It seems that “narrative” is a buzz word these days especially in media. We heard it throughout the summer with coverage of the Michael Brown shooting and the ensuing protests and riots in Ferguson, MO. We hear it now with vaccines, the ISIS threat, and even Super Bowl play-calling. Instead of reporting “the story,” news anchors will cover “the narratives.” What is the narrative of Young Black Men in our country? What is the narrative of Darren Wilson and other police officers who serve in our most vulnerable communities? What is the narrative of parents who vaccinate their children in comparison to those who choose not to vaccinate? What does President Barak Obama’s response to ISIS tell us about his narrative? How does Pete Carroll’s narrative explain his decision to pass on the Seahawks final play? Narrative has much more to do with the person(s) involved than with the what, when, and where of what happened. It is the lens through which the story is seen by the persons who are intimately and also marginally involved. As we all know that lens is shaped by many factors, such as race, gender, religion, family, politics, economics, mental and physical wellness, etc.
When a board and head of school make a decision to grow, a key responsibility of the board and the head of school is to be in control of the narrative that will be associated with that growth. This control should be evident both internally with the leadership team, faculty, students, and families, and externally with donors, volunteers, community partners, political leaders, sponsoring congregations, and other schools. The narrative should be clear and consistent from all who represent that message.
A decision to grow should only come after an honest and positive assessment of mission and how well student achievement, core team members, facilities, and resources are positioned to support the mission. Typically, then, a narrative of growth starts with “we are in a place of strength and stability.”
There is great risk here since so much hard work has been expended to get to this place and any missteps or lack of focus can cause that “place of strength and stability” to quickly unravel. For instance, if you are adding a 4th grade and place so much emphasis on being prepared for elementary students that your team becomes distracted from a quality middle school education then results can sour in even that one year. Or if your core team takes on new roles and responsibilities or a new position is added and that transition is not managed properly, then that solid team may show signs of wear and tear.
So the second piece of the narrative is “These are the risks, 1. …, 2. …., 3. …., and we are ready to tackle them.” In order to be in control of the narrative, the head of school is regularly meeting with the board, leadership team, faculty and staff, and students and parents to be out front and proactive of the risks and allowing for concerns to be voiced and input to be given. It is important to acknowledge that some board members and team members who were very comfortable in that place of strength and stability, may now feel out of place with these looming risks. And others, of course, may thrive with the spirited pace, emerging variables, and at times unpredictable nature of growth.
The third and most important piece of this narrative of growth is making it all about opportunity: “We have an opportunity here that is so compelling that we need to act now.” The Board and President of Nativity Jesuit Academy in Milwaukee recognized the convergence of two opportunities in vouchers and blended learning that compelled their decision for significant growth. All school leaders who decide to grow need to define the opportunity that is here and now and that will impact the education that is delivered to students for years to come. Whether it is more students; a higher standard of education, or both, the narrative of growth is driven by opportunity not by risk.
The lens through which this opportunity is perceived is not void of economics, gender, religion, race, politics, etc. While members of the internal school community should have time to share their personal lens, the head of school and the leadership team is responsible for articulating the external narrative and working with the board, the faculty and staff, and the students and families to message that narrative. If the opportunity for growth is about the greater impact of educating students starting in 4th grade rather than 5th grade, then the narrative, regardless of who is delivering the message, should be free of other tangential references, such as the terrible conditions at the local 4th grade school, for example, or the challenge of recruiting a 5th grade class. While this may seem obvious, we all know how easily a message can get off track and how quickly external by-standers can associate their own narrative to your growth.
One final point: the narrative for growth is on-going throughout implementation of the plan and even for a year or two afterward. As Terry Axelrod, former Chief Political Advisor for President Barak Obama, remarked on CBS Sunday Morning when he referred to President Obama’s need to message Yes We Can long after the campaign was won: ”You have to have a continuing commitment to an on-going message that is palpable, that people feel.”