Supporting International School Directors

Peter Welch, the director of the American International School of Bucharest, Romania delivered a workshop this morning during the spring CEESA directors meetings. Peter’s main message was that school leaders need to have a network of support around them.

Directing a vibrant, well-resourced, diverse international school community is such an honor and privilege. Every day, we have the opportunity to profoundly impact the lives of colleagues, students, and parents. With this meaningful work comes also much emotional energy, stress, and mental and physical challenges. Peter pointed out that in our roles as head of school, we face the following conditions:

  • Constant change (TIS average turnover is 100 students (and their parents) and 15 foreign faculty and staff annually)
  • Huge range of risks that we need to manage
  • The stress of being “public property”
  • Extraordinarily varied communication environment (I started my career as a biology teacher and now I am negotiating multimillion-dollar construction contracts.)
  • Changing board members and nurturing our relationships with them.

The stress on international school heads is increasing over time and creating an emerging crisis of leadership. The study cited below from 2011 showed that the average tenure of an international school head is under 4 years. Peter said that it is even less today. Heads are leaving the profession at an unprecedented rate. Much of it is due to school boards that administrators report to being mostly made of non-experts who may be biased due to having children in the school with limited time and energy due to their day jobs and they are changing regularly. The vast majority of board trustees I’ve worked with have been good people who have the best interests of the students and school guiding their actions. They are just put into a difficult position to govern the school under these conditions.

Quantitative and qualitative data from the 83 chief administrators who participated in the study suggests that the average tenure of an international school chief administrator is 3.7 years… (2011)

What can be done to help international school leaders? I am not sure much can be done regarding the system of international school governance. That is a whole other workshop. What Peter focused on in the workshop was the idea of directors thinking about their own network of support. The diagram below shows that directors need people around them to talk through issues and problems, people to encourage them, and people and ideas to inspire and give guidance. The biggest missing piece was to find people to listen to and converse with without judgment.

We discussed the fact that one of the most precious resources at a school is the director. The head of the school usually is the highest-paid employee and boards should be thinking of the head as a precious resource. They must be protected and nurtured to help push the business forward. This led to a conversation about executive coaching. The term “executive coach” might not capture the role. Alternative terms include mentor, ally, critical friend, associate, etc. One director in the meeting has an executive coach and he values the objective, independent voice that filters and makes sense of what is happening in a complex international school community and gives you advice on what actions to take.

There were two resources mentioned in the workshop. The first is the work of Richard Lewis, an expert in cultural intelligence and global communications. His chart to the left summarizes general communication styles in different cultures. I’ve worked mostly in the “Multi-Active” cultures which Uzbekistan fits right in. Prior to coming to TIS, I was in Japan which is a “Reactive” culture. I am from an American style of communication “Linear-active”. There is a lot to unpack here and it might be worth my time to read his seminal book, When Cultures Collide.

The other person mentioned was Viv Grant who is a UK-based school leader coach.

In the CEESA region, the chief executive of the school is referred to as the “director”. In other parts of the world, the CEO may be referred to as “head”, “head of school”, “headmaster”, or “lead teacher”.

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