InFocus 1: Headship Transitions

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HEADSHIP TRANSITIONS IN INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS & US INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS Pearl Rock Kane, EdD, Klingenstein Family Chair Professor and Director, Teachers College, Columbia University Justin Barbaro, PhD, Assistant Director, Teachers College, Columbia University



KEVIN J RUTH ECIS Welcome to InFocus, our new occasional paper series. Here you will find in-depth thinking and research in the form of essays, articles, or reports that contribute to debate on specific issues of import to international and internationally-minded schools, organisations, and systems. Our authors range from ECIS special interest group members to professors to accomplished consultants to education practitioners who have undertaken research as part of a professional development experience. This series approach allows us to put succinct research and thinking into your hands quickly. In the dynamic world that is international education, we wish to help you cut through the noise and attend to those signals with distinct strength, giving them your full consideration as a professional. We believe that research plays a vital role in the lives of our members, no matter your school size or location. Given our wide-reaching network of institutions and individuals, we are uniquely positioned to undertake research that goes beyond – whether that means going beyond the confines of specific curricula, beyond the mental and/or physical borders of nations, or even beyond what we term “international” schools. Papers of special significance will be translated into one or more of the following languages, so as to increase their reach and to allow for greater impact: Arabic, French, Mandarin, and Spanish. It is, in effect, another way that we intend to go beyond in our approach to sharing thinking and research across the world. Toward better things, always,

Kevin J Ruth, PhD, is executive director of ECIS





HEADSHIP TRANSITIONS IN INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS AND US INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS Pearl Rock Kane, EdD, Klingenstein Family Chair Professor and Director, Teachers College, Columbia University Justin Barbaro, PhD, Assistant Director, Teachers College, Columbia University

First year international school head: I arrived and just at that time it looked like the U.S. was going to be dropping bombs in (Middle Eastern country). And then the question was, Well how is the (country’s) response going to be to bombs dropping in (country) and particularly how is Hezbollah going to respond to Westerners? So I’m in this brand new role, I’m also trying to be the voice of calm and reason for the new hires who are scared to death about what’s about to happen. And I knew nothing. I was looking for the-- where’s the book that tells me what I’m supposed to do here? Who am I supposed to call? And I had a little help from some people in school, but I had no connections with the embassy at that time. I had no connections with security people and now I’m not feeling very confident about all these things. That was real trial by fire to get in here. I’m an experienced school head and all of a sudden I know nothing. How am I going to be helpful to anybody?

First year U.S. independent school head: We’re in a major--in a sort of crisis here...There was evidence before ‘08 that current families were not re-enrolling. Our attrition went up to 18%, then 19% before the crash, and of course that didn’t improve through the crash. So we were in free fall a little bit. We’re doing much better now, and we’re back to 9%... It’s a nose-dive. You’re pulling on the wheel and you’re making great effects, but the ground’s still there. These descriptions were voiced by two recently appointed heads in response to the question, “What is the greatest challenge you are confronting in your job?” Both school heads participated in our study of headship transitions in international schools U.S. independent schools. Our investigation was designed to find out how headship transitions can be planned and executed to enhance the school and contribute to the success of an incoming head. The study was prompted by an impending frequency of leadership transitions in international and U.S. independent schools. The purpose of this study was to collect and analyse the perspectives of international and U.S. independent school heads currently in the midst of transitioning in order to better understand the understand the factors affecting these transitions and to glean insights into effective ways to plan and manage these high stakes organisational events. As defined here, international schools represent independent forand non-profit community based schools, offered to children of internationally mobile professionals and an increasing number of

host national children, and where English is the primary language of instruction. Both high rates of international headship turnover and the development of new schools provides unprecedented challenges and opportunities. The Journal of Research on International Education (JRIE) estimates the average headship tenure in international schools at 3.7 years (Benson, 2011) and current projections of accelerating change estimate the number of international schools will increase almost 450% from 2,584 in 2000 to over 12,000 by 2024 (Benson, 2011; ICEF Monitor, 2014). The short period of headship persistence, nationally and internationally, coupled with the increasing number of international schools worldwide suggest that headship transitions represent frequent organisational occurrences requiring concerted attention. Regarding U.S. independent schools, 68 percent of sitting U.S. independent school heads responded that they planned to retire or change jobs by 2019 (NAIS Leadership and Governance Report, 2009). We are in the midst of that transition and the numbers may accelerate as the population of baby boomers who delayed retirement in response to the financial crisis leave their jobs. Job persistence rates also remain lower than in previous years. The average headship tenure has dipped slightly, with current heads serving an average of 12.6 years while their predecessors held the headship role for an average of 13.1 years (NAIS Leadership and Governance Report, 2009). These numbers contrast with the situation encountered in international schools, where a constant churn in headship jobs and increasing opportunities in new schools may have implications for U.S. independent schools. A comparative study of international and U.S. independent school transitions offers several advantages. The exponential growth of international schools has implications for U.S. independent schools and U.S. educators. Teachers and administrators are being aggressively recruited to fill a growing need for school personnel. The findings of sector differences should be illuminating to those contemplating such moves. As boundaries between the two sectors become more fluid, enthusiasm for potential advantages of fostering globalism may be diminished by potential losses of talent. And while we did not set out to study the implications of short tenure on international schools the findings may be instructive as job persistence in the U.S. headship declines. On the micro level, transitions are major events affecting every school constituent - teachers, administrators, students, parents and the wider school community. A poor match can undermine morale, destabilise a school community and put a strain on finances for severance pay and search firm fees. For a school head, an unsuccessful transition that results in dismissal may thwart a career in school leadership. Despite the potential impact, there is minimal empirical research concerning how schools and heads plan for and execute smooth transitions.

Methodology Our research study utilised data collected from forty-four interviews (n=44) with transitioning heads of school in their first or second years on the job, including twenty-eight (n=28) international school heads and sixteen (n=16) independent school heads. We interviewed more international school heads than independent school heads because there was more variance in responses from international school heads rather than independent school heads. Therefore, it took longer to find central tendencies emergent from the international school data than from the U.S. independent school data. Additionally, we purposefully selected heads for inclusion in our study based on a diversity of personal factors (gender, nationality, professional experiences, etc.) and school characteristics (location, size of school, state of school, etc.) in order to increase the generalisation of findings to the larger population of school heads. International school heads came from all inhabited continents outside North America, with 12 from Europe, 10 from Asia, 3 from Africa, 2 from Central/South America, and 1 from Oceania. Transitioning heads were selected from lists generously provided to us by ECIS in the United Kingdom and the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in the United States.


IN FOCUS We interviewed each transitioning head either in person or via Skype using a nineteen prompt interview protocol, and each interview lasted between forty-five and seventy-five minutes. In addition, we also interviewed seven (7) board chairs and eight (8) search consultants to gain their perspectives on the transition process. Our analysis involved an open coding of each verbatim interview transcript in order to generate initial themes. We then authored narratives synthesising each case of transitioning followed by conducted a cross-case analysis of narratives.

Findings: International and U.S. independent commonalities

The fourth and final phase of transition, the second 90 days, lasts approximately the length of the second semester, during which time the head of school works to achieve first year goals set by the board.

Phases of transition Several key findings emerged after more than 50 hours of interviews with transitioning school heads, governance board chairs and headship search consultants. The first major commonality between transitions in both contexts involves the discovery that the transition period occurs in distinct phases over a much longer period of time than suggested by the abundance of popular books and articles marking the transition period as the first 90 days on the job (Watkins, 2003). In addition, we found that there exist four distinct phases during the 1.5-2+ year headship transition in both contexts: pre-entry, arrival, the first 90 days, and the second 90 days.

Family arrives

Signed contract

Nov 2014

The third phase encompasses the first 90 days on the job, roughly equivalent to the first school semester in the headship. While the board usually provides directives for the year, the school head must first get to know administrators and faculty, establish a relationship with the board chair and key board members and learn about how the school functions. In the process heads discover realities about the school, some which had not been previously disclosed to them. In the case of the heads we interviewed these undisclosed realities sometimes included financial challenges that were more dire than described and challenging personnel problems. The intent of most heads during the first 90 days is to build credibility and achieve small wins but some of these challenges required their immediate attention, diverting them from accomplishing their goals.


Minimal transition assistance That transitioning heads received minimal transition assistance in both contexts represented the second major shared finding of our research.

1st day of school



2nd semester ends

1st semester ends

1st work day on site

Site visit

Jan 2015

In most cases, the completion of this phase corresponds with the end of the school year ends and the board’s first formal evaluation of the head’s work.


1st formal evaluation

2nd semester begins


Jan 2016






First 90 days

The pre-entry phase extends from the moment of hire (signing a contract) until the arrival on campus. This phase, lasting approximately five to six months in U.S. independent schools and eight to nine months in international schools, characteristically involves the newly hired head in communication and one or two direct meetings with key administrators, board members, and stakeholders while still retaining responsibilities at the school of current employment. All of the heads in the study were fully employed as school heads or administrators at the time of hire. These interactions provide opportunities for the incoming head to gather information concerning the school’s recent history, identify key issues, and learn about traditions. Often one or two administrative positions need to be filled during this time as the incoming head has a stake in building a team of his/her preference. The second phase, which we call arrival, spans the time between relocation to the new community and the opening of school to students, often lasting between one and two months. During the arrival phase, the transitioning head and any accompanying family members adjust to the community, locating essentials such as housing, appropriate medical care and extracurricular needs of children. Not surprisingly, we found that school heads transitioning to a school in an international culture cited the importance of adjustment during the arrival phase more often than U.S. independent school heads.

Second 90 days

However, we did identify differences regarding why international school heads versus U.S. independent school heads did not receive high levels of support during the four phases of transition. For international school heads, over half (15 of 28) noted that they had previous headship experience either internationally or in the U.S., suggesting that these leaders already had strong conceptualisations of the responsibilities concerning total operational oversight and therefore required less support in their new role. Additionally, all but two (26 of 28) international school heads held managerial jobs in schools prior to assuming their current headship position, with many expressing the need to complete the previous managerial job prior to entering the headship at their current school. One international head noted: I had been an international educator for some time…I feel like I have some similar experiences that had given me the confidence to deal with what I was getting into… If they did a more substantive job, a more thorough, more time involved orientation I probably would have backed out of it because I had a full on job in my headship at (former school). I just didn’t have the time to dedicate to a substantive kind of transition process. U.S. independent school heads, on average, had far less headship experience than the international school heads who participated in our study. Less than one-third (5 of 16) held previous headship experience.


IN FOCUS Unlike their international school counterparts, U.S. independent school heads expressed a strong desire for transition assistance despite its absence. One first time U.S. independent school head who described having a difficult first year in his new job noted: “It’s interesting…I think that we probably didn’t do as much of that as we could have, just sort of jointly. I probably didn’t ask for a lot of help and probably didn’t ask for as much help as I should have.” This disclosure illuminates both how U.S. independent schools provided minimal transition assistance to new heads while demonstrating that many first time heads may have trouble knowing what questions to ask and what information to glean during their first transition experiences. Success may not transfer Both international and U.S. independent school heads described situations in which success in a previous role or headship did not always transfer to success in a new headship. Many international school heads in the study identified challenges adjusting to life in a new country during the first 90 and second 90 days in the role. In addition, U.S. independent school heads who were successful in previous nonheadship administrative roles expressed that in their previous positions they experienced great success in building interpersonal relationships and being hands-on with staff. However, when they became a head of school they learned that in order to be successful they would have to let go and allow other administrators to take care of matters that may not need their attention.

Factors affecting international school headship transitions

“Most of the international school heads we spoke with described the schools they entered as exhibiting high levels of transience, or frequent movement by constituencies in and out of their schools.”

High levels of transience Most of the international school heads we spoke with described the schools they entered as exhibiting high levels of transience, or frequent movement by constituencies in and out of their schools. These levels of transience included student and students’ families, staff, former heads, and board members. One international school head noted that, “The board chair who hired me was not the same one waiting for me when I arrived, and it’s not the same one I have this year”. This high level of transience requires strategic transition management by the school to ensure that the incoming head will be supported regardless of who enters or exists the organisation during the first year or two of his or her tenure.

hiring and recruitment is very different. I never had to work with a Ministry of Education before. Certainly, the governance has been a challenge. So, I’ve definitely been able to expand my repertoire. This sentiment of veteran school leader desiring challenge and change was common throughout the transition descriptions of many international school heads. These individuals, most of whom were moving abroad for their new roles, expressed an understanding of the challenges in leading a school and the changes required of them during international adjustment.

Ministry of Education challenges

Factors affecting U.S. independent school headship transitions

Several international school heads identified unforeseen issues arising with the Ministry of Education in the country of arrival that seriously impacted their first 90 day and second 90 day phases. These challenges often served as an impediment to heads enacting their desired changes following their formal entry into the role. One head shared that she was spending up to 25 hours of a 60 hour work-week managing Ministry of Education issues for the school, but that during the next year she resolved, “to spend more time in classrooms with kids and at student events, and that will reduce the time I am spending with (the ministry of education)”.

Human resource stability

Heads as experienced challenge-seekers Unlike U.S. independent school heads in our study, most international school heads have extensive managerial experience in education environments. One first time international school head, who previously served in multiple U.S. independent school headships described his rationale for going overseas: I needed a fresh vision. I needed a fresh challenge in order to really continue to love the job the way I always have…I needed to learn a new language, and

Transitioning U.S. independent school heads described their schools of transition as far more stable with regard to school constituents than how transitioning international school heads depicted their current school contexts. The response of one U.S. independent school head that resounded across others was that: We had a retention rate this past year of 91%. That was pretty strong. In terms of the faculty-- A year and a half in the position - this is my second year--Before my joining, there were a handful of probably half a dozen faculties, that had been here for 20 plus years, that were retiring… We have currently still some faculty members who are at that 20 plus year tenure, and those in between maybe an average of about 11 years at the school. This stability provides the opportunity for independent school heads to organise concerted transition strategies across all four distinct phases of transition for new heads, actions that might prove more difficult to orchestrate in international school contexts.


IN FOCUS Financial challenges However, many U.S. independent school heads disclosed that their schools were experiencing serious financial challenges despite historically operating as a stable learning environments. One first time head shared that: We basically had to cut almost a half a million dollars out of the budget in my first year in the job. I mean, as a new head, that’s a very challenging thing to do because you have to cut personnel. There is no way of doing that without cutting personnel�

support can be provided with minimal financial expense and the task can be shared so that in is manageable. Absent in most schools studied is a strategy to ensure that the needs of the transitioning head will be met so that conditions for advancing the school are optimal. We are indebted to the school heads, board chairs and search consultants who gave us their time and shared their wisdom with us. We appreciate the support of NAIS and ECIS in conducting this research.

References Benson, J. (2011) An investigation of chief administrator in international schools. Journal of Research in International Education, 10(1), 87-103

Having to make such difficult decisions during the first and second ninety day phases hold the potential of jeopardising the long-term success of a new head.

ICEF Monitor. (18 March 2014). New data on international schools suggests continued strong growth. Retrieved from National Association of Independent Schools. (2010). The state of independent school leadership 2009:

First time heads

Report of survey research among school heads and administrators. Washington, DC. Watkins, M. (2003). The first 90 days: Critical success strategies for new leaders at all levels. Boston: Harvard

Complications with school finances appeared to be compounded by the fact that most (11 of 16) of the U.S. independent school heads who participated in the study were serving in their first headship, and few held formal experience in managing school finances. One first time head who reported transitioning into a school facing serious financial challenges described the experience of trying to turn around the school finances around without experience or know-how: I think I just learned recently that Dutch is the hardest language in the world to learn. And I feel like it literally is like being in a room with people speaking Dutch, because in the investment committee meetings, 15 to 20 minutes can go by where I can’t actually decipher a single sentence. In short, lack of financial knowledge during a time in which many U.S. independent schools face tough financial decisions can affect how firsttime heads transition into their new headship roles.

Recommendations Planning for headship transition in both international and U.S. independent schools requires similar tactics despite the unique nature of each context. First, and most importantly, heads need to be offered supports in transition. Most of the forty-four (44) heads we spoke with identified receiving minimal transition supports from their school boards and school communities. Limited support is not always problematic; many veteran heads in both contexts expressed confidence that their prior experience would help them transition into their new role without significant supports from school constituents. However, schools and boards still need to offer supports to the new head both prior to and following entry to ensure that the he or she continuously meets the needs of the transition. The findings also demonstrate that the uniqueness of each context necessitates the need for schools to also provide context-specific supports. For example, transition supports in international schools may require less attention during the pre-entry phase if heads already possess headship experience, while transition supports in U.S. independent schools might place increased emphasis on providing opportunities for the incoming first-time heads to review school financial documents during the pre-entry phase. In closing, both schools and school heads need to plan for transitions, mindful of the distinct phases of transition, including pre-entry, arrival, the first 90 days, and the second 90 days. Each phase of the transition process requires different forms of support that can be provided by different people within and outside of the school. Most notably, that

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