I had a great, hour-long conversation yesterday with the FGS head of school (HOS for the purposes of this blog post). This is the beauty of summer, of course, that schedules are more flexible and allow for such long conversations, but it also says a lot about how great the HOS is and how much she values me as a member of the faculty.
I'd requested the meeting a couple of weeks ago, when I was seriously down in the dumps and was both (a) imagining a possible future in which the only excitement was whether I was teaching the freshman or sophomore course and (b) suddenly feeling like I needed to be on a career path that would eventually lead to more money. So I sent her an email asking if we could talk about how I might best position myself for possible administrative jobs down the line.
So apparently I panicked her a little bit, which wasn't my intention but is not at all a bad result, and one of the first things she said to me was "We really don't want to lose you!" And I said that I wasn't at all eager to leave, that FGS was a great place to work, but that apparently I was goal-oriented enough that I had to feel like I was moving toward something. Unfortunately, "advancement" tends to move one further and further out of the classroom, and I love teaching, so what I was interested in exploring was options that would have me teaching at least part-time but also doing other challenging things. And I told her that none of this was a crisis (which was true since I'd calmed down and cheered up considerably since I first requested the meeting), but that I wanted to be doing something in the present or near future that would make me a fabulous candidate if the perfect job came up. And I told her about a job opening from a couple of years ago that I'd seriously considered at FGS's rival school, one that I decided not to apply for because at that point I had only been in the secondary school world for three years and still had much to learn; but if a position like that -- half-time dean of studies, half-time teaching -- came up again at a good school, I'd want to be a real contender for it. And again she said that she was really hoping that FGS could keep me but that of course it was possible that timing and opportunity might conspire against that.
(And let me pause for a moment to talk about how remarkable it is, really, to be talking with my boss about how I can use my FGS experience to go elsewhere in my career, and how she's totally supportive of this. I still find this extraordinary. Not that I want to leave FGS, mind you, but I also want to feel like I could leave if an exciting opportunity presented itself.)
So HOS laid out several options that she could see me doing, all of which would give me a change of pace and new challenges and all of which would look good if the time came that I wanted to go elsewhere:
- Department chair. HOS told me, as she's told me before, that she thinks I would make a great department chair, and I happen to agree with her. The problem, of course, is that the position isn't vacant. She said, "Who knows what's going on with Current Chair? Every year she announces to me that she may leave, and every year she stays. So I don't know what's going to happen in the next couple of years, but I think you'd be wonderful in the position." I do find the way that FGS handles department chairs annoying; basically it's a position for life, and the chair steps down from the position only when he or she wants to, which means that some people stay in the position for YEARS. I find this problematic even for the best chairs, and it's certainly not a good thing when one has a largely incompetent chair, as the English department does. But I've given up banging my head against that particular stupidness of FGS. There was a time when it made me crazy to have such a bad chair, but now I just go with the flow and recognize that she actually has fairly little to do with my day-to-day school life, so I try not to worry about it. All of which is to say that I'm not holding my breath on Option #1, and it's not at all my top option, although I wouldn't automatically say "no" if the opportunity presented itself. As far as I can tell, department chairs at FGS handle a lot of niggly, tedious details and have to go to meetings that are far more contentious than our usual faculty meetings, and while occasionally they get to do something major to change the shape of the curriculum or department, it's mostly just annoying housekeeping details.
- Academic class dean. This would be a new position at FGS, and it's one that the HOS is interested in making happen. Right now each class (that is, the juniors, the seniors, etc.) has two class advisors who usher the kids through the various class retreats and traditions and class projects, but she would like to restructure that set-up so that each class still has two advisors but only one of them does this sort of student affairs work while the other is all about academic oversight. In HOS's vision, the student affairs class dean would always be assocated with a particular grade (since our school traditions are grade-specific), while the academic class dean would travel with a particular cohort through their four years of high school, making sure that kids aren't falling through the cracks academically, that they're being challenged academically, that we keep track of students of concern, etc. Now this option interests me very much! I have no interest in student affairs (I think it's important, just not what I want to do), but I'm really interested in academics, curriculum, and faculty. I think that the way we currently keep tabs on weak academic kids is not consistent enough, and certainly having an academic class dean who knows a particular class really well could be a good way to address this problem. It would probably be a lot of work, although I imagine there would be busier times and less busy times, and she's imagining the position as worth one course release, so I'd probably still be teaching four courses, whereas what I'd really love is a position that had me teaching only three courses. But I find this an exciting possibility, and it's certainly a position that would be good administrative experience for the types of jobs I might apply for some day. HOS is going to propose this new model this fall and said that they would decide by December if they were going to adopt this model for next year. So this is a real possibility.
- College counseling part-time. College counseling is an area that many people take into administration; HOS did this herself, as did our former upper school division head. I find it kind of funny that it's a route toward administration, because it doesn't actually seem all that administrative to me, but I think it's because one works with parents as well as students and is doing para-academic work. Anyway, the current junior class is large -- 97 students, which is a big class for FGS -- and the HOS has been thinking that this is simply too many students for our two full-time college counselors. (These are the moments when I'm most struck by the difference between the world of independent schools and the large public high school I attended! But of course college admissions is one of the major reasons that families hand over the big bucks for tuition, and it's also one of the ways in which we help to launch our scholarship students into the world.) So she raised the possibility that I (or someone else) could take on 8-10 of the seniors next year (that is, this year's juniors) and walk them through the college process, writing letters for them, helping them with their essays, helping them select schools and manage their applications, etc. The major downside to college counseling is seriously stressed-out students and incredible parent pressure, and the head told me that she herself couldn't wait to get out of college counseling to get away from the parents. At the same time, she thought it was something I could be good at. So it's food for thought. Helping kids with their college essays is my favorite thing to do in our writing center, and this year for the first time I'm going to have senior advisees and will get to walk them through the college application process, so I'll have opportunities to test out this idea and see if it interests me.
- Admissions work (that is, admitting people to FGS itself). HOS would really like our admissions office to be promoting the academic culture of the school more than they do (and I'd say this is kind of a losing battle with our current head of admissions, which I didn't say to the HOS but which I think she already knows). A previous admissions person, who used to teach in the English department, is returning this year from having taken time off with her new baby, and she's going to be teaching one English course while working almost full-time in admissions, so it will be interesting to see how this works. The admissions director was really against this split time and so probably wouldn't be in favor of more people doing it, but the HOS is wondering if having more admissions people actually in the classroom as well would help us improve the way admissions talks about academics. I read admissions files a couple of years ago and found it interesting but exhausting (but of course I was doing it on top of my usual work, whereas this option the HOS outlined would be replacing some of my current work). Anyway, we agreed that this wasn't as clear an option as the others and might not really be workable but is worth considering.
- Assistant head of the upper school. This is a reconfigured position that was advertized the year before last, and I seriously considered applying for it but ultimately decided that it just looked way too boring! It's half-time teaching and half-time administration, which would be perfect, but, as I told HOS, the administratie component really seemed almost secretarial in ways -- handling add/drops for students, programming the bells that ring between classes -- which is why I hadn't applied for it last time, and she agreed and said that they were already reshaping the job in some ways and would continue to do so. ("Why on earth does this person handle the bells?!" she asked rhetorically.) Obviously the school hired someone when the job was advertized, and the person they hired is great, but as HOS said, "She's clearly on her way to bigger and better things and in a couple of years will go somewhere else to be a division head, and I have no doubt she'll be a great head of school some day." So the job will come open again, reconfigured by then, and HOS said that it would be a good opportunity to get a taste of school administration.
Now, all of these options would meet concern (a) from the top of this blog post -- new challenges, new excitement -- but most of them wouldn't address concern (b) at all -- more money! To be fair, I didn't mention money at all, not wanting to seem crass, and it is true that all of these options would position me well to some day apply for a higher-powered administrative job, which would in fact bring more money, and that positioning-myself-for-future-jobs was the way that I framed the conversation with HOS. The last three options might have a small summer work component, which would bring in extra money and let me stop teaching summer school (which I think is one of my major concerns), although obviously most of these options would have be created from the ground up anyway, so who knows what they might look like.
And last night I was thinking about money and realizing that this is mostly the beauty of how FGS works; unlike a lot of independent schools, faculty salaries (although not administrative salaries) are completely transparent, with everyone paid based on their years of teaching experience and academic degrees and with that scale published every year in the faculty handbook. So there's no sense that one's colleagues might somehow have negotiated a better deal, which is the case at a lot of schools (including one school, for which I was on an evaluation team, in which it turned out that the male faculty were all being paid more than the female faculty; and this was a girls' school!). So there's really no way for me to work some deal at FGS where I could get some extra money, which is too bad for my goal (b) but is in every respect a good thing since it helps to create the wonderful, open FGS climate. So I'm not actually complaining about this.
One additional piece of food for thought is that our sabbatical system at FGS is for full-time teaching faculty only, and I could start applying for a sabbatical starting with this year's round of applications. Well, I could have applied before but probably wouldn't have been in the running at all. But this will be my sixth year at FGS, and the word on the street is that one often has to apply at least once before actually getting a sabbatical, so the advice I've been given is to start applying the year before I actually want my sabbatical. Now, I don't actually know what I'd do with a sabbatical -- I don't do well with unstructured time, and I don't have a major project that I'm working on -- but I do know that I want the option of taking a sabbatical, so I wouldn't want to move out of full-time teaching before taking one. But I think only the last option, the assistant head of the upper school, would actually remove me from the full-time teaching category. Anyway, more food for thought.
Yesterday's conversation with the HOS really was fabulous, not because she promised me anything, but because she made it so clear how much she values me as a member of the school community and because she completely validated my need to know that there will be exciting new possibilities down the line, even if I don't know exactly what those possibilities are. After our conversation I went down the hall to my classroom and puttered about for an hour, tossing things from last year, straightening things up for the year to come, and finding myself beginning to look forward to the year ahead, an emotion I had NOT been feeling until now. So this is all good, and I'm definitely moving into a more cheerful frame of mind and am once again feeling so grateful for my lovely job at FGS.