What Is It Like to Lead in A Pandemic?

On July 1, Jennifer Borman ’81 will return to Commonwealth as its sixth Head of School. We were fortunate to be able to catch up with her this spring and learn more about her plans for our school, her priorities as Head, and her favorite ways to unwind in a challenging time.

How do you like to lead?

I am happiest when I'm learning, and you are constantly learning as Head of School, because you are so engaged in every area of the school. Leading a school engages almost every capacity I have, from empathy to intense analytical strategy. 

For me, leading is also about considering the human impact of your decisions, valuing the power of the collaborative, rather than the hierarchical and the lone, but still knowing where to draw the line on consensus-based decision making. If every decision is made by consensus, that's no guarantee of truth or rightness, either.

On a day-to-day basis, a really good leader can feel sort of extraneous—yet, everything good that happens in the school happens because faculty and staff feel empowered and supported. If you have an inept leader, those teachers don't stay and that, in turn, impacts the students’ experiences very powerfully. 

What are your plans and priorities for when you become head?

As an alumna, I have been aware of lots of changes at the school over time, but the students are just as thoughtful, authentic, engaged, funny, and creative, and the faculty are incredibly passionate about what they teach. Those are the things that seemed true when I was a student and seem true now. 

But I really do hope to come into the next six months, if not longer, without a lot of preconceptions. I want to learn from others about where the work is now. I think it's going to be a learning curve for me. And I'm really eager for and open to feedback along the way. 

What I have seen over and over is that when kids come into a learning environment where they feel like they can be truly themselves, they open up to learning in beautiful ways. And it’s easier to let down your defenses when you feel as though there are people in your school you can identify with.

I don't want to make any assumptions about where the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) conversation has been and where it's headed; it's going to take me a while to figure out where we are on each of the D E I letters. What is thrilling is how many people really have had their sleeves rolled up for a year now in this work. And I feel very lucky and excited that we will have a DEI leader to partner with. 

I would love to see us explicitly set some DEI goals and a timeline that is both ambitious and iterative: here's our roadmap for the next five years, and at regular junctures we ask ourselves, What have we accomplished? Where did we hit a brick wall? And what would we try next? 

How have you involved parents in your leadership?

When parents decide to send their children to an independent school, there's already tremendous commitment and willingness to partner. One of the things I love about my job is that you get to work with so many interesting, committed people, and I include parents centrally in that. 

Parenting adolescents brings its own complexities. Parents are figuring how much supervision or autonomy their children need. Adolescents are often in a similar push-pull with their parents and themselves. The more we can collaborate, the better we’re able to find what each student needs to thrive.  

What have you found to be the biggest challenges of leading a school during a pandemic?

Students and faculty just do not interact in the same ways online. They're paying attention, but they don't feel as comfortable or engaged. At times schooling could be really draining and frustrating. But all of us experienced our own ability to pivot over the past year, and I think that's going to be a great legacy. We were able to invent as we needed to. 

I do feel like this pandemic helped me reaffirm the importance of cultivating expertise. We have needed really well-educated people, people who can think about complex problems, like how to distribute vaccines in communities that don't have health clinics nearby. To play a small role in education, to feel like I’m making a difference in students’ lives, is meaningful to me. That’s part of why I'm so excited to come to Commonwealth. 

How have you responded to the uncertainty of pandemic-era schooling?

To a certain extent, leading through this pandemic hasn’t been that different than leading at any other time, in the sense that you’re tapping into the expertise of your community, gathering perspectives from a range of people, and trying to synthesize what you’re hearing so you’re not the sole arbiter of what's the right move. You’re harvesting the wisdom around you and trying to keep everyone's interests in mind—the students’, first and foremost. That collaborative approach has certainly helped us get through this year. 

There are a lot of compelling competing priorities. The lodestar is literal safety. I’ve felt an intense responsibility around people's health. But if that were the only priority, we'd have locked ourselves in the closet for fourteen months, and that's not a realistic way forward either. 

It’ll happen in stages, but I hope we can get back to familiar things and be fully in person in the fall. I can feel mounting hope all around me.

What do you do for fun?

I read. One of my earliest memories is the first time I sounded out a sentence in a book, and I feel like my romance with reading is the big through line of my life. 

Otherwise, truth be told, I think I have very boring hobbies: I like to be with friends. I like to hang out with my children (a daughter, who is a teacher at a public elementary school, and a son, currently a junior in college) and my husband. I like to hike. Sometimes I like to cook and other times it oppresses me.

These days, my reading taste has been affected by the pandemic and I’m certainly watching more Netflix than I ever have. I’m not inclined to read anything too distressing since I’m a little more friable than usual. Mostly I want to be transported to very different contexts—in place and time. That is one more virtue of education.

Learn more about Commonwealth's incoming Head of School.