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Preview Story: Institute for the Head's Assistant

Monday, May 11, 2015  
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By Sarah Stewart

SAIS is offering a new workshop this summer to support a critical member of the independent school team - the head's assistant. Part gatekeeper, liaison, supporter, and planner, the head's assistant works tirelessly behind the scenes to help the head function at high capacity.  

The inaugural Institute for the Head’s Assistant will be led by school psychologists Michael Thompson and Rob Evans as well as Kay Betts of Bettstrategic Group. It will take place June 16-17 in Atlanta. Betts has almost three decades of experience working in independent schools, six of which were as a head of school. Thompson is a consultant, psychologist, and author of the bestsellers Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys and Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, among other books. Evans is a clinical and organizational psychologist, the executive director of The Human Relations Service in Wellesley, MA, and author of Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving and Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with the Crisis in Childrearing, among other publications.  

“The head’s assistant is one of the most important jobs in the school; it’s really one of the unsung heroes,” said Thompson. “They don’t have the standing as a teacher or an administrator, but they have an enormous amount of responsibility.”

Prior to the event this summer, SAIS conducted a survey of heads’ assistants to gauge their responsibilities and concerns. According to the responses, 80 percent identify gatekeeping and calendar management as their primary responsibilities, followed by acting as a liaison, planning board meetings, and planning other school functions.

Some topics that will be covered at IHA include the challenges and opportunities of the position, how to promote problem solving, how to “coach” higher ups, and how to find and maintain one’s own support system.

In counseling heads’ assistants over the years, Thompson said he found that a significant amount of time tended to go toward managing people and the community. He also found that it was important that the assistant maintain a balance of optimism and protectiveness. 

“The head’s assistant is always trying to fill in and cover and make her boss better,” said Thompson. “They know who the troublesome parents are, the board members, the nutty teacher. They are a critical gatekeeper between the community and the head.” 

In preparation for IHA, here are four tips from the trenches: 
1. Communicate: Communication takes work, and most of that work involves listening and understanding. Take the time in the beginning to find out exactly what your head needs and expects from you, and continue to build your relationship. Sometimes the head simply needs someone to listen to them and provide support, but not solutions. Obviously confidentiality is critical. 

2. Organize, Prioritize: Try to anticipate the needs of the head, the board, and those you are working with so you are ready when the next question or request comes. Remember the little things. Be proactive and flexible. Take notes and create reminders. Be the protector of the head's time and when possible delegate tasks to other administrators.

3. Friends Are Allies: Be a team player and make friends with everyone. Appreciate others, recognize expertise, and ask for help or input when needed. You never know who might help you or when you’ll need support. Apologize when you make a mistake. Never belittle a coworker. Don't gossip and don't allow it. Be friendly and remember a smile goes a long way! 

4. The Buddy System: The head’s assistant can be a lonely position. Seek out a partner from another school who can offer advice, expertise, or just friendly support. This can be a mentor, a sounding board, or a peer you can trust or unwind with. If you are new to independent schools, find a seasoned employee who understands how non-profit independent schools work. 

5. Take Care of Yourself: The assistants to heads work behind the scenes and their duties are constant. People may not realize when you are at your limit or need a break. It’s up to you to know your limits. When things get hectic, back away for a few minutes and regroup. Don't beat yourself up about mistakes, just learn from them and move forward. Breathe and find ways to laugh during the day. 

Calendar more
Institute for New Heads
June 13-15, 2018 | Peachtree Corners, GA
An informative program preparing administrators for a successful transition to headship.

Institute for Heads
June 19-22, 2018 | Asheville, NC
This energizing and nurturing retreat offers an opportunity for thoughtful dialogue and engagement with colleagues on key issues facing heads of school and their spouses.

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