44. Strategic Academic Planning to Evolve Your Small School’s Program with Mike Gwaltney

In this episode, we are joined by Mike Gwaltney, a consultant under Independent School Management ISM. Mike explains the various stages of academic planning and his goal of helping schools adapt and evolve their programs to stay relevant in order for students to become their optimal selves in the long run.

About Mike Gwaltney:

Mike spent 30 years working in private, independent schools, holding most every position on the academic side of school, from teacher to associate head. Now, Mike is a consultant with independent school management ISM and offers consulting services on topics like leadership, strategic academic planning, faculty culture, teacher retention, teacher growth, student assessment, and more.

Find Mike Gwaltney:

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Show Transcript

Aubrey: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Aubrey Bursch. 
 Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Mike Gwaltney. Mike spent 30 years working in private, independent schools, holding most every position on the academic side of school, from teacher to associate head. Now, Mike is a consultant with independent school management ISM and offers consulting services on topics like leadership, strategic academic planning, faculty culture, teacher retention, teacher growth, student assessment, and more. Welcome, Mike. We’re so glad you’re here. 
 Mike: Hey, Aubrey and Tara, thank you so much. It’s a really an honor and a pleasure for me to be here with the two of you. 

Aubrey: And Mike, we’re really excited you’re here, and we’re really excited to dive into this fun topic, and I think very, a very appropriate topic for our audience. But before we get started, we’d love for you to tell us a little bit more about yourself, your story. 
 Mike: Again, thank you for letting me be here. My, my story is probably not entirely different than a lot of people who come to working in schools. Maybe a little wrinkles. I’m not a product of a private independent school. I’m the product of big public Los Angeles area education including through university, going to state university here. And I was the first person for my family to go to college, for example. So it was an unusual path that got me here, but once I was in private independent schools, my career probably looks a lot like lots of folks moving through the different roles on the academic side of the school. I’m, I’ve done a few things that are unusual, which made me a disruptor, which was I was always interested in trying new things and for maybe some of your listeners might recognize it, we in private independent schools on the academic side of things, love tradition and we love the things we’ve always been doing. So sometimes people who introduce new ideas, it’s a little disruptive. The other reason I’m excited to be here with you guys is that I have a long background in mindfulness, and so when my colleague mentioned, the, that, maybe we should talk with Tara and Aubrey. Yeah, I’d really love to do that. Because I’ve been doing, I have my own mindfulness practice now for about 25, 26 years. So it’s exciting for me to to be on a podcast with the name Mindful built right into it. 

Tara: Yeah, we’re really lucky that we have that connection and that you have that practice. I know we, [00:03:00] Aubrey and I are really interested in the topic of mindfulness, which is why we added that as an element of this podcast. To be honest, we, it’s not something that we you know, that we scan for when we’re looking for people to join us. So it’s a special bonus that we have someone on today who can really talk in depth about how mindfulness helps you in your life. I’m so glad you mentioned that, and we’ll talk about that in a little bit, but let’s get the conversation started by talking about strategic academic planning, cuz that’s the topic of what that we wanted to cover with you from a from a school oriented topic, can you tell us more about what strategic academic planning means and also what benefits come from this approach? The title seems a little bit obvious, but how do you go about it specifically? 
 Mike: Hmm. Yeah. So schools- very rarely will we encounter a school that doesn’t have a strategic plan, right? So schools are either in one of three places, they’re building their strategic plan, they’re in their strategic plan, or they’re wrapping up their strategic plan and they immediately start building a new one. And often when schools think of their strategic plan, they’re thinking about building a, building, something about financing development side. I think in recent years, people are starting to recognize that academic program needs to be somehow part of a strategic plan. There was a time it’s well in the rear view mirror now when strategic planning just assumed the curriculum never changes. The teaching never really changes. Like we don’t really need to do much on academic. Maybe, we’ll get better classrooms or maybe for a while it was new technology should be in the strategic plan, but I think we’re all pretty hip to the reality that kids are different. The world is changing and curriculum needs to always be refined, reviewed, redeveloped. And strategic academic planning operates with the idea that you ought to be setting goals for the evolution of your academic program in the same way that you do with everything else at school, cuz it’s been neglected in the past. Just to people listening and watching your podcast, I would encourage you- think about your school’s curriculum, has it really changed very much? People just assume we read these books, we do these labs, we do whatever we do, and that doesn’t really change. But we have different kids than we used to have. The world has changed a lot. How should our practice in school change? So what we do with strategic academic planning is we encourage schools to think about their purpose and outcome statements. Why does your school exist? This stuff that you guys know really well cuz that very common in the marketing world. What are the promises you make and what evidence do you collect on your delivery on the promise and where do you see gaps? That might be a good place to start thinking about plans to make changes on the academic side of school. Or what we do sometimes we say to schools, take an external view- what do you notice about the world out there? How are things changing? What are your graduates telling you that they were well prepared for maybe not so well prepared for? Are there shifts that are occurring? Lots of schools are looking at their curriculum right now through the lens of diversity at premium inclusion, belonging, and justice as a result of the last, 30 months in our culture. What do you need to do around your academic program regarding that? So we often start with just having schools thinking about goals. In, In response to your question, Tara, sometimes schools will come to us and say, we’re noticing something that we don’t like. Or there’s a disconnect between faculty and students, or we are, we’re noticing something in our school culture is a little off. So what we do is we help schools develop, or really what I do with schools is I ask them, what do you want? And can we develop a plan for that? So we go through a process of data collection with schools. Often it involves some surveys, focus grouping with people, and then I meet with the school’s leadership team and we put together a vision based on what we’ve learned from data collection with our current population of students, faculty, families, what we know about our marketplace, any kind of data that the school has, like student outcomes. We look at all of that. We set a goal and then we start setting up sort of the tactical approach to change. Like what are the things we’re gonna do over maybe a three or four year timeline to achieve a goal. So I’ll give you an example of a goal that I’ve been working with a school on there’s a school that has a pretty traditional, I would say, teacher and curriculum centered academic program, and the school said what i’d, what would they, we’d really love to have is a program that is learner centered and contemporary. So we set up a goal that largely is about professional development and good assessment practice in the classroom by the faculty. We really talk about changing the way people teach. Specifically what we talked about was assessment program and how we could build a methodology of assessments. There’s a lot of professional development teacher for teachers in there around authentic and meaningful assessment with a three year timeline out, and we just backwards design from that. So that’s essentially what strategic academic planning is, and that particular school’s handing that off because they’re gonna start a new strategic plan. And so we’re gonna budget for the professional development. You see how it of comes together with the financial plan. So that’s what a strategic academic planning approach is. Hopefully that makes sense. 

Aubrey: Absolutely. I’m very curious, So how does that interact or complement a strategic plan? Could you speak a little bit about that? 

Mike: Yep. Aubrey so, you know, our, our ideal is that we create a strategic academic plan and a strategic plan in collaboration with each other. I’m gonna be in New York City in about 60 days doing that for a very large school that people would recognize where I had to name it doing that exact thing. So what we’re gonna be doing is all the data collection, all of the vision work, and we’re gonna establish an academic goal. And then what’s gonna happen is the board is gonna take that as, this, the school’s gonna do this, what do we need to build around it financially marketing and communications, all the things that have to happen to pull that off, and then the strategic plan will be announced. I think that’s the ideal. It’s often quite rare that those things come together at the exact same time. I think the relationship between a strategic plan and academic program is often misunderstood by the people on the academic side of the school. They, they, they’re not very present to it because they’re doing the work day to day with kids. It’s often not directed at them. So when we can get, when we can get the strategic academic plan and the financial plan together, that’s really ideal. 

Aubrey: That makes a lot of sense. And it sounds like I’m very excited for your upcoming project because I’m sure it’s moving everyone in the direction, that they need to go on a very wide, in, in depth in a, in wide, in depth way. I’m curious though, as you probably know with the podcast being named Mindful School Marketing, you know about the marketers out there. They’re looking at this strategic academic planning, how can a school use a strategic approach like this as a marketing tool for the school, and how does like a school Marcom team interact with it and what is their role, if any? 
 Mike: Beautiful. What a great question. So I probably neglected to mention that the marketing communications people, I want them in our visioning process. So we, I actually see marketing communications being integral to this whole thing. Great academic program- requires really good internal marketing. So here’s what I mean by that. I think marketing is internal and external, but this is, you two are the pros at this. I don’t even play one on tv. I’m an academic, so what I would say is I want the internal marketing focus brought to the vision process and academic planning because the role, of the marketing and communications team is gonna be reinforcing the change with our school community that we are building through the academic . Plan, right? That’s the strategic plan needs really great internal marketing. Now in an external marketing focus and for the marketing communications people to do as we are laying out the plan and building support for it. The school’s value proposition is really built on what people understand about the brand and what they hear from kids and other parents. A strategic academic plan usually has some element of change in it, and so the result is that sometimes what people are hearing and what they, the way they identify the brand might be, there’s a little disconnect there as we change. And so I think the role of the marketing communications team is to really support that with really great word of mouth and all the things that, that you guys do. The strategic academic plan, I think becomes a tool to help clarify who we are in the community who we are in, the work that the people in admissions do when they talk to new people. But also when we, what, whatever we publish in social media I think really needs to focused on the work that the academic people are doing. Sometimes, like the example I gave a moment ago, Aubrey, about the school changing assessment practices, they’re gonna start doing authentic, meaningful assessment in the real world, like community based activities that kids will be doing. I want that to show up in social media and be getting the message out to people like, this is what we do at, Excellence Academy. 

Tara: Yeah I think this is getting to a foundational topic of marketing and schools or marketing any product, right? Like the idea that you have to start with the product being good before you can market it, because you can’t, there’s nothing that kills, a product faster than some, somebody thinking that it’s going to be great and it not. Delivering on that promise, right? So what all the things that you’re describing are foundational- before you can even do the marketing, you have to have something good and solid and appealing to market. So talking about and involving that, the marketing and communications team in that strategic planning is a really important point, and I’m glad that you mentioned that because they need to understand what’s going on and help to communicate also what they’re hearing in their marketing process about what people are looking for. So I think it’s really important to make that connection. And I appreciate you’re covering that. 

Mike: Oh my goodness. So important Tara – y ou can’t amplify it enough. I love the way you just described it. There’s two things pop into my head as I heard you say that. One again. The need for the marketing and communications people to understand it, I think is good, but you know that in part because academics. We sometimes use very technical language. That doesn’t mean what people think it means. And so it’s, and you guys are better with a language for the world than some of us academics are. Cuz we have our own, you know, Edu speak that we run in. But I think the other thing is that we, we are on the academic side, sometimes a little insular in our viewpoint about what is good practice, and I think it’s too often the case. As a former teacher, I feel comfortable speaking about teachers, teachers who may be listening. I welcome the follow up emails. Sometimes we silo ourselves and we don’t like to think about the outside world, and we definitely don’t like to think about school’s value proposition and the business and marketing and admissions, but it matters. And so I think having people in the conversation just makes the work better, makes the work better. 
 Aubrey: I love that you’re bringing this back to the marketing and making sure that the external matches the internal and how that word of mouth and everything is so important. And I’m so glad that you brought that up. That’s especially what our audience needs to hear. So thank you very much for that. Switching gears a little bit, I’d love to know, what gets in the way of successful academic planning? What are some challenges that you’ve seen schools face in the past and maybe facing right now? Maybe some trends to those challenges given all the different things we’ve been dealing with for the past two plus years. 

Mike: So many things. Very few schools do this really well which is why I ended up helping schools. One of the, one of the problems is something you just named Aubrey when the external and the internal practices do not align. That happens. I think it’s a symptom, right? Of a pathology. So some of the things that undermine good academic planning, it’s something that we’re all stuck with and I wish I could change it, but we, it’s hard, it’s leadership change. We’re kind of banding about statistics. My colleagues and I, head of schools these days, something like four years, five to six years, that kind of four to six is about the tenure now of ahead of school. And when head of schools come in, they have their own good ideas. And even if there’s a strategic plan, they want to tweak implementation a particular way that is disruptive and it’s hard to be strategic that is long term in a culture of leadership turnover. This is a problem that schools have to deal with. When the person at the head of the organization changes, a lack of predictability and support is experienced by the next level of leadership. To whom they the head of school is responsible for providing support, right? So that would be assistant heads of school, associate head of school division heads, right heads of the various schools within the school, the development director, marketing, communications directors, these people experience unpredictability cause they have a new boss that creates problems for leading the implementation. The other thing is obviously time. Everybody’s busy at school, especially teachers, they’re always in class, so everybody complains about time. Nothing we can do about that one either. But, you know, the, the kind of, the really hard one that is a hard to put your finger on, but exists is the inertia that exists about the way we’ve always done things and why we can’t change things. There’s a, I don’t wanna call it small mindedness cuz that suggests a judgment. I’ve heard people say that, but I, I wanna call it is a kind of fixed mindset. If I could use the kind of Carol Dweck language, I think it’s- this is what works for kids. This is the way we’ve always done it, and we have to keep doing it that way. That’s a big limiter. And so a lot of great academic planning lives on a platform about changing people’s hearts and minds about what’s possible for children, what’s possible for schooling. There are external things that push on that all the time. Mike, it’s really nice that you wanna build a great academic plan so that we get kids prepared for work in 2040, all the parents want is for the kids to get into college X, right- name, a brand name and that. And so that, that’s a way to. Stop things. So what I spend quite a bit of time doing and what school leaders need to spend quite a bit of time doing is really building within the culture a growth mindset. That’s my solution, and that’s what we see where it works well is that people have adopted a growth mindset and a growth mindset. Sounds something like we believe that it’s our responsibility. Always be growing and improving. We believe that all kids can learn. We believe that all teachers can grow and we’re committed to it, and we’ve got systems in place that require it. And if you wanna work here, this is a place about growth, right? We’re preparing children for their lives, not my life. When I left school, I was supposed to be prepared for, I don’t know, 1990 or something. It’s 30 years later, right? Like one of the things I always do when I go to campus is I put a timeline up on the screen and I say, This is when your kindergartners were born. This is like whatever the beginning entry point is, this is when your eighth graders were born. Here’s when they’re gonna be age 30, right? So this year’s kindergartners, right? Let’s say they’re five in 2022, they’re gonna be 30. It’s not hard math to do in 2047. So what is the world gonna look like then? How are you preparing kids for that? And I think that’s a really hard one to answer, right? Is nobody’s got a crystal ball. But we, the world will not be less complex. The value of rote learning will not be increased. There are some things we can guess at and so just bringing that focus tends to solve some of the problems that undermine it, which is to your question, Aubrey, just like shifting to preparing kids for their life and how can we grow in into it is really what seems to work. 
 Tara: That’s a really good segue. And before I segue, I wanna say that the idea of thinking about how old your child will be when they’re 30 is a little bit scary and freaks me out a little bit, but this idea of growth is a good segue to talk about mindfulness, which we mentioned at the beginning of the show that you practice. We talk about mindfulness with all of our guests on this show and many of them have a similar definition of mindfulness, but I would say that probably most people that we’ve had on the show don’t have what you’ve described as a very focused, dedicated, specific mindfulness practice over many years. So I’d love to hear more about your specific mindfulness practice and also any thoughts that you have on how it applies to marcom professionals in their work and daily life as well. 

Mike: Hmm. Thank you for that, Tara. My practice began while I was on retreat in 1997 with Thich Nhat Hanh. Yeah, I was just really fortunate to be able to be part of a small group of people in intimate gathering with him for 10 days. And I had been reading about mindfulness in the Zen Buddhist tradition for about a year, which is how I became interested int Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. I refer to him as Thai, which is what he told me. And those of us who’ve practiced with him to call him- teacher, he died in the past year, which he had a great life and body of work, and until I learned mindfulness through his particular zen approach he founded an order within Zen called the Order of Inter Beam, which is basically the idea that everything inter is, and that in order to understand that a flower is also a seed. Is also soil is also air and sunlight. It requires a deep understanding that we are all interdependent, right? We all, that we, our nature is connected. So my practice as a result follows a lot of his teaching, which is Working to be in the present moment. And that present moment work for me looks like very rarely these days, but sometimes like sitting meditation like a Buddhist person might do, but mostly it’s practicing deep listening when other people are speaking, trying. Not have the voice about what I’m going to say while I’m listening to Tara and Aubrey, I should be listening to Tara and Aubrey. 

Tara: Yeah, this is really hard to do on a podcast. We have to say. 

Mike: My job is I’m supposed to talk when you’re done, so I should be thinking, but that, that really deep listening, practicing what Thai calls a kind Noble silence for a good part of my day where I just being present and not talking with anybody, just being silent is part of my typical day. And it’s I’ve been doing it now since 1997, so it’s well integrated into my natural part of who I am. I was fortunate in that I was still in my twenties when that happened, and so I’ve been able, my adult life is this has been an integration. So I do things like, when I’m washing the dishes, it’s, I don’t have anything. I just wash the dishes and I know that I’m washing the dishes. And that’s it’s a, that’s an old famous Zen one. When you’re washing the dishes, chop wood, carry water, but anyway, so that’s my practice. So when I was leaving school, somebody would’ve come into my office and what they would see is that I have a little, like a Buddhist bowl bell on my conference table. And I would use that just to have these moments of mindfulness. I an app on my phone. I’m surprised it hasn’t gone off while we’re talking. That just it’s the sound of a Buddhist ball bell like you do. I’m sure you’re familiar with the sound that goes off randomly about every 45 minutes or so, but it’s not on a schedule, which is a call to take three deep breaths and to just recognize the present moment. So that’s my personal practice. How it shows up for me at school I think is the idea that we are, we work in a field that is a hundred percent relational. It’s relationships. Schools are not building widgets. We’re not producing technology pieces off an assembly line. We’re crafting human beings. I often say to board members, they talk about our product, and I say, stop right there. Our product or kids, there’s no, like our, advisory program is not the product. The product are the kids. What we do is we build great relationships with kids to be able to do that. We need to be highly emotionally intelligent. We need to be able to listen. We need to have cultural competence, and something in there is about being compassionate and kind with all people in our community. When I think about marketing and communications, I think that’s built into that. This, how can we reflect the kind of willingness to listen and to to share from a highly emotionally intelligent relational place where we recognize the power of our words on someone else. And we’re really willing to listen and understand more than to just say what we wanna say. And I think that- that’s, that for me is foundational to being mindful. 

Aubrey: Thank you so much for sharing. I was taking notes while speaking. I was absorbing it too. And I just wish I had started at like age 27 with what you did. 

Mike: It’s dumb luck. Aubrey. I lucked into it and totally lucked into it. If I told you the story of how it all came together and go, Oh, just one of those, moments in life where I zigged when I could’ve zagged and look what happened. 

Aubrey: Yeah. That’s great. And I also wrote down crafting human beings. I think that’s really important for us all to remember as we’re going through, yeah. As a parent too. I should probably have that on a sticky note somewhere. Yeah. 

Mike: You guys are, who are still have children at home. That’s why you’re doing, you’re crafting a human being. 

Aubrey: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I, now I’m sure you’ve heard we do have a segment of our program where we talk to, we call it the rapid fire segment where we ask you questions and I’m wondering, are you ready? 
 Mike: I’m ready. Fire away. 

Aubrey: I’ll kick it off. If you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be? 
 Mike: Mandatory reading for high school kids. I really want high school kids to read about the work that their teachers do actually. There’s a book called The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Apollo Fearing, and I have it right here actually. I can pull it out- all right. This is Pedagogy of Freedom and I never let it get very far away. It’s this, these are the books I keep right here cause I’m always working on ’em with school leaders. And it’s called Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage is the Byline. Now, when I was a teacher, I taught history and government, cuz that’s, those are my dual undergraduate focuses, foqui. Oh my gosh. And if there is anything our culture needs, it’s more civil discourse. It means more people willing to, I like this week, I’m so inspired, I just read about the Patagonia CEO giving his company away for the good of the planet. He has donated a multi-billion dollar company and has forsaken any future profit, it’s gonna all get sunk into working on climate change and saving public lands. See, he’s somebody that gets the responsibility that we all have to everyone else. So I absolutely want kids to read a book that focuses on that. And that’s, that one is mine. Sorry. That’s a long answer to a show. 
 Tara: No, that’s awesome. And this is like my one favorite part of the, of our show. Cause I’ve gotten so many great book suggestions that I’ve been trying to read more, so thank you for sharing. That sounds great. And I didn’t know about that, Patagonia. That’s also amazing. 

Mike: It’s amazing. You gotta Google. 

Tara: Yeah. Okay. Next rapid fire question. What is one app that you could not live without? 

Mike: I mean, truthfully, it’s Google Calendar. If I have to be , you know, but that’s not the one I wanna say. The the app that I probably couldn’t do without is the the calm. Dot com, app com. It, I’m in such a habit now of starting my morning with, the dulcet sounds of the people who lead the meditations on Calm. So I just love that app. 
 Tara: Yeah, I’ve used that one too. There’s like ocean and nature sounds sometimes too, right? 
 Mike: Yeah. 
 Tara: Yeah. Awesome. 

Aubrey: Thank you. What are you reading right now? 

Mike: Yeah, so I’m reading two books that I’m really immersed in. One is just Pure Mind Candy. I’m reading one of the George R. Martin books that he wrote before the Game of Thrones series. I can’t remember exactly what it’s called. It’s over there on the table, so I’m reading that in terms of nonfiction, I am rereading this book, which I wanna recommend to your podcast listener. It’s called The Self-Driven Child. Yeah. This book is so good. It’s the science and sense of giving kids more control over their lives. I think we’re in a time we used to talk about helicopter parents. And then we some of us in school started talking about like drone missile parents, like they come in at the school. I every time child’s upset, parents descend. But I think now we’re more into this era of like the snow plowing parents who get in and make everything safe for their children. And that is not how we raise people who can be effective in their lives. And so the science and sense of giving children more control over their lives, good for parents, and really great for teachers, the self-driven child. 

Tara: Excellent. Thank you so much. These are great suggestions. I’m gonna ask you for one last thing, which is what is a great piece of advice that you’d like to leave us with today, Mike? 

Mike: I should say wear sunscreen, but I’m a, that one’s really important to me here in Los Angeles at my, in my fair skin. My piece of advice for the people on this podcast, I think in Marco market, what we call at ISM is marketing Communications is- don’t be afraid to go to faculty meetings and ask people to let you come into their classrooms and to watch what’s going on. Teachers are absolutely crave for people to come in and watch what they do. It’s strange because they say, they like to be in control, and these people do like to be in control, but they really are desperate for the validation that comes with somebody coming in and watching them and then being willing to use the things that they’re doing in marketing and communications. I often hear from people in marketing communications that we need examples of students doing stuff. We need whatever we wanna share in social media. I wanna encourage people to not be afraid and go build those connections with teachers. Just so you guys know, I say this to the teachers also the opposite advice, which is go over there. So that’s my piece of advice. Don’t be afraid. Go do it. The teachers they may seem like they’re, they don’t want you there, but they really actually do. 
 Tara: They really do. That’s wonderful. Great advice. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks for joining us, Mike. It’s really been a pleasure to have you on the show today and sharing all of the great insights that you have. Where can people find you online? 
 Mike: People can find me a few different places. I S M inc. Ism i n c.com is ISM’s website. That’s the company that I work for. You can find the services we offer there. My bio there. I’m on LinkedIn and I share quite a bit on Twitter. So if you wanna look for me on Twitter, it’s my name Mike Gwaltney m i k e g w a l t n e y. on in, in the Twitter verse. 

Aubrey: Thank you again, Mike. 

Tara: Thanks, Mike. Bye bye.

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