Please enjoy this post by guest blogger Mark Crotty, Head of School, St. John's Episcopal School, Dallas, Texas:
When Chris gave me the topic for my guest appearance on his Aspiring Heads blog—the first big surprise—ideas raced through my head. I slowed my thoughts and realized none have been true surprises in the standard head-of-school sense. That has a negative connotation. Certainly there have been things I didn’t expect, issues I had not foreseen, and items which have disappointed and even scared me a bit. I can’t share the most disconcerting ones. As I explained to some faculty who expressed their wish for transparency from the new head, they wouldn’t really get it, but they would get a degree of opaqueness. Confidentiality and privacy simply can’t be violated. Certain anecdotes would prove too embarrassing to the people involved.
I haven’t been totally surprised for a few reasons. One is simply my innate tendency to remain calm. I’ve prepared for this role for a long time, debating for years whether to take the leap. Several people served as powerful mentors along the way, from the very first days of my career. I’ve studied a great deal in every way possible—observation, workshops, conferences, reading, interviews, visitations, projects, reflection. So I went into this with my eyes pretty wide open. I understood completely when my previous boss said I’d see the best and the worst of human nature. To some extent that’s already happened. I also know that the first “Oh #*@!” moment is coming.
What I wasn’t ready for is the regular disequilibrium that I feel. I expected it to some degree, but it is almost constant. Whenever I feel as if I’m hitting my stride or moving into some sort of flow, I lose balance again.
I grew up playing soccer, and I steadily ascended the ranks. With each step up—better clubs, college, adult, semi-pro—there was always an adjustment. The pace quickened; the physical contact and demands increased; pieces shifted faster and more frequently. Eventually it would begin to feel just like the game I’d always played. Players could tell fairly soon if they could compete, as the markers of success were quite clear, although not always measurable.
The move to headship strikes me as very similar…except the sense of success is much more elusive. Even when I feel it, I still wonder. Here I am, functioning as the school’s leader, at the same time I am just beginning to understand its culture. I desperately want to do well, but I wonder how I am doing. If I am complimented, I wonder why and whether others feel that way. I imagine what I’m not being told. I don’t sweat just the big decisions; I deliberate on the small ones because I know each move and word carries extra weight. Even a basic memo takes longer to write. I worry about how long people will let me get away with not recalling everyone’s face and name and story. I weigh the attention I give to faculty and administration and board and students and spouse and my own children and pray I’ve meted it appropriately.
The list could go on. Experienced heads have told me this is perfectly normal. This helps. But even their advice, while welcome and well-intentioned, adds to the disequilibrium. Some say be patient and spend a year learning; others, strike immediately, while you have the most credibility. Some say focus on internal affairs first; others, spend most of your time on board issues. Some recommend micromanaging; others emphasize delegating.
So what does one do? Try to do it all, and eventually you’ll grow dizzy. You have to hit your own stride. I have found that it helps me to have what I’ve learned to use like a mantra. I’ve come to think of it as my P-Statement: You are in this place for a certain purpose at this point in time because of the person you are.
This helps me re-center myself. I regain that balance and move forward. I can refocus on the long view and, as people have told me I seem to do, float through difficulties. When this happens, I am once again surprised anew by the joy I experience in being a head of school.