So 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.