Dear Cooki: How Am I Doing?

Cooki Levy

Given the complexity of our jobs, and the large number of people (board members, parents, staff and students) who hold us accountable, how can a head of school, especially one who is relatively new, know if s/he is doing a good job?


Sometimes the simplest-sounding question is, in actuality, the most difficult to answer. Let me try, knowing that success looks and feels different to different people in different places at different times.


An important place to start is by looking at objective measures. Has enrollment increased or fallen? Are fundraising goals being met? Is the budget balanced? Do I have all the parent volunteers that I require? And, where relevant, what do test scores look like? While you can argue that one or many of these do not reflect the work of the head of school, you cannot dismiss this data.


If you have distributed a parent survey, the results of that will certainly tell you how the parents perceive your performance. If you have not done so, this might be an excellent way to gain feedback, not only about you, but about the perception of the school, the teachers and the board.


Other markers of your success are far less tangible, but are clear-cut nonetheless. Take a look at the goals you set for yourself (ideally in conjunction with your board chair or head of school support committee). Have you taken specific actions to lead you to the achievement of your goals? Can you list them? Have you set a timeline, and are you on track? Doing a good job does not mean that you have accomplished everything you set out to do, but it does mean that you make decisions and take actions with your short- and long-term goals in mind.


A major part of your role is enforcing school policies. Do you sense that the vast majority of your parent and teaching bodies adhere to the guidelines the school has set? In a similar vein, do you sense that all stakeholders have the same vision for the school? Do you, your staff, your board (and often your students) understand and actualize the school’s mission and core values?


Have you built a team? Do you collaborate with others on staff, include them in decision-making, and delegate important responsibilities to them? Do you feel there are some out there who support and defend you? If you always feel that you are working in isolation, unsupported and alone, you may be sending a message to your colleagues, professional and lay, that you do not need them. Of course you do need them, and should explore ways to create the kind of team that successful leadership requires.


Similarly, do your teachers speak to you? Do they share successes or frustrations with you; do they come to say good morning and chat? When you walk into the staff room, do you feel as if you are Daniel entering the lions’ den, or do you feel comfortable opening that door?


How do you feel when you come to work each day? Do you look forward to the challenges each new day brings, or do you arrive tense and on edge, dreading each phone call and visit to your office? I am reminded of the old joke about the mother who urges her very reluctant child to leave for school each morning, finally admonishing him by saying, “You have to go—you’re the principal…” If that is you, reflect on why you feel that way. What can you change? How can you make interactions more pleasant and productive?


Do you always feel that you are behind schedule, with too much to do and no time to do it? Are you working too long and too late, never seeming to catch up? If that is the case, spend some time prioritizing your tasks. Get help with time-management skills; set a to-do list for each day, with time limits, and work on getting through each day’s tasks with greater efficiency. Just as important, leave time in your week for your personal life—exercise, spend time with family and friends, take a course, watch a sporting event, or just relax and read a book.


And what should you NOT look at in judging your own efficacy? In general, don’t count the number of complaints you receive—everyone complains at times, and often about relatively minor concerns (although they may loom large in the moment). Look instead at the type of complaints: are they keyed in to the core mission of the school (“Why can’t we send meat lunches?”); do they reflect your own leadership, or instead are they directed toward more operational, day-to-day concerns? Do complaints come from a broad base of your constituency or from a small group?


Don’t worry if you sense that some people don’t like you. You are not in the “like” business. What you want from your stakeholders are respect and a recognition that you are the school’s leader. With time, many will also come to genuinely like you, but having that as your goal can often lead you astray.


One more caveat: do not base your self-assessment on one day’s or even one week’s performance. Even the greatest of leaders have days they’d just as soon forget. Learn from these, and it will be reflected in your long-term feelings about your own success.


We all like to know that we are doing a good job, and that those for whom we are responsible and to whom we report appreciate the hard work we put in. Consistent and honest self-reflection, a true awareness of what is taking place in and out of the school, and a willingness to hear the feedback we are given will help us not only to feel confident in the work we are doing, but to grow and improve our skills day by day.

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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015