5 Trending Topics No Elementary School Leader Should Miss: New Financial Models

Five trends no elementary school head should miss: this is the assignment my colleague Mary Menacho gave me for my remarks to Elementary School Heads Association (ESHA) members and prospective members gathering at Trinity School in Menlo Park, CA, early next month.  I’ve tweaked the focus from “trends” to “trending topics” to give myself the latitude to address issues on which there’s buzz, even if we’re not yet seeing considerable traction.  So, one at a time, here are the big five from where I sit, along with a sixth topic that I believe we need to kindle.

#1: New Financial ModelsDependence on Tuition Revenue lg2

Heads of independent schools throughout the country are talking about new financial models, particularly new ways of thinking about generating operating revenue. They’re worried that tuition can’t continue to climb at its current rate, that schools can’t afford the increasing amount of need-based financial aid that seems to be required, and that endowments are not generating revenue like they once did. Data would suggest that there is cause for concern: we are becoming increasingly dependent on tuition dollars to fund our programs.

Enter John Farber, Head of School at Old Trail School in Ohio, with an important article in Independent School magazine, “The Independent School Financial Model is Broken: Here’s How We Fix It” (NAIS, Fall 2012). Farber recently led two discussions for ESHA members on this topic.

As antidote to the current state of affairs, Farber encourages us to reduce operating costs while increasing non-tuition revenue. Cost-cutting measures suggested include economy-of-scale collaborative purchasing, such as the Independent Schools Benefits Consortium; implementing recommendations from an energy audit; and reducing non-academic staffing.  On the alternative-sources-of-revenue side, Farber sends us to the work of Allen Proctor. Proctor proposes that we think of nonprofit financial management in a new way, funding high-mission/low revenue activities with high-revenue activities that may be less mission-central, “linking mission to money.” Examples include the Columbus Zoo’s entertainment and hospitality complex and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores. Proctor’s TEDx Talk on the topic gives a good overview of his model.

Emerging “linking mission to money” initiatives in independent elementary/middle schools are entrepreneurial and diverse. Examples include: beyond-the-school-week programs such as Saturday enrichment classes, vacation camps, and more expansive summer programs; learning centers intended to serve faculty, students, and/or parents beyond one’s immediate school community; consulting service to that broader community, such as college placement; partnering with a nearby secondary school in welcoming foreign students with a home-stay arrangement; and using school property for non-school functions such as hosting a regular farmers’ market or raising crops for commercial harvest.

The 2013 ESHA Annual Conference in Houston will delve into this topic in its Saturday, October 19 pre-conference workshop, “Identifying the Missing Variable: Leading Financially Sustainable Independent Elementary Schools” featuring John Farber along with Chuck Baldecchi of The Lexington School in Kentucky. It could be an important meeting of the minds.


Do You Dare?

I read Brené Brown’s latest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Gotham Books, 2012), this summer all the while nodding and commenting to myself with enthusiasm.

The title aptly draws from the words of Theodore Roosevelt in his “Citizen in A Republic” speech of April 1910: “It is not the critic who counts… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who strives valiantly… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Brown’s December 2010 TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” offers a good preview:


When I picked up Daring Greatly, I was expecting a book similar in style to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow or Kathryn Schultz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Errora treatise about how best to understand human nature, and apply that understanding to our schools and families, in which specific data is shared. I admit to some disappointment when encountering Brown’s statements that begin “The research shows…” and end with generalizations sans numerical support. I went digging, reading the Daring Greatly appendices carefully and rounding up Brown’s scholarly article, “Shame resilience theory: A grounded study on women and shame” in Families in Society (2006, 87, 1: 43-52, accessible for a fee). I came to understand that the grounded theory methodology used by Brown and others in her field does not yield the sort of data that I was seeking. Statements about the number of interviewees expressing themes of “being unworthy of acceptance,” for instance, are not to be found.

Photo by Claudia Daggett

My lack of appreciation for grounded theory methodology aside, this is a book very much worth reading. Daring Greatly offers us at least three important lessons relevant to school leadership.

On the essential quality of hope. I was reminded of the writing of Wendy Mogel and Paul Tough when I read: “Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own ability.” And I applauded in response to “Hope is learned.” Referring to the findings of the work of C.R. Snyder, Brown states: “To learn hopefulness, children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries, consistency, and support. Children with high levels of hope have experience with adversity. They’ve been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn to believe in themselves.” (Daring Greatly, pp. 239-240)

On the important impact of school culture. “A sense of worthiness inspires us to be vulnerable, share openly, and persevere,” says Brown. She elaborates: “In shame-prone cultures, where parents, leaders, and administrators consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self-worth to what they produce, I see disengagement, blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism, and a total dearth of creativity and innovation.” (Daring Greatly, pp. 64-65)

On leading whole-heartedly. Citing the work of Peter Fuda and Richard Badham summarized in “Fire, snowball, mask, movie: How leaders spark and sustain change” (Harvard Business Review, November 2011), Brown tells us that “courage is contagious” and that the “act of vulnerability is predictably perceived as courageous by team members and inspires others to follow suit.” (Daring Greatly, p. 54)

Several of my independent school colleagues have drawn on Brown’s work in their words to parents. A few examples:

  • In her December 2012 letter to parents, Gretchen Larkin, Assistant Principal for the Lower School at Milton Academy (and now Head-Elect at Charles River School) endorsed Daring Greatly, encouraging parents to help their children embrace struggle, cleverly reminding them of the relevance of her school’s motto, “Dare to be True.”
  • In “Encouraging Self-Discipline” (Lions Share Blog, 3/07/13), Garhett Wagers, Headmaster of St. Mark’s Episcopal School, urged parents to give children room to fail, quoting Brown: “If we are always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own.” 
  • In “Vulnerability on the First Day of School” (The Genius in Children, 8/17/11), author, consultant, and former head of school Rick Ackerly closed his remarks with a quotation from Brown’s TED talk: “Courage, compassion, connection are what make you worthy, not how often you don’t make mistakes.”

I have found myself returning frequently to Brené Brown’s words, particularly in moments when I might otherwise entertain taking a lower-profile approach to an issue or task. Her words resound — and they’re helpful. “Be your whole-hearted self” — “daring greatly.”

Brené Brown is a keynote speaker at the Elementary School Heads Association’s Annual Conference in October. Can’t wait!


Daily Practice

I’ve come to believe in the importance of a daily practice. Not in service of the drive to perfect or master something — piano scales, a jump shot, or an arabesque (apologies to Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink) — but rather, a daily practice for recognizing the essence and value of life itself.  This is the breathe-in, breathe-out kind of daily practice that offers us a moment of stillness, an opportunity to center one’s thoughts, and recognition of our mortality.

For a teacher friend of mine, daily practice takes the form of an hour of silent meditation every morning before the school day begins. Another friend finds connection to her inner calm in the sun salutation and savasana of yoga. My husband rises early in order to sit quietly with his coffee and listen to the world around him awaken. For some, this involves invoking a higher power. Psalms 118:24 speaks to my Christian and Jewish colleagues, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

In “Could mindfulness help teachers manage stress?” (The Guardian, 8/06/13), Amanda Bailey describes her experience in teaching the value of and strategies for secular mindfulness to teachers and students. She refers us to The Mindfulness in Schools Project, featuring their “.b” (dot-be) program and mantra, “Stop, Breathe, and Be.”


Photo by Claudia Daggett

Personally, I have been a slow learner in this department, for many years embracing the concept without the practice. Then, I discovered personal connection to the sacredness of life through my camera. Look carefully, and you’ll note that I almost always carry a bag large enough to accommodate my digital SLR. As avid photographers will tell you, toting that camera heightens visual awareness. I find it enables me to see things differently, to keenly observe and appreciate surroundings — even when the lens cap remains securely in place!

For several years, I have participated in a “daily shoot” group on Flickr, where each member posts one photo per day. Daily practice in a group can be helpful in deflecting those competing interests — whether it’s a group commitment to share photography, participate in a prayer group, or attend a yoga class.

I know, I know: you have a Board meeting tonight, there’s no one to cover music class, your son can’t find his soccer cleats, there’s no milk in the house. Those competing interests can be especially pressing if you’re a school leader.

Do you know Faith Hill? Performer of the Sunday Night Football jingle (until very recently), this Grammy-award winning country artist had a hit song, “Breathe.” Do yourself a favor and cue Faith: “…breathe. Just breathe.”  ♫

For a few moments each day, pause to acknowledge the life you’ve been given.

Place and Time

Photo by Jim Balogh for St. Louis Public Library

I seek out beautiful places to read, write, and work. This is how I found myself, a few months ago, sitting in the Fine Arts Wing of the Central Library in St. Louis. Vaulted ceilings, glass shelving, wonderful lighting, and a landscape of art books are a feast for the eyes here, and the work space is filled with the heavy, original library tables of the late 1800’s.

Following an hour or so focused on the task at hand, I took a stretch and wandered the shelves, alighting upon Stephen Biel’s American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting. I remembered seeing the original work at an exhibit at The Whitney in the mid-80’s and was drawn in.


Photo by Claudia Daggett

What followed was a delightful read. I learned about the influence of Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken on Grant Wood’s pre-Depression era mindset, during which time the painting was considered by many to be an ironic depiction of the rural life of his upbringing. I learned about how his presentation of the theme of the painting changed post-Depression, when it became an emblem of the Regionalist Movement, a piece of Americana folk art holding up the values of the American Midwest. And I learned about how the image has been adapted and spoofed over the years. (For more on the book, see Basinger, Jeanine. “‘American Gothic’: A man, a woman, and a pitchfork.” New York Times, July 10, 2005.)

Not long after this read, I planted myself in front of American Gothic in its home at The Art Institute in Chicago. This was the perfect capstone to a fascinating, really enjoyable learning experience.

American Gothic

Photo by Claudia Daggett

Why is this story worth sharing? It is an illustration of the importance of place and time in the learning process.

Learning is stimulated in spaces that inspire. How much do we think about this when we design classroom environments?

Learning is enhanced when we build skills and knowledge while in pursuit of a topic that kindles our interest. How often do we give students the time to travel this path?

Angela Maier’s work on passion-driven learning provides some answers. And I’m encouraged by the recent professional dialogue developing around applying Google’s 20% to children’s school experience. See, for instance, the writing of A.J. Juliani, including “Why 20% is good for schools” (Edutopia, 6/25/13) and “Designing 20% time in education” (Education is My Life, 1/28/13).

Could we rethink our concept of learning spaces and relinquish 20% of our prescribed content — and turn ’em loose?