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Four questions every new school leader should ask their parents

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Leading a private or independent school in today's educational climate is a challenge in and of itself. Entering into a new school as a leader? That can be an almost otherworldly undertaking.

There's learning the culture.

There's meeting and building relationships with teachers and staff members.

There's getting to know students.

There's familiarizing yourself with routines and procedures.

There's sorting through (and prioritizing) myriads of potential strategic initiatives.

And, there's often cleaning up other people's messes.

Sometimes, in all of the chaos and urgency, parents become the forgotten ingredient.

But, as Jennifer Klein and Jay Rapp point out in their recent article, "your key purpose is to educate students, and constructive collaboration with parents is paramount to your success. Get to know families—ask about their aspirations and desires."

Private school parents are, by definition, customers – in almost every case, they're exchanging their hard-earned dollars (tuition) for a service (education). Customers of ANY product or service have strong opinions – and usually are eager to share.

There are numerous creative ways to capture feedback from parents, but the key is to just do it. And, the sooner the better, especially if you're new to a school. Once you're "inside the bottle," you can't read the label... but when you're new, you're still able to see and examine the ingredients, nutritional content and branding with an open mind. In other words, you can see things with different eyes when you're still an outsider.

It's hard to read the label after you're inside the bottle.

With that in mind, here are four questions that can help new leaders begin to immediately forge relationships with their parents, while sparking insights that can create awareness and inform strategy:

1. What's the primary reason you're here?

There's no quicker way to understand what your school does well – or what makes it unique – than asking parents to identify the driving factor in their decision to enroll their student. It's easy for leaders to come in with assumptions. If the school consistently wins league championships in various sports, you might think parents flock to the school for athletics. If the local public school district is poorly rated, you might think parents are just trying to find a better option.

The picture can become even cloudier when other staff members feed into those assumptions with their own personal opinions and insights.

To get the true and full picture, you have to go to the source – only a parent can share their motivations for choosing your school. Real, substantive data can dispel assumptions and lead to breakthrough realizations.

We like the idea of encouraging parents to identify the ONE primary reason – not two or three or four. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that forced-choice questions (e.g. choose ONE answer) lead to more accurate data than "select-all-that-apply" questions.

That forced prioritization will help to flesh out what's truly important. It's why, in our ParentPulse survey, we don't allow multiple answers to that question.

2. What's one thing I should know about this place?

This question is particularly effective because it allows parents to travel in any direction they'd like, but it generally will still get back to the offramp know as "culture." As renowned author Terrence E. Deal said, school leaders do primarily three things when shaping culture: first, they "read" the culture, second they "uncover and articulate core values," and third, they "fashion a positive context."

This question gives you a chance to do those first two things: by actively listening to how parents describe the school and its culture, you're "reading" and "uncovering." It's impossible to move into that third step before you've discovered what elements have laid the foundation for the culture at your school.

One side note – you're likely to uncover some "sacred cows" here – things parents feel can never be changed or removed – but remember you're still in "data collection" mode. Listen as intently as possible, but don't feel pressure to buy into everything you hear. As Jake Breeden, author of "Tipping Sacred Cows," says, "When leaders embrace beliefs without understanding and managing the potential side effects, the beliefs become sacred cows and get in the way. When leaders shut off their brains and blindly follow the bromides of conventional wisdom they set off a string of unintended consequences."

Be on the lookout for "sacred cows!"
3. What did my predecessor do really well?

You might be stepping into the shoes of a local legend who was well-loved and faithfully led the school for decades. Or you might be replacing a leader who struggled to connect with students, staff and families. In either case, there's almost always both black and white, good and bad.

"Good leaders acknowledge the past realities, including the likelihood that any leader, no matter how poor, did something right," wrote Andrew Blum in Harvard Business Review. You will probably have employees (or parents) supportive of previous leadership, and they will have mixed views on what went wrong before and what has to be done differently. New leaders are well advised to acknowledge any positives that a predecessor brought..."

While you're called to lead in your own, unique way, you can often build a bridge to your parents by proactively piling onto the positives from the previous regime.

If you discover that parents loved how visible your predecessor was at school events, dive into that – why was it important to parents? What did they like about it? You can certainly repeat the behavior, but maybe it represents the tip of the iceberg... maybe there's even more potential.

Or perhaps parents felt like he or she communicated well. At the very least, try to maintain the same level of communication – but see if there are opportunities to take it up a notch as well.

4. What's one thing you would change?

So, let's be honest. This is a nicer way of taking question 3 and flipping it to, "What did my predecessor NOT do really well?" A new leader (or really any leader, for that matter) shouldn't engage in gossip, but this question invites the parent into dialogue that's honest and transparent without an invitation to disparage.

Even if you're a new leader, but were promoted from within the school, this question can be helpful – and you can bring contextual awareness and empathy that can lower transitional angst.

As one study on school leader succession discovered, "...outside successors are more likely to facilitate change because they have greater detachment from the difficult issues and can evaluate situations more objectively, (but) a successor from within the climate can maintain order when anxiety is high and offers an institutional memory that can prove an essential asset to the organization."

You'll undoubtedly hear a list of "pet projects" as you collect feedback from this question. Don't focus on individual responses as much as the emerging themes.

One parent might ask for the addition of a dance team; another might ask for a robotics club; a third might plead for more social programming for students. Do those requests collectively identify that there's a need for more diverse activities at the school?

In summary, whether you conduct 1-on-1 sessions with parents, focus groups, or use survey tools like ParentPulse, dive in early.

"New leaders also have to build relationships with the constituents who are affected by the change," continued Margaret Ritchie in her study. "These groups can include the faculty, students at all levels, members of the administration, parents, alumni and the board of trustees. Establishing authentic partnerships and relationships with individuals in these groups will enable the work to continue beyond the excitement stage of the installation and what is often referred to as the honeymoon phase."

You might still be on the honeymoon with the stakeholders at your school (including parents!), but asking the right questions – and then discerning how to leverage your learning to make the school a better place – can lead to many years of happily-wedded bliss!


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