Leading Your International School today shares our weekly Q & A for international school leaders and teachers. Questions are answered by Gráinne O’ Reilly – founder of 13 schools around the world. Today we share Jacob’s question.
Jacob: As a startup school principal, how can I balance my time in marketing and academic outcomes?
Gráinne: Dear Jacob – a really great question and one that does not have an easy answer, I am sorry to say.
As the Founding Principal of a start-up, you are absolutely crucial to the marketing and admissions process. In effect, the parents ( your customers) are buying into YOU. Marketing your school effectively and selling it to families and the local community must be front and centre of everything you do for at least the first year and, I would argue, probably for the first 3 years or more!
Even if your school is part of a prestigious schools group, or well known in that area or country, or even if you have a whole population who are eager and waiting for your school or its particular brand to open- actually selling a school that does not yet exist or that has only just opened is a very challenging task, indeed.
You are the one who holds the vision and it must be you who shares it, repeatedly, with everyone, at every opportunity. I know that sounds utterly exhausting- and it is! That first year or two ( or the year preceding opening, if you are fortunate enough to have a run-up period) you will have to live your vision and share it again and again- constantly. Your customers, your staff, your marketing and admissions team and the whole community will all start to not only hear your vision- direct from the horse’s mouth- but believe it and share it. Leading from the front in this sets the tone for everything that will be done in your school in those first few years. The message will be clear and undiluted and you will be able to have confidence in knowing that you are setting the finest of examples throughout the whole community.
Is it hard to do this? Is it hard to be everywhere, for everyone, all the time? Yes- it’s incredibly hard; it is physically, mentally and emotionally draining in the extreme- but the benefits that you reap are unparalleled. Your vision is unadulterated, it is not only widely shared, but bought into by all of your team. You will know every single parent and child who comes through your doors and that sense of building a strong community is priceless.
So where does that leave the curriculum and academic outcomes? You must have the curriculum at your fingertips to be a good Principal, especially a start-up or Founding Principal. It needs to be your life-blood, the ‘stuff’ of everything that you believe in as an educator. I remember once at an interview for a Founding Principal position, being interviewed amongst a very elite group of Principals. I was by far the youngest candidate and the only woman. I would be lying if I tried to pretend that I was not intimidated by the other candidates. It even occurred to me at one point that I was wasting my time and would be better off excusing myself and leaving quietly. I stayed, however, and as the day wore on- the more I listened to these professionals talk, the more I realised that many of them did not have the curriculum at their fingertips and that many of them were divorced from the day to day work at the chalkface. At one point, whilst we were undertaking in-tray exercises, one of the gentlemen asked me if I knew the answer to one of the questions we had been given. The question was very simple- it was asking which reading, maths and science schemes that we would purchase for various levels throughout the school. I told the him that I didn’t think there was a catch in the question and that it really was straightforward in wanting to know which schemes we preferred. He replied “But how should I know what schemes to pick? I have people to do all that for me!” Knowledge of the core practices and outcomes are, as I said, vital.
All that does not mean that you are necessarily the person delivering it at all levels on a day to day basis, of course. Trust your teaching staff and share the load with them. They will be keen to step up and be part of what makes your start-up school successful. Make sure you set aside time to be clear about what’s needed, what your expectations are, what the policies and procedures need to be and then let them get on with it. Trust your team. Encourage them to trust and support each other and foster an open, no blame approach wherein mistakes ( we are all human and mistakes will be made) can be used to further deeper learning and experience. Spend time in the classrooms whenever you can so that your teaching team and the children get used to you being part of the learning landscape. This too will build up considerable trust and credibility with parents, teachers and the children themselves.
So, to answer your question- you will find yourself exhausted, you will feel that you are forever on the go and you will, at times, feel that being ‘on’ all the time- during the day, in the evenings, at weekends- is unsustainable. You’re right- it is unsustainable, but the start-up phase does not go on forever. As you enter your second year your staffing pattern will expand and those who have heard and lived your vision throughout the first year or so will be able to confidently take the baton from you. You will still be leading, you will still be front and centre, but you’ll be able to step back enough to breathe and find balance.
And – once your school is established and successful- believe it or not- you will actually miss those frantic days when 24 hours in each one was never enough.
Good luck Jacob and let me know how you get on. You can do it!
Thank you for reading, if you have any questions for Gráinne to answer about Leading Your International School, email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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