The Commons: Our Blog

Timely, sometimes tough, questions and insights from NAES and Episcopal school leaders on leadership, governance, Episcopal identity, community life, and other issues.

Unreasonable Hospitality

Do Not Forget What Got Us Here…

As we look forward to the new year, I wanted to share a reflection I have had about school governance from one of my summer readings, Unreasonable Hospitality. The book details Will Guidara’s journey as he took the helm of Eleven Madison Park, a famous restaurant in New York City, at one time rated the best in the world. In the book there are many golden nuggets, but one in particular stood out. It was when Will and his team at Eleven Madison Park were thinking and doing everything that they could to be ranked the number one restaurant in the world. During this time, they innovated to compete at the highest level as their popularity grew. At one point in the book, Will describes the need not to forget the little or big things that got them to where they are now. One story of the maitre’d stand, which typically had two or three hostesses behind it, is about how all the hostesses were looking down at their reservation screens while checking arrivals in for dinner that evening. With the restaurant’s popularity rising, the demand for a dinner reservation had certainly become a feat in itself, but what Will realized was that they had veered away from customer-interaction service and became more transactional. What had been a foundation for why people loved Eleven Madison Park beyond the food quality was the attention they experienced as customers and the thoughtful things that Will’s team did in addition to exceptional table service for them. In order to become more efficient, the team had veered away from a vital reason for Eleven Madison Park’s success. This got me thinking.

For many of our schools, we are growing if not by numbers by innovation, technology, and new research. As educators, most of this is aimed at helping us better understand each student and reach them where they are, so we can grow them to where they need to be for the next step in their academic chapter. With good governance, Vestries and/or Boards of Trustees are usually excited by these improvements, which they should be. In many cases, these changes can add to the value proposition of the school’s offerings. However, good governance is the torch bearer of traditions, values, events, and activities that made our schools unique and special and attracted our families that chose us in the first place. 

Good school governance plays a crucial role in preserving the mission and values of an educational institution. It ensures that the school’s core principles, educational goals, and overall purpose remain intact over time. In a confusing political and media environment, preserving our Episcopal ethos has never needed more protection than now. Here are some key elements of effective school governance that contribute to preserving the mission:

  1. Mission-Centric Leadership: The school’s leadership, including the Board of Directors or Trustees, administrators, and senior staff, should be deeply committed to and aligned with the school’s mission. They should consistently reference the mission when making decisions, setting policies, and planning for the future.
  2. Clear Mission Statement: A well-defined and concise mission statement is essential. It should articulate the school’s purpose, values, and long-term goals. This statement acts as a guidepost for all decisions and actions taken by the school community.
  3. Strategic Planning: The school should engage in strategic planning processes that align with its mission. This involves setting achievable goals, allocating resources effectively, and regularly reviewing progress to ensure that the school’s activities remain aligned with its mission.
  4. Stakeholder Involvement: A broad range of stakeholders, including teachers, students, parents, alumni, and community members, should have opportunities to provide input on important decisions. This inclusivity helps maintain a strong connection between the school and its community, ensuring that decisions reflect shared values.
  5. Transparency and Accountability: Open communication and transparency in decision-making foster trust within the school community. Clear channels of communication, regular reporting, and accountability mechanisms are essential to demonstrate the school’s commitment to its mission.
  6. Training and Development: Board members, administrators, and staff should receive ongoing training to understand and uphold the school’s mission. This training can cover areas such as ethical decision-making, appropriate roles and responsibilities, conflict resolution, and effective communication.
  7. Ethical Guidelines: Establish a code of ethics or conduct that guides the behavior of all individuals associated with the school. This code should reflect the school’s mission and values and provide a framework for addressing ethical dilemmas.
  8. Continuous Assessment: Regularly evaluate the school’s programs, activities, and initiatives to ensure they align with the mission. Assessments should consider the effectiveness of these efforts in achieving the school’s goals.
  9. Long-Term Vision: While responding to short-term challenges is important, the school’s governance should also focus on maintaining a long-term vision that reflects its mission. Avoiding reactionary decision-making can help preserve the school’s core identity.
  10. Succession Planning: Develop a plan for leadership transitions to ensure that new leaders are aligned with the school’s mission and can continue its preservation. This includes succession plans for key administrative roles and board positions.
  11. Adaptation with Purpose: While the core mission should remain consistent, it’s important to acknowledge that educational environments and needs evolve. School governance should be flexible enough to allow for adaptations that are in line with the mission while addressing changing circumstances.

These are reminders of how by incorporating these principles into our schools’ governance structures, a school can enhance its ability to preserve its mission and provide a consistent and meaningful educational experience for its students and families. 

Will removed the maitre’d stand and his team welcomed guests as they arrived by name (they did some social media snooping), engaged in a conversation while signaling a team member to let them know when they could escort the guests to their table. This attention to the customer is what got them to be known and continuing to preserve that customer interaction through their success made them the best in the world. They did not forget what got them to the top and never stopped delivering on that promise. 

Turning back to schools. One of my senior administrators recently shared this exact story when we were considering scaling back our birthday card tradition of having every child receive a birthday card signed personally by all administration and hand-delivered, by me as Head of School. When we were 350 students, it was easier than now with 540 students. It was tough given our increased responsibilities to schedule the time to sign and deliver them. However, we hear time and time again how special this is to our students and how appreciative our families are of this birthday tradition. So, what did we do? We doubled down and committed to keep doing what got us to where we are now. 

As we all start the new school year, our leadership, boards, and vestries need to keep the faith and preserve the values, mission, and traditions that got us to where we are today. It is easy to get caught up in what to do next and how to continue to innovate, but we must always remember why our parents choose us and not forget to deliver on those promises each year.

Spencer Taintor Ph. D. is Head of School at St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Thank God It’s Today!

Each year, TMI Episcopal chooses a theme to represent how we are committed to serving our students and their families. They are not simply words on a banner, but a creed, a motto, by which we will easily live into on the “lighter days” and a belief that we will serve as a buoy on those days that are more challenging. This year’s theme is “Thank God It’s Today.” As the familiar saying goes, “Yesterday is in the past, tomorrow is in the future, but TODAY is a gift.” And that is how I have decided to lean into this school year—knowing that after almost three decades of working with children, I am still blessed with the opportunity to start anew and to receive the gift of a new day and a new year. Read More »

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Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

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Spiritual Answers for Hard Questions

Wow! An email I did not expect during COVID. This communication began an exchange between this student and me over the next four years. Understanding that spirituality is not separate from life but part of being human is an essential conversation for our schools. Often we try to create boxes of learning, not realizing that everything is connected, our minds, bodies, and spirit. Read More »

The Power of Perseverance

“Mr. Finley, will you please step out of the room so we can go into executive session for your review?” I had known this young man since he was nine years old, and now he was chairing my evaluation committee. After college he had been the first Epiphany graduate to join our teaching fellows program which helps train the next generation of urban educators and provides fellows with room, board, health insurance, educational debt relief, and often a free master’s degree. Now he was a successful entrepreneur, happily married with a baby on the way, and serving on our Board of Trustees. I, meanwhile, was no longer the twenty-six-year-old founding head of a tuition-free Episcopal school surviving by the skin of its teeth. Of the many lessons I’ve learned over the years, the importance of perseverance and trust in the work of social justice has been one of the most critical. Read More »

The Power of Our Worship

“What can I do?” I said this to a family in our school earlier in the fall, who had just tragically lost their son, one of our seniors. It’s something we all say, lay people and clergy alike, in difficult situations. We want to be helpful. We want to bring food, run errands, give hugs. Something. Anything. “What can I do?” The news of the loss of this student came on a weekend and started to seep into our community and as I wondered, other than responding pastorally to the family and communicating to our school community, what it was I could do, I realized that worship was probably the best answer. Read More »

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