This past weekend I attended a farewell celebration for my good friend and longtime colleague, Lenesa Leana, who is retiring after serving as head for twelve years at Belmont Day School in Boston. Lenesa and I began our work in Episcopal schools together, at Trinity School in New York City.
It was truly inspiring to see what an impact she has had on that school community, so clearly evident from the strong turnout, the variety of individuals and groups present, and the moving tributes offered by faculty, parents, and trustees. To be sure, I was not surprised by what I heard and saw, given what I knew of Lenesa’s effectiveness as a leader. What the occasion did was help remind me of the importance of school leadership at a time of the year when we all need that reminding!
It reminded me, for example, of the influence a school leader can have, as we share our thoughts about working with young people and what we seek to do in school communities. Person after person mentioned the importance of Lenesa’s regular communications with parents—be it the weekly update or her annual back-to-school night talks. Granted, some of us are better writers or speakers than others, but it is helpful for us to remember that the thoughts, experiences, stories we share with our parents are things they very much need and look forward to—in a way they serve as one of the most important sources of hope and perspective that many of our parents receive on a regular basis. We cannot underestimate just how vitally important these modes of communication can be.
The board chair shared with me an important observation. “In the business, legal, or corporate world, it is not unusual for people to be told off, to lose one’s cool, or to get angry. A school head, on the other hand, has to remain calm, composed, and not seem to be threatened by what comes his or her way.” Another important reminder to us (particularly at the end of the year, when we might have grown weary and impatient with meeting after meeting where we have had to maintain a certain demeanor): people do notice that calm, perhaps even absorb it as something they can incorporate into their work, particularly in a culture where a lack of calm pervades so much discourse. In a culture where many parents might be unconsciously predisposed to a posture of “doing battle,” our “mature” responses can certainly feel draining, at times, but they do serve as a helpful guide to others as an alternative to so much that goes on in the world.
I was fortunate to say a few words in tribute to Lenesa, and one of the things I mentioned was that I deeply admired her ability to work hard on having a life of her own, apart from the myriad demands of work. She and her husband, Frank, were quite intentional about this, even as the reality of school leadership can make us feel as if we are always “on.” There were times when she, like all of us, struggled to find that life of her own, but work at it she did, and in that working not only brought a clearer sense of balance to her life but also paved the way for the transition that she and her husband are about to undertake.
Reminding ourselves of the impact we have as school leaders, knowing that the mature stance we must take (whether we want to or not!) can be both draining and inspiring, working at having a life of our own. What more important things can we be holding on to as we conclude what no doubt has been a very full year of leading a school?