Independent Schools Are History

History and the FutureSo often school leaders find themselves solving problems: their own, those of their school, those of teachers, students, and parents.  In 25 years of reviewing the resumes of current and future school leaders, I have noticed an abundance of former history teachers in our schools’ leadership ranks.  Why?

Is there something about teaching history that might predispose a person to effective school leadership – more so, say, than teaching math, chemistry, or a world language?  I’m certainly not suggesting that non-historian types wouldn’t make good leaders, as many factors can contribute to successful leadership.  Still, is there something we can learn about why or how a historical thinker might be more likely to grasp and take command of tasks including making decisions, investigating situations, understanding circumstances, and finding solutions?

My former Community School (ID) colleague and history teacher, Jimmy Woods, used to talk about E.H. Carr’s little book, What Is History?, and about how asking the right questions not only gets to the heart of a matter but defines a historian – and history. (To underscore the point, he once exempted a student from an exam because she asked the right question.)  Ever notice how good leaders have a knack for getting to the heart of a matter?

Consider the importance of asking the right questions when addressing issues of school governance, or solving conflict between a family and the school – or between teachers – or knowing what to ask when determining whether to drop the AP program, or what to name a building (okay, sometimes that one’s easy).

Take, for example, Belmont Hill School, one of any number of schools where the history department also includes the Head of School, Upper School Head, Dean of Faculty, and Director of Studies.  Pure coincidence?  Or simply that school leaders often emerge from the history classroom and, provided they have enough mettle for leadership, rise through the ranks into positions where they can oversee the work in our schools?

Of course, teachers of other subjects have assumed many kinds of leadership roles over the years, but I suspect many of those leaders are also history buffs, junkies, dabblers, or closet historians.  Schools are complex places with many internal and external political forces, organizational cultures, precedents, priorities, points of view, and plans.  It is likely that understanding and being able to explain events like The Great Compromise or the Boxer Rebellion would give leaders an edge in knowing how to anticipate, recognize, and balance the sometimes countervailing forces and perspectives with a school’s community as they thoughtfully and boldly guide their institution along paths to prosperity.


3 thoughts on “Independent Schools Are History

  1. I find that collegues in the history department are intensely aware of how crucial education is for a successful democracy. In addition to the love for the content and the social science skills, history teachers are aware that the goal of eduation is bigger than what’s happening in our classrooms. That awareness leads us to want to contribute more through leadership positions.

  2. HOS as History teacher. Simply, Historians are students of leaders. Leaders are what we teach, What we teach becomes self-actualized. Seeing the recent movie, “Lincoln” reminded me, Abe Lincoln would have been a HOS. As a lawyer, he studied history as much as anyone else. Thus, Historian succumb to the temptation of leading…some succeed more than others. Not a surprise to me. Many more HOS are History teachers by trade.
    Best, Charlie Clark

  3. Ben, I enjoyed reading your article on history and school leadership. I noticed the same thing about 15 years ago. The majority of leaders in schools where I have been employed have come from the ranks of history teachers, by a roughly 2-1 margin over all other disciplines combined. I agree that history provides especially good preparation for leadership. More to the point, I think those intrigued by history are at the same time intrigued by leadership, and they are often interested in cultivating their own abilities using and exploring examples from the past.


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