, it is gratifying to see that the school manages well even when you're not on the premises. The smoothly running operation means you've set up a sound management team and a competent teaching staff. This is quite an accomplishment and you can take satisfaction in it.

Peter Drucker, in The Effective Executive, recommends taking time off like this occasionally to think matters through. Physical distance makes for calm and clear perspective. You should go apart someplace with some writing materials and think about some significant questions, like these....

  • What should our school be known for? When people in the community hear our school's name, what should come to mind? Sports? Academic excellence? University acceptances? What can we do to keep our own parents informed of our strengths and successes so they can spread the word in the community? Moreover, if parents highly regard writing and public speaking (which they do), and if other schools are deficient in these areas, what can we do to enhance these skills in our school and create an attractive marketing "niche"?

  • What am I doing repeatedly that someone else on the staff could do just as well or better? In other words, what tasks should I be delegating, and to whom?

  • What are the strengths of each teacher, and how could these strengths be better used? An executive builds on people's strengths and doesn't waste time wrangling with their weaknesses, which we all have. So what changes could be made to focus people's strengths more effectively?

  • Who in the school community is being overlooked? We tend to deal mostly with the top people (students, parents, teachers) and with those who pose problems, and then neglect the people in the middle. So who's being neglected? What do they need, and what can be done about this?

  • If everything were going perfectly in the _____ (advisory, sports, parent communications, teacher development), what would be happening? (Describe the ideal situation.) So, what's preventing this from happening?

  • What do we seem to be doing well at the school, and what can we learn from this that we can apply to more problematic areas? Rather than dwell overmuch on problem areas, we should identify our successes and learn from them.

  • Imagine that we had unlimited money and resources. What would we like to see in place in the school five years from now? (Describe it.) We will fall short of our ideals if we don't keep them frequently before us. As Thomas Edison said, "Show me a perfectly satisfied man and I'll show you a failure."

  • Am I asking my teachers often enough, "What do you need from me to do your job better?" An executive's job is to remove obstacles from his people, things that hinder them from doing their best work.

  • Am I showing my sincere appreciation often enough? People's greatest need, in the workplace and at home, is to feel appreciated.

Teachers' Sense of Progress

Much of what a headmaster should teach his teachers is explained in a companion document I've written called the Handbook for Teachers. Here I wish to stress a few basic points:

  • Teaching is a lonely and exceptionally tiring job. Dedicated teachers, if asked, would say that what they want most is for the headmaster to show interest and appreciation for their work. This means your meeting with them frequently, listening to their concerns, giving them sincere praise and thanks, and letting them see you take corrective action to address the problems they raise with you. People will put up with a lot if they see you sincerely care about them and their problems and are really trying to act in their behalf.

  • Show your interest by asking specific questions about their work. We can tell how interested someone is by the number and kind of questions he asks of us. Specific questions show interest, but vague questions signal just formal politeness and indifference. Remember that nearly all professionals enjoy talking about their work. Be sure to ask occasionally: "What do you need from me to do your job better?"

  • Should you sit in on classes? Only if you sense the teacher would be comfortable with this. Raise the question with him and pay attention to his facial reaction. If you sense reluctance, offer the option of listening outside the door for a few minutes, which is actually much more instructive. In either case, whether sitting in or eavesdropping outside the door, be sure to give the teacher advance notice of this, at least a day ahead of time. (Listening is better than visiting. When a headmaster sits in on a class, he creates a kind of "Heisenberg effect." That is, his physical presence changes the ambiance of the class; the teacher is nervous and the students are on their best behavior. You want to learn what's typical, and this situation is anything but.)

  • Encourage your teachers to improve themselves professionally. Give them a day off once or twice a year to visit other good schools. Offer to pay half (at least) of the cost for their enrolling in a summertime professional course or conference. Encourage them to write short articles for the school newsletter. Let them work with other instructors in their specialty (math, science, English) to upgrade the curriculum. In other words, show that you take their work seriously and are pleased with their professional dedication.

  • Remind them fairly frequently that their effort to make their students work well is leading the young people to grow in the virtues through daily practice—sound judgment, sense of responsibility, personal toughness, self-mastery, respect for learning and intellectual accomplishment, respect for the rights and sensibilities of others. These are all strengths that can last a lifetime, long after the students have forgotten the course's specific content. (As the adage puts it, "An education is what you have left over after you've forgotten the material." And another adage from Plutarch: "Education is not a vessel filled, ... it is a fire lit.")

  • If they're having trouble with a disgruntled parent, especially someone behaving unreasonably, back them up. Whenever parents complain to you about a teacher, you should tell them immediately to consult first with the teacher involved. Moreover you should caution them to stick to facts (not assumptions or "impressions"), keep an open mind, and respect the teacher's rights to just and charitable treatment—which means, among other things, respect for his right to presumption of innocence. If they refuse to go to the teacher, you let the matter drop. In other words, the headmaster acts nearly always on appeal of grievances—that is, as last resort, almost never first resort.

  • If your school is fairly new, still in its founding stages, remind everyone from time to time: "We are making history."

  • If a teacher works as a coach and therefore has to attend games at night, try to arrange his schedule so he doesn't have classes first thing in the morning. Sometimes he needs to sleep a bit later and come to school after the day has begun. This is only fair and the arrangement is much appreciated. Otherwise he must put in a 10- to 12-hour day and may be neglecting his family life. Show some consideration.

  • Prompt your teachers to reflect about each of their students by name: What are they good at, some gift or trait that might point to a career? How are they improving in attitudes and performance over time (often overlooked when changes are slow and subtle)? Who needs correction or encouragement? Who, in the middle group, needs more attention and appreciation (for we tend to pay most attention to the "stars" and the problem cases in a class while overlooking the middle group)?

  • Encourage them, too, to give their students a sense of progress during the year. And, with that, a forward look to their later lives: how what they are working at right now will strengthen them later in their careers and family lives. (Young people deeply respect someone who thinks of their futures and has confidence in their steady growth toward successful achievement.)

  • Pay attention to your teachers' personal lives. Remember their birthdays. Lavishly celebrate the birth of their new child. Ask about their families. Lead them to talk about their children, as all fathers love to do. Point out to them that one of the subtle fringe benefits of teaching is to become a better parent, for we learn from the mistakes and successes of the families we know through the school.

  • Very important: Press the Board to invest in the school's future by giving teachers the best salary and benefits possible.

Talks to Students

As mentioned before, the headmaster should not teach a course, largely because this distracts him from his main job. Nonetheless he does a lot of teaching in other forms. It's highly beneficial for him to give a talk to the students once in a while, perhaps four or five times a year, either in an all-school assembly or in visits to individual classes.

The talks work best, that is, impress the students and remain longer in their memories, when several criteria are adhered to:

  • Be brief. Take no longer than 15 minutes to make your point. Remember that young people have fairly short attention spans and as the prominent architect Mies van der Rohe said, "Less is more."

  • Make talks infrequent but interesting, even dramatic. A few punchy talks during the year make more of an impression than periodic (say, biweekly or monthly) disquisitions. Remember, in this as in other areas, relative rarity increases value. Where appropriate, use humor to highlight a point, for good humor is much appreciated by young people.

  • Use the talks to inspire people and to strengthen the power of "We..." That is, remind everyone of the school's ideals and express your pride and hopes and gratitude for the good that everyone is contributing to the life of the school. Lead everyone to rise above the inevitable nitty-gritty problems of the school and envision the big picture: "Thanks to all of you, we're making progress here.... We're proud to have outsiders visit the school... We're making history...."

  • Prepare the talks well. The shorter the talks, the more preparation you need. Take 10% of your preparation time to clarify the main point you want to leave everyone with; then take 90% to come up with illustrative anecdotes, specific examples, appropriate humorous details to make that point come alive in everyone's imagination. Where possible, look to the future; relate your point to the young people's future lives as responsible, competent men.

  • Be careful not to put anyone on the spot. Unless you're presenting an award, don't refer by name to anyone present. But you may congratulate a whole class or team for something deserving appreciation.

Student Handbook of Rules

Every student should have a copy of the school rules (that is, standards of performance) that everyone is expected to live by. For the sake of the community's common good and each student's growth in virtue (judgment, responsibility, self-mastery, etc.), you have the job of enforcing these rules. Because adolescents normally resist rule-giving, you sometimes have to explain the rules' reasonability. You may find the following ideas helpful for these explanations:

  • We have rules in the school because we have a job to do, and this job requires the give-and-take dynamic of team collaboration. Any team enterprise that's focused on a job to be done—whether a business or a family or a sports team—needs a clear spelling out of performance standards so that everyone knows what's expected of him. Without such criteria, people tend to get in each other's way, hamper each other's efforts, and infringe on each other's rights.

  • Whenever a student fails to follow the rules, he steps over a line and infringes on another's rights. For instance, teachers have a right to students' reasonable cooperation in the teaching-learning dynamic. (We expect that students will meet their teachers at least half way.) The school has a right to students' integrity, for without mutual respect for integrity, in the professional workplace as in a school, there's no basis for doing business. Moreover, everyone, including the school's administration, has a right to have his person and property treated with respect. In other words, the whole of moral development means going from "self" to "others," and the rules spell out the rights of others—the lines where self-interest must give way to other people's rights and welfare. This is the way things work in the world.

  • We endeavor to assure that the penalties for non-compliance (that is, punishments) are reasonable and impersonally administered. We try to correct the fault, not the person; we "hate the sin, love the sinner." We bear no grudges or personal ill-will. Once the penalty has been done and the injustice righted, we are willing to forgive, make a fresh start, and move on. This is the way honorable men deal with each other.

  • If any student thinks he has been treated unfairly (and this may happen), he has the option of appealing the matter for reconsideration, either directly to the director of studies (or headmaster) or indirectly through his class officers. We are willing to listen, and if necessary set things straight, with two provisos: (a) the student gives factually based reasons why he thinks he's been treated unfairly (being emotionally upset is not reason enough because certainly no one enjoys being corrected); and (b) he is civil and respectful in his complaint.

The Minds and Hearts of Adolescent Men

Adolescence is an immensely important time of life. It is no exaggeration to say that the habits formed, the friends made, and the ideals enkindled during adolescence have lifelong consequences. Pope John Paul II has compared the time of youth to the switching yard of a railroad terminal: just as the small flicking motion of a few switches will determine the course of a train's journey and its final destination, so too those few critical choices made during adolescence—commitment to a moral life, internalized spirituality, the call to marriage or celibacy, the pursuit of a career—will determine the course of one's life.

Because we strive to help form the minds and hearts of adolescent boys (young men, really), leading them to the choices that build responsible Christian adulthood, it is worthwhile to consider some characteristic features of behavior and attitudes among people this age. The generalizations listed below derive from the experience of people who have worked closely with adolescent males. These views are, of course, opinionable and open to qualification; and, like most generalizations about people, they admit of exceptions in real life.

The term "adolescent" originally meant "young adult," and in former times this term was meant literally. That is, a young person over the age of 13 or 14 was considered an adult in most senses, capable of taking on significant adult-level responsibilities. Today in Western society, a male between 13 and 18 is considered and generally treated by society as a large child, a person with the powers of adulthood but the dependence and irresponsibility of childhood. In past eras, an adolescent would quickly take on adult-level responsibilities shortly after he grew during puberty to have the bodily and mental powers of adulthood, and the eager desire to exercise these powers and to grow up. Today these powers, and the psychological drives that naturally accompany them, have nowhere to go, no outlet for exercise; the result in many teenage males is boredom, restlessness, reckless hedonism, and certain tensions between themselves and responsible adults. (Boredom nearly always derives from having a power that is going unexercised—a strength of some kind that is steadily "on idle.")

The psychology of a male aged 13 to 18 is thus naturally directed toward discovering and exercising his powers, being accepted by his peers and adults as worthy of respect for his competence. Even the rough horseplay, reckless daring, desire to try new adventures, sensitivity to criticism, daydreaming about the future, delight in criticizing illogic or (perceived) hypocrisy among adults—all these attitudes and actions derive from the drive to grow up and to be perceived as grown up. Boys have a drive to put their newfound powers, and those powers as yet undiscovered, to productive use. Unconsciously they long to be needed—and in fulfilling that need by their competence, to win everyone's respect.

Adolescence is a time for finding oneself and giving oneself wholeheartedly to some great ideal. An example: In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, the historian James Thomas Flexner described what was happening in the mind of Hamilton as a teenager just beginning his career in New York. Flexner said that Hamilton was "moved by two opposite desires: to prove himself completely self-reliant, proudly independent of the outside world, and to merge his identity with some potent force outside himself."

For all these reasons, anyone who works with adolescent young men needs to maintain certain attitudes and approaches to dealing with them.

  • Treat them like men in the making, not children. That is, treat them with respect, as you would any other adult. Respect their sensibilities and their rights, including their right to privacy and freedom of decision. Lead them, and don't try to boss them. By all means, come down to their level from time to time, as in games and sports and joining in their high spirits, but don't stay there. Come down for the sake of leading them back up to your own level as an adult who enjoys being an adult. Adolescent males respond very well to a self-confident adult who considers them to be adults who have everything but experience. Bear in mind, too, that almost no one else treats them this way.

  • Lead them to think deeply about their future lives, including their future responsibilities. Remember that all of them will someday have family responsibilities, whether married (as most will be) or dedicated to apostolic celibacy. Thus open their eyes to see how their present striving to develop themselves spiritually, intellectually, physically, professionally, and so on (the range of formation in our work with youth) is preparing them for great service to their future families, the Church, and society. Explain how their family, the Church, Christ Himself needs them, and needs them starting now. In other words, take their natural striving to grow up and direct it towards the highest ideals of manly Christian service. Give them a vision of their future lives as responsible heads of families and competent professionals, men who earn everyone's respect. Make clear to them that you think seriously about what kind of man each will be by the time he is in his 20's and 30's. (The rest of society, maybe including their parents, does not impart this vision; others who think of their future are thinking of what they will do, not what they will be—their careers rather than their character.)

  • Be very patient. There is an inevitable amount of uncertainty and emotional instability among adolescents, caused partly by their body chemistry. Psychologists note that the odd-numbered years for boys (13, 15, 17) are periods of inward turning and sulkiness, mild (sometimes strong) melancholy and moodiness, critical spirit toward authority, insecurity, a desire to be alone sometimes to daydream and to think things over. By contrast, the even-numbered years are characterized by exuberance, gregariousness, eagerness to learn and experiment, high-spirited risk-taking. Thus a teen who is cooperative during freshman year of high school (age 14) may inexplicably seem withdrawn and touchy the following year, but then drift back during junior year, showing ups and downs in his emotional commitments. We have to understand this natural dynamic, live with it, give young people freedom, and maintain a steady willingness to be a friend no matter what. The more uncertain teenagers are—and uncertainty is the characteristic trait of adolescence—they more they need, and inwardly appreciate, our certain, steady, respectful friendship and our confidence in their future success as men.

  • Give them outlets for their growing intellectual and moral powers. Lead them to excellent, thought-provoking reading, especially history and biography and apologetics, all to strengthen their judgment and firm up their consciences. Let athletics be a way for them to learn teamwork, fair play, sportsmanship, all to strengthen their virtues of responsibility, perseverance, and temperance (self-mastery). Involve them in making and executing plans for projects in the school life—so they can put their powers to productive use and thus grow in responsibility, being needed. Take them on visits to the poor, and involve them in teaching catechism, tutoring youngsters worse off than they—so they will grow in gratitude to God (the basis for all piety), generosity, practice in adult-level service to those in need.

  • Always bear in mind the power of example. It is example and guided practice that will do most to form them in virtue, not just talks. Talks are only effective when they explain the reasons for what the teens see and perceive in our lives, in the life of the school. This means, among other things, that each person who works with the boys should be striving to live a virtuous life himself, to let the boys see how a responsible adult lives the seven great virtues of faith, hope, charity, sound judgment, responsibility, perseverance and self-mastery. The boys should see us enjoying ourselves and enjoying their company. What they should not see in us, ever, is childishness, frivolity, vulgarity, amateurish sloppiness, or an overeagerness to "impress" or amuse them. If they do perceive these things, they may be temporarily amused, but they will not respect us and eventually they will ignore us. Respect, along with God's grace, is everything. There is such a thing as healthy self-respect, and this they should perceive in us.

  • Remember what Aristotle said about the formation of youth: Strictly speaking, virtues cannot be taught, but they can be learned. Young people do not learn virtues in the abstract; what they do is unconsciously emulate virtuous adults whom they esteem. They are looking for a life to imitate. They do not ask themselves, "What rules should I live by?" Rather, they ask themselves, "Who lives a great life? Whom do I want to be like?"

  • One note of experience: Adolescent boys have powerful imaginations, and nature directs this power to make them alert to life-lessons in dramas all around them, including stories they hear. People of all ages enjoy and learn from stories that exercise the moral imagination. Thus adolescents are very open to being formed through stories and anecdotes. So classroom discussions, talks, meditations and homilies, conversations, any verbal discourse—all these should have stories, anecdotes, examples that show the virtues being lived one way or another. Meditations should center on the gospels, making the stories therein come alive for the boys. Talks should give examples from lives of heroic people, including the saints. All these are far more instructive and readily accepted than cognitive expositions of moral and doctrinal matters. Therefore, whoever plans talks or meditations should spend 90% of the preparation time in coming up with illustrative anecdotes and vivid, even humorous, examples. This sort of preparation should probably be done with all talks to any age group, but it is especially important and effective with adolescents.

  • Among the intellectual powers that adolescents rapidly acquire is that of making abstract distinctions. Young children have fuzzy minds and tend to form judgments on the basis of emotions and self-interest. Teens are capable of forming abstract ideas and contrasting their meanings. This is one reason they like logical disputation and are fond of pouncing on lapses of logic in others' thinking. It's no accident that higher education in the Middle Ages centered on making distinctions and probing for logical fallacies. (See, for instance, the works of Thomas Aquinas.) Take advantage of this natural abstractive power to teach the great distinctions in life. Here are some important intellectual and moral distinctions that young people can and should internalize:

    • needs from wants
    • objective from subjective
    • real grown-up life from life as depicted on t.v. and in movies
    • humor and wit from mean-spirited ridicule
    • the noble and beautiful from the sordid and squalid
    • responsible spirit of service from immature egoism
    • shrewdness and healthy skepticism from cynicism
    • heroes from "celebrities" and entertainers
    • rule of law from personal despotism
    • courage from cowardice
    • calculated risk-taking from recklessness
    • professionalism from careless sloppiness
    • reasoned opinions from "feelings"
    • proven fact from assumptions and "impressions"
    • healthy self-respect from vanity and pride
    • reasonable enjoyment from self-indulgent excess
    • love from eroticism
    • tact from offensive bluntness
    • courtesy and good manners from boorishness
    • integrity from disregard for truth and keeping one's word
    • honorable competition from ruthless ambition
    • love for family and friends from selfish individualism
    • Christian moral life from materialism

  • In addition, adolescents generally respond well to the notion that all moral growth consists of growing from "self" to "others." They understand from experience that children say, "What can you do for me?" but adults say, "What can I do for you?" They readily accept the notion that we don't grow up when we can take care of ourselves. Rather, we really grow up only when we can take care of others, and want to.

  • Teens also respond well to the following discussion about materialism:

    The life-outlook of materialism does not mean, as many believe, merely the ambitious pursuit of things: fashionable clothes and cars, trendy expensive gadgets, a hefty portfolio. This sort of consumerist lust is only part of the problem. For after all, and as we've all experienced, many well-off people can possess all sorts of things without being materialistic.

    Materialism really means seeing and treating other people as things. Materialism considers man (in the philosophical sense) as merely an object, a clever beast. This is where the evil lies.

    The life-outlook of materialism has corollaries that directly affect the way people live and treat other human beings:

    • Life ends with death, so there's no reward or punishment in any afterlife.
    • We answer to no Higher Power for the way we live; we answer only to the law, if they can catch us.
    • We can do anything we want to anyone, as long as it's legal.
    • Conscience is just a bundle of sentiments.
    • Morality is merely social convention.
    • "Rights" are nothing but disguised interests and rationalized power-grabbing.
    • Since people are just objects, then whatever things we want—money, possessions, fame, power—can come ahead of people.
    • Work is for ego and money, and money is for power and a pleasurable life.
    • The only real evil is pain.
    • Life has no purpose but the pursuit of pleasure and power.

This heartless and Godless outlook on life—the belief that man is a beast—is the exact antithesis of Christian morality, indeed of elementary decency among people of good will. Yet we find it promoted aggressively in many business and professional affairs, in elements of the media and in public life. Today we even find it seeping its way like acid into family life.

In a sense, this materialistic outlook comes from growing up without internalizing those significant invisible realities that lead to Christian life: God, the soul, honor, integrity, courage, conscience, and the rest. Young people who internalize nothing about the spiritual dimension of life will entrap themselves wholly in the material; as adults they will live as technically skilled barbarians. Their life will center on themselves and their senses, their ego and their possessions. They'll never progress from serving self to serving others.

  • Another concept they grasp, related to the above, is that of sizing up people according to their values. We can explain it this way:

To assess someone's values means to judge what his or her priorities are in life. That is, when considering the main things in life that people really prize and live for (as listed below), which of these come ahead of the others? When we weigh someone's values, which of these things are consistently foremost in that person's heart, which are subordinate, and which are scarcely even considered at all?

  • friendship with God, commitment to living a moral life
  • welfare of family and friends
  • country
  • money
  • truth
  • satisfying, service-oriented work
  • career advancement
  • comfort and convenience
  • fame and glory
  • addictive substances
  • pleasure and amusement
  • power over others
  • safety and security
  • conformity: acceptance by others, being fashionably "with it"
  • vengeance

Adolescents can internalize this framework and apply it in many ways. In first place, obviously, is to help them set their own priorities in life. They can use it to assess persons in history, literature, and in public life, as well as people they know now and will meet later in their lives. It's also a vital basis for one of the most important choices they will make in life: to marry someone who shares their own values—that is, whose priorities are identical with their own—and no one else.

Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this material for non-commercial use.
It is taken from the Website of James B. Stenson, educational consultant:

Email this folio to a friend:
Your name:
Your email:
Recipient's email:

James B. Stenson
Educational Consultant
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts


Listen to a speech by James Stenson: "Successful Fathers" (new)

Organizing and Running
a Parent Discussion Group


Advice for Fathers (new)

Born to Serve, Not to Shop--
Effective Parenting in a Nutshell

Danger Signs: Families Headed for Trouble

How Does a Father Protect His Family?

Table Manners for the Home

A Father's Unity of Life

Professionalism & Workplace Savvy

The Vision of Parent Leaders

Family Rules: The Power of "We..."

Discipline: What Works and Why

Coming Down the Home Stretch--
How Parents Deal Effectively with their Adolescent Children

For educators:

The Headmaster as Leader: Notes about Leading a Secondary School for Boys

Practical Handbook for Teachers: Some Notes of Experience about Teaching

Important Questions for Teachers

What is a Good School?