Riverbank Colleagues: The Resource Leaders Need to Take on The Next Rapids

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Ross Peters | Vice President of School Strategy

Heads of School need a kind of support that they are not receiving, and it will limit their effectiveness during this unprecedented time of COVID-19 and national reckoning with systemic racism. The Riverbank Colleague is able to meet this support need and help position leaders and schools to rise to meet the challenges downstream.

For someone who loved going to the most beautiful and wild places in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, I was never much of a paddler or a climber, but I learned enough about each to be competent in the role of second or third leader on a trip. On the rockface, I lacked the imagination and boldness of a great climber; as a paddler, I didn’t always pick the right line, hence I did some unplanned swimming in the Nantahala, the Ocoee, the Nolichucky, the Chattooga, the Pigeon, and the French Broad. I was, however, a good teacher. As a result, I could help others do things that would have been impossible for me.

I worked with some climbers who from day one could accomplish things that would at best stymie me and at worst put me in traction. I coached some paddlers who did things after a few days on the river that would have left my boat wrapped around a rock on which I would then stand forlorn and somewhat worse for wear. 

All that said, each of those climbers and paddlers needed me. My role wasn’t to be better than them as climbers or paddlers; my role was to support them, to help them find confidence, to think through something in advance, to debrief something after it went well or went poorly. Additionally, part of my job was to give them the benefit of my experience in as much as it would be helpful to them.

As a school leader, so many of my sources of good counsel over the years have been leaders at other schools doing the same job as me, and they have generously offered advice along the way. In my career I have been uniquely fortunate in this area. However, during this time in which the advent of COVID-19 marked an immersion with the pandemic and a reckoning with systemic racism, those people have less (more likely zero!) bandwidth to offer beyond their own school. This has been consistently evident as I have reached out to check in with and offer support to a number of Heads around the country.

Not only are Heads unable to draw from their experience reservoir to provide support for others, they are in desperate need of support themselves.

Importantly, in this crucible moment for education and in independent schools, Heads don’t have requisite sources of support. We see evidence of this in the number of Heads who are raising their hands for help that doesn’t seem to be on the way. We see it in epidemic-level break-down of Head-Board relationships. And…we see it in far, far too numerous early Head departures. In order to serve schools well, Heads must have sources of support, or nothing will be there to break their fall, and in the end schools will be weaker for the loss.

But there’s more (everything in every news cycle right now seems like this!)…institutional goals cannot be simply to withstand or survive challenges. Schools and leaders must aim to thrive in an ever-changing environment. Highly talented, well-meaning, and hollow-eyed leadership is not enough. They need more help, and Boards, as well as direct reports, cannot provide all of those needs.

Back to the river–it feels safer there! One of the first things a new paddler learns (after learning a roll) is how to hit an eddy–those spots on the river where the water curls back on itself often behind a large rock along the bank. Such spots provide a resting spot from the relentless pull of the river downstream. Not hitting the eddy can be a significant disappointment, particularly for someone who is exhausted from making the thousand reactive decisions a minute required by whitewater. Heads of school and paddlers need eddies. They need to recognize their importance to their personal well-being and to their ability to continue to do the job ahead. Heads of schools and paddlers need something else too–someone on the eddy bank who can provide:

  • Scouting: they have scouted ahead, listened to other paddlers who have already traveled this way.
  • They can sort the feedback of those other paddlers in order to edit the scouting report for what is most valuable.
  • They can provide their personal insight having traveled this river (or one a bit like it) before.
  • They can bolster the paddler’s confidence and cheer them on.
  • They can, when necessary, advise caution if the paddler is considering a route that is dangerous.
  • They can provide a safe, confidential place to express frustration, fear or concern.
  • They can celebrate the victories of the paddler.

Heads of school, like paddlers of all experience and skill levels need these riverbank colleagues, and they don’t have them. Right now they need them desperately.

No matter how much a Board Chair on one side or an Assistant Head or CFO want to play this kind of supportive role, they cannot. The River Bank Colleague exists outside the flow of the river or of the life of the school. This person is neither someone that the Head reports to, nor is it someone that reports to the Head. It is an outsider whose priority is the Head him/her/themself.

This is a pressing need, and Boards not only should support Heads who ask for this sort of help, but they must also point it out and choose it for many Heads. The struggle we have seen in Heads through our work at EXPLO Elevate reveals that Heads know they have a need, but they either don’t know what might help, or they don’t know it is OK to ask for it. They may also feel as if expressing a need for this kind of support will reveal a weakness they would rather keep to themselves. Many Heads are not used to feeling the type of isolation they are feeling right now, and they don’t know how to respond to what feels like a vacuum of support. This includes Heads who have very high Adaptability Quotients (please see Moira Kelly’s excellent piece on AQ entitled, “What if we all trained to go to Mars?”)–no Head is immune. Board Chairs should help in destigmatizing the sort of support Heads will need to lead their schools successfully in a transforming world.

It is our belief at EXPLO Elevate that there are warning signs up for the river ahead, for the school year to come, and even though there are a number of significant challenges pressing for a leader’s attention, it must remain a priority to take care of themselves and create the necessary support structures to ensure their well being and sustainability in the job. 


Final thought: As we have discussed the idea of Riverbank Colleagues, we have thought that a combination of small cohorts of Heads (not more than seven), plus individual time with the Riverbank Colleague might be the optimum set-up, as it will allow for the group to have some discussion regarding pressing/critical topics all in the cohort are facing, and it will allow for the Head and the RBC to dig deeply into the specific context of the individual Head’s home school. Additionally, we do not see this role as having to be a long-term relationship.