Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Treating Teachers Like Grown-Ups

It'll take me a while to collect all my thoughts on the "Leading Toward A Sustainable Future" workshop this afternoon at the NAIS 2010 Annual Conference. I led off with some collective wisdom on school leadership that I amassed for the "Alive & Well" online advisory, then Pat Bassett spoke in detail on financial modeling and how schools need to prepare to face "The New Normal" of limited resources. The interactive part for the good-sized audience (about 63 for a session originally planned for 40) was a panel presentation featuring school heads Vance Wilson of St. Albans (DC), Merry Sorrells of St. Paul's Episcopal School (LA), and Katherine Dinh of Prospect Sierra (CA). Paul Miller of NAIS moderated, and I filled a seat at the far end.

I was gratified that one of the themes I had identified, "Treat adults--especially faculty--like grown-ups," surfaced several times in the panel discussion. The point is that schools need to trust that adults in the community, and in particular teachers, are able to "handle" complex and complete information about finances. Katherine Dinh referred to addressing "the elephant in the room"--possible layoffs or salary reductions-- when discussing possible ramifications of the economic downturn with her faculty (but it all turned out fine), and Wilson and Sorrells urged those in attendance--mostly heads--to do the same.

It used to be considered axiomatic that independent school teachers would either be frightened by or simply wouldn't be able to grasp finances, and so the benevolent paternalists of olden times kept these details from teachers. Thus, a teacher might not know until the last moment that his or her job was at risk, or--worse--rumors took the place of real information. Anyone who thinks teachers don't think about or understand money is badly misinformed, and on any faculty the combination of financial uncertainty and administrative secrecy about money matters is a powerful cocktail, toxic to morale and efficacy like almost no other.

I like to believe that the days of such "benevolence" have long passed, but that may not be true. But there is enough economic uncertainty in the world at large to make it more important than ever for schools to make a point of sharing financial information--including uncertainty--with their faculties and staffs.

There was plenty more to think about in today's session, but it's nice to think that leadership for a sustainable future now officially includes treating teachers as if they might be capable of understanding the financial contexts in which their schools operate. It's just too bad that this message still needs sending.


Charlie Roy said...

It's interesting to read your comments on sharing the financial information about a school's operation with teachers. Back in November for the first time we shared all the information regarding the school's endowment, operational cash flow, financial strengths and weaknesses. Afterwards our teachers were very thankful for having been provided with this information and left with a deeper understanding of how our school continues to be funded.

I'd argue financial transparency in schools could never be a bad thing.

William Stites said...

Couldn't agree more. Our school (MKA) is going through similar discussions with faculty and clarity is key to having faculty and staff understand what's happening in the school.