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The Board of Trustees (BOT) and Head of School (HOS) have multiple roles and responsibilities within each Montessori school. However, one element that is often underestimated is the power their well-defined relationship can bring to the ultimate success of their school. Think of them as co-captains of this beautiful ship called a Montessori school. The better the relationship they forge, the more successful they will be at steering the school in the right direction, through rough waters or calm, day in and day out, year after year.

As the Head of Bowman School in Palo Alto, CA, I am frequently asked to comment on and speak about this topic because our school has traditionally maintained a strong relationship between the HOS and BOT. For more than twenty years, we have committed the time, energy, and resources to build and strengthen this partnership, and I am convinced this is one of the key reasons our school has remained so successful. I understand how demanding daily schedules can be, but the importance of the HOS and BOT relationship is key to guiding the ultimate success of each Montessori HOS and school. It is my hope that the insights shared will encourage other Montessori schools to know that these strong partnerships are possible and well worth the investment.

To better understand the importance of the relationship between the BOT and the HOS, let’s first take a look at the roles of both. Once we understand these roles and how they interact with each other, it will be easier to evaluate how effective this relationship is in your school, in order to make it as successful as possible. After reading this article, you should be able to rate and review how well your school is doing on this topic and take necessary actions in areas that need improvement.

Generally, the BOT has three primary tasks:

Keeping in trust the mission and vision of the school. They must be skilled at strategic planning and thinking because they are responsible for defining and monitoring the short- and long-term goals of the school, as determined through a periodic strategic planning process. An ongoing practice of strategic thinking gives the Board the flexibility to react to unforeseen opportunities and circumstances that will have an impact on the school. In this task, they also need to set policy in accordance with the school’s mission and institutional goals.

 Hiring, evaluating, nourishing, and supporting the HOS. The Board supports the Head in the day-to-day operation of the school but is not involved in management or administration. The Head, not Trustees, hires, supervises, and evaluates all faculty and staff.

 Financial stability of the school. In order to ensure the financial stability of the school, Trustees are responsible for approving the yearly budget, including the setting of tuition. As Trustees, they also support and participate in fundraising efforts and encourage open and clear communication to advance the mission of the school.

They also welcome inquiries from parents regarding any of their areas of responsibility.

Now let’s take a look at the role of HOS. There are many responsibilities and each support the objective of keeping the mission and vision alive throughout every aspect of the school. After all, a powerful vision and mission are critical for inspiring children to love learning in an academically challenging and internationally aware program that promotes respect, responsibility, and independence. The role of the HOS typically involves the following:

Finance and Development. The HOS oversees the annual budget and day-to-day management of funds. Heads handle fundraising, such as capital campaigns, annual funds, and endowment for financial aid. The team they manage typically includes a CFO, Financial Manager, Development Director, and consultants.

Teacher Quality. The HOS is responsible for hiring the right people, developing staff talents, rewarding high-performing staff, and retaining excellence. They must “manage-out” low-performing staff and set clear goals that create a scalable and reliable process while establishing a framework for acknowledgements. These goals must then be set in stone so they trickle down to the entire organization.

Academic Program Goals. The HOS must maintain cross-program consistency throughout the classroom environment, teaching team, development of community, student norms, and Montessori goals.

Staff Goals. The HOS must mentor teaching teams, ensure environmental upkeep, develop the community, and foster goal orientation.

Accountability. This role represents the Montessori Method in the most authentic form. The HOS helps teachers take ownership of their day-to-day educational experience and long-term experiences. They must ensure that the school helps children learn and grow, and meets the promises that are made to parents, while respecting the individuality of each family and child.

School Aesthetics. The HOS realizes that every day is a tour day. This means they must continuously add beauty to the environments, both indoor and outdoor, when it comes to materials used, material display, storage, and décor.

Parent Education. The HOS is responsible for establishing a warm and welcoming community. They spearhead HOS roundtable events, review all parent education activities, and form a partnership between home and school.

Admissions and Matriculation. The HOS is responsible for admitting families to their school, as well as handling matriculation from various grades, special-needs or behavioral situations. This role typically involves managing a director of admissions.

Site Development. The HOS is always evaluating current facilities and will expand campuses as needed by adding new state-of-the-art buildings and outdoor facilities designed to better meet the school’s goals.

Communications. The HOS strives to keep every communication focused on the mission and vision of the school. They regularly communicate via email/mail/social media both quick and easy information or longer, detailed text. From daily emails to monthly newsletters to quarterly reports, the HOS is in charge of all internal and external communications. In addition, the HOS coordinates the school’s event calendar. This calendar and all communications must be updated regularly to ensure they are timely and accurate.

 Events. The HOS handles many events throughout the school day, as well as late day and evening activities. These all must be scheduled, communicated, set-up, and taken down. The HOS must also coordinate special events such as those driven by (or for) the Parent Association and the school community.

Logistics. The HOS takes the big-picture ideas and organizes the details, taking into consideration the people, place, parking, food, etc. The school and its events must be a well-oiled machine that functions smoothly.

Facilities. This role involves monthly and annual maintenance checks, large and small repairs, and risk management, such as Red Cross training of staff and fire/earthquake/tornado/terrorist drills. This role also requires the HOS to manage shared space and adjust classes and activity locations as needed.

The Working Relationship Between HOS and BOT

Now that we’ve outlined the individual roles of the BOT and HOS, let’s take a look at how they should be working together. Again, this relationship is critical because it sets the stage for the entire organization.

There are some areas where the HOS and BOT have shared responsibility, such as authorizations, finance policies, enrollment, and employment terms. However, there are other areas where the Board has primary decision-making authority and simply takes advice from the HOS. This includes policies and strategies such as mission, survival, and leadership. And finally, there are also areas where the HOS has primary decision-making authority and only accepts advice from the BOT. These are typically operational activities, such as admissions, staffing, programs, and systems.

One area in which the HOS and BOT must also collaborate is the annual report. Don’t cringe! I realize annual reports can inspire feelings of dread, but working together, the HOS and BOT can create a document that is both a great reflection of success and a vision for the future. We create ours each year after the audit is complete and initial content is written by the BOT. The annual report typically contains the following sections:

θ State of the School from BOT

θ State of the School from HOS

θ Finance Report

θ Donor Report

θ Matriculation

θ Honoring Staff for experience

θ Photos, photos, photos

There are also many Board meetings in which the HOS and BOT must coordinate and participate. Some Board
meetings are open sessions that include a call to order, minutes, finance update, committee reports, and HOS report. Other meetings are closed sessions which may include additional HOS items, capital campaigns, confidential items, brainstorming and problem-solving. We have found that effective BOT meetings occur when we focus on creative thinking first and reporting updates last. While that seems counterintuitive, it allows for the excitement of our school and opportunities to take center stage while people’s minds are fresh and most engaged.

Annual Review of the BOT and HOS

It is critical to making sure the HOS and BOT are reviewed annually to ensure they are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities and working together successfully. The commitment to this annual review is vital and can follow a simple format that keeps the time manageable and the results beneficial. The HOS is typically evaluated according to SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timely) and involves staff, parents, and the Board. In school’s with older students, they should be involved too. The review is written by the compensation committee and delivered to the HOS.

What should be reviewed?

Defining the roles of the BOT and HOS are the important first steps, but critical to ongoing success is the continual review of how everyone is doing. Just like writing resolutions at the beginning of the year, goals are great, but we have to follow-up on them to make sure they are successful. I recommend an annual review that measures each category based on the following:

Level I: a Common starting point

Level II: Progressive performance

Level III: Exemplary performance

The goal is to work towards a Level III outcome in each area. I’ve provided several key areas for review and have provided tools to determine your school’s performance in each one. By honestly rating your performance, you will know exactly what needs improvement and can make plans to affect this change.

First of all, the HOS should always have a written contract that defines the scope of his/her accountability and a performance evaluation process.

Level I: The HOS does not have a written contract.

Level II: The HOS has a written contract, but the contract is not specific about the scope of accountability and does not define a formal evaluation process.

Level III: The HOS’s contract clearly specifies the scope of his/her role and accountability relative to that of the Board Chair and Board and specifies an annual HOS evaluation process.

Rate your school on how well it writes clear annual goals for the HOS.

Level I: The Board’s expectations of the HOS are not clear.

Level II: The Board President and the HOS have informally discussed expectations, but they have not been codified in writing. Instead, much of their interaction involves fighting fires.

Level III: The school has an up-to-date and approved strategic plan. The Board president and HOS have codified specific annual goals for the HOS, consistent with that plan and have agreed upon more tactical goals. These goals form the basis for evaluating HOS performance.

There should be a process to support the HOS. How does your school compare?

Level I: There is no formal provision for HOS support.

Level II: The HOS is permitted to hire a personal “coach” at school expense to help counsel him/her on how to optimize key constituency relationships, e.g., with the Board President/Chair, the Board at large, parents, and staff, with the purpose of overcoming barriers to success.

Level III: The HOS is actively encouraged to hire a coach and, in addition, there is a Head support advisory committee comprised of community leaders who help the Head keep his/her ear to the ground and provide sage, unofficial counsel.

Evaluate whether the HOS and Board President/Chair have defined the details of the HOS annual evaluation process.

Level I: HOS evaluation is only done when there are crises and because of this, it tends to be biased to a negative view of performance.

Level II: There is an agreed requirement for regular HOS evaluation, but the evaluation has been put off due to “lack of time.”

Level III: There is an agreed annual HOS evaluation process; it is implemented thoroughly, discreetly, and in a positive tone; the HOS finds it helpful and reinforcing; the Board finds that it is helping improve HOS performance.

It is also important to make sure your school has an agreed upon process for evaluating the Board.

Level I: There is no formal process for the Board to evaluate its effectiveness.

Level II: There is a process for Trustee self-evaluation, although not for an overall evaluation of the Board’s effectiveness; the Board is not introspective about how to improve its own performance and tends to focus on criticizing the HOS and staff.

Level III: The Board follows a disciplined and regular process of evaluating its effectiveness, including the effectiveness of the Board President and that of individual Trustees; the results are used to enhance the quality and effectiveness and strategic focus of the Board and develop Board skills. As a result, being asked to join the Board is a coveted honor.

The relative roles and accountability of the staff and Board should be clear and understood by those same Board members and the school staff.

Level I: The Board becomes very involved in a number of key operational arenas to the discomfort of the staff and HOS.

Level II: The Board tries to focus on mission and policy-related issues, but individual members sometimes violate the spirit of this policy and disempower the staff and HOS. When this happens the Head and Board chair appropriately rebuke those members.

Level III: The Board President and HOS are aligned around the criticality of allowing the HOS and staff to direct operational issues and this is emphasized actively by both in Board meetings and during Board development sessions, HOS and staff feel empowered and accountable and are comfortable asking for counsel from the Board when necessary.

New Trustees to the Board need to undergo orientation so they are clear about the roles of the Board and staff upon joining. After all, how is someone supposed to do their job well when they are not sure what that job entails?

Level I: There is a great deal of confusion among Trustees and school staff about who is responsible for what, and no process for working through principles.

Level II: New Trustees, in their orientation process, are informed about the fact that the Board’s role is to stick to mission, strategy, and the Board’s fiduciary responsibilities, but when specific issues come up there is a lack of clarity and both Board and staff feel reticent to assert themselves to avoid hurting feelings; therefore, balls get dropped.

Level III: Upon joining the Board, members receive orientation and training regarding the relative roles of Board and staff. Additionally, both the Board President and HOS are direct with Board members who are venturing into staff turf when they are “out of line.” When there is a major need to clarify relative responsibilities, the Board and staff leadership convene and work through relative responsibilities in all key areas.

Evaluate how well the BOT and HOS communicate and if they communicate in a timely manner.

Level I: Scheduled meetings between the Board Chair and HOS are often postponed, resulting in ad-hoc get-togethers generally focused on the crisis of the moment.

Level II: The HOS and Board Chair meet every other week to review hot issues and to prepare for the monthly Board meetings; additionally, the HOS and Board Chair communicate consistently via email.

Level III: The Board Chair and HOS conduct a sacred weekly meeting, where all issues and problems are shared. They communicate frequently via phone calls and email to alert each other in a timely fashion about potential problems and ensure alignment of perspectives and actions. In public forums, the two are seen as aligned. The Board President goes out of his/her way to compliment the HOS when he/she sees something going right and looks for ways to make him/her successful.

The Board President and HOS should also collaborate to craft value-added Board meeting agendas and to orchestrate how they will conduct themselves before, during, and after the meetings to ensure desired outcomes.    

Level I: Board agendas are developed in advance, but typically Board members overtake the planned agendas and raise ad-hoc concerns. The Board President and HOS are frequently on the defensive during these meetings and often appear not to be aligned. This causes significant interpersonal tension.

Level II: The Board President and HOS consult relative to Board agenda topics prior to Board meetings, but the specifics of the meeting agendas and content are largely up to the president. On occasion, the HOS is taken by surprise when new information is shared with the Board that he/she has not had a chance to review and discuss with the Board President beforehand; this causes tension in their relationship.

Level III: The Board President and HOS jointly develop Board meeting key agendas, work together to ensure Board committee chairs are effectively prepared, define value-added Board development activities, and actively strategize on their respective roles in ensuring that desired outcomes are achieved.

Conclusion

As you are well aware from your own experience, there are many roles and responsibilities of both the HOS and the BOT in a Montessori school. However, it is clearly defining those roles and then working together, that will help determine your school’s long-term success. If this relationship is not working well in your school, it is impossible to realize your school’s full potential, and it needs to be addressed quickly. Your desire to help impact the lives of your students is worth the time and effort to form a strong relationship that benefits the HOS, BOT, and your school community. 

ML/ September 2018/ pg 4

Mary Beth Ricks
Mary Beth Ricks