What’s in a Name?

If you are a board member, what title do you use for your main leader? Choose from the following names, each used by CSI schools: administrator, principal, head-of-school, superintendent, president, headmaster.

If you are the staff leader (I’ve never heard that as a title), how recent is the title you now have? Did you suggest to the board the title you prefer? For both boards and leaders, the current name may have little or no intentional meaning: as long as the person answers to the board, all those alternatives may seem the same. It’s akin to Juliet telling Romeo that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Who cares about the name?

In my experience, some leaders and boards do think there is a difference in meaning in the title the school leader bears. A little history is worth considering. Many years ago, for example, the title “principal” had a narrower meaning than it does now. The principal was the key or the best teacher in the school, a bit like the first among equals. This leader continued to teach students while taking on some coordinating responsibilities, e.g., supervising volunteer school helpers, organizing all-school events, assigning teachers to classes, etc. Board members collected tuition and paid bills. The clear emphasis in the job description (a phrase unheard back then) was to teach well and make sure others did.

Headmaster,” now fading in use in Christian schools, originally had the same meaning as “principal” did at the beginning. “Headmaster” meant the best, the most experienced, or the top teacher, the one who had mastered the craft of teaching. The term is still afloat in the trades, i.e., master plumber or master electrician. Again, the title carried the primary meaning of “He/She is a superb teacher who can handle some administrative stuff on the side. We’ll up the salary a little as compensation for that supervisory role.”

Much later came “superintendent,” a person who had experience as a teacher and who was chosen to supervise and pay close attention to either multiple schools—regional governments chose a person to be a district superintendent to oversee all the local districts schools—or to supervise multiple principals within a large school system. The title meant he/she handled all the affairs of the system, from operations to personnel, with teaching and curriculum being near the end of the list of duties.

Administrator” is at least 50 years old and, like “superintendent,” has almost no connotation of leading a school. Administrators abound now in all businesses, for profit or not. Ask a board member, “Who is your lead staff member?” The board member is likely to say, “Our administrator is Mr./Ms. Jansen.”

More recently the title “head of school” has gained status. Prestigious secular private schools have used the term for decades; it suggests a cut above other schools that still use the term “superintendent,” which is fading in usage. “Head of school” does not, though, contain the connections to teaching that “headmaster” does. Only a few CSI schools name their leader “president.” When they do, the school board leader is then called “chair” rather than “president.”

So, what’s my point? Here are a couple:

  1. The history of school leader names shows a decreasing responsibility for education. That is not good. Most CSI schools’ missions say little about operations; they all refer to students’ reaching academic and faith goals.
  2. All schools need strong administrators of operations (business term). I think it is better to have a director of education as leader and the director of operations answering to the education leader than vice versa.
  3. If your Christian school thinks all these names are synonyms, it needs to declare in the leader’s job description whether operations or education is primary and, in filling a vacancy, select a person who can best carry out the school’s emphases.
  4. Both in emphasis in board meetings and on the evaluation form for the leader of the school, progress on educational goals should have a higher value than operations.

Disagree with this stance? Respond in writing here. That will help fellow leaders (should I have said “heads-of-school”?) and board members clarify their thinking.

– Dan Vander Ark

1 Comment

Filed under Governance, Personnel Issues

One Response to What’s in a Name?

  1. Dan, as president of a Christian School who is not an educator, I have bias as it relates to positions and to roles. You distinguish between operations and education as two functions within a school. A school is first and foremost an organization. What a school leader needs to be concerned with is the health and well-being of the organization. Neither operations nor education will flourish if the organization is not healthy. Its within a flourishing organization that both functions can thrive. Gone are the days when school boards can play the role of organizational director; organizations are much too complex for part time folks who are in the midst of their busy vocations to attend to the work that a person with executive leadership can and should attend to. Whether that executive leader is an educator or not, the leader must focus primarily on what makes an organization flourish; that means that operations and education must be integrated—-both need to be seen as critical for the achievement of mission, both must be guided by an integrated strategic plan and must be seen as equally important to the organization as a whole.

    For your thoughts!

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