Foundational Relationships: The Head of School and the Board

Stable and predictable leadership is necessary for organizational growth1, because consistent leadership over time has been found to increase student achievement when the head of school serves for more than five years2. Despite studies indicating longevity is key, the average tenure for a head of school has remained steady at only six to seven years since first examined in the 1970s1. A school’s financial stability, morale, and progress toward educational improvements is impacted when the head of school leaves; therefore, factors leading to turnover are paramount to inform board practices in finding and retaining quality leaders3.

In multiple studies, heads indicated the main factor for leaving a school, outside of retirement, was a broken, tense relationship with the board of trustees4. This strained relationship affects multiple aspects of the school system, and negatively impacts student learning5. Studies indicate the board and head of school are mutually responsible for building and maintaining a healthy, cohesive relationship6 in order to produce a quality educational program for the students and faculty within the system.

Recommendations for the Board
Board members choose to serve on the school board for a variety of reasons. Studies found that approximately 50% of board members serve out of civic duty while the other 50% serve out of self-interest7. The competing agendas create confusion amongst board members as to roles and responsibilities, and produce not only a
low-achieving board but also a low-achieving school8.

The most commonly cited recommendation in reducing head of school turnover was board training on the appropriate roles and responsibilities of trustees9. Scholars propose the head of school should serve as the key influencer for board training and provide opportunities for growth through formal training with third party vendors, board retreats, orientations, and a formal onboarding process for new members. Governance training should include coaching on how to manage the dual role as parent and trustee, specifically how to navigate conversations with other parents at extracurricular activities when they share concerns10. Additionally board members should be equipped with an understanding of how the educational system operates in order to think and act strategically with that system in mind11. Finally, training should include an intentional time to bond as a group, which has been shown in studies to have a positive impact on school finances and student achievement12.

The second leading recommendation for boards was to increase head of school longevity through intentional, well-developed systems of support, especially for first time heads which should include executive coaching by professional organizations or former heads of school13. The positive, supportive relationship counteract stressors and reduce turnover down the road14. Boards can also intentionally communicate support through offering multi-year contracts that create stability for the head and increase their well-being15. Finally, scholars recommend the board form an executive committee that meets regularly with the head of school to provide ongoing moral support, counsel, and encouragement to ensure the care and attention are given to the head's health and well-being16.

Recommendations for the Head of School
The leading recommendation for the head of school to reduce turnover was to hone interpersonal skills necessary to successfully hold the position as chief executive officer. "The [head of school’s] reputation and job survival are largely dependent on others' perceptions of his or her credibility as well as his or her ability to influence critical [board] policy."17 Successful heads should develop positive, working relationships with the members of the school community, especially the board and board president. Studies found that when heads invested in establishing relationships within the community, they gained valuable insight into school culture and were better equipped to make strategic decisions moving forward18. In addition to relationships, successful heads are strong communicators19, and demonstrate immense courage in making hard decisions. Finally, successful heads demonstrate a large degree of humility and empathy (a trait not often pursued by boards during the hiring process), and are willing to listen to parent feedback, identify areas of dissatisfaction, and respond accordingly20.

 Duda has over 21 years of experience in Christian education and has served in a variety of roles including classroom teacher, curriculum director, and high school principal.  Currently, she is the Senior Director of Academics at Des Moines Christian School in Urbandale, Iowa, where she oversees all aspects of EE-12 teaching and learning.  Jahna will complete her PhD in Education from Drake University this summer after defending her dissertation on adolescent purpose and identity. She and her husband, Bret, will begin a new adventure in Rockford, Illinois in June 2022 when Jahna becomes the new Head of School for Rockford Christian School, which has over 700 students in PreK-12 and is located on two campuses.


1 Natkin et al., 2002
2 Simpson, 2013
3 Petersen & Short, 2001
4 Davidson et al., 2021; Yaley, 2021
5 Fusarelli, 2006; Grissom & Mitani, 2016; Honingh et al., 2020; Petersen & Short, 2001
6 Honingh et al., 2020
7 Bridges et al., 2019; Mountford, 2004
8 Lee & Eadens, 2014
9 Bridges et al., 2019; Fusarelli, 2006; Honingh et al., 2020; Mountford, 2004; Tekniepe, 2015
10 Baker et al., 2016; Tekniepe, 2015
11 Baker et al., 2016; Juhel, 2016
12 Honingh et al., 2020
13 Davidson et al., 2021; Kane & Barbaro, 2016; Muñoz et al., 2014
14 LeChasseur, 2017; Robinson & Shakeshaft, 2015
15 Tekniepe, 2015
16 Kane & Barbaro, 2016; Yaley, 2021
17 Petersen & Short, 2001, p. 553
18 Freeley & Seinfeld, 2012
19 Bridges et al., 2019; Freeley & Seinfeld, 2012; Yaley, 2021
20 Alsbury, 2008; Bridges et al., 2019; Fusarelli, 2006; Hough, 2014

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