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The Many Jobs of the Head's Assistant

Wednesday, January 24, 2018  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

At the 2017 SAIS Institute for the Head’s Assistant (IHA), attendees had the opportunity to circle the room and look at signs showing the varied jobs that they do within their roles as assistants to school heads or division heads. Each used a sticker to mark the signs if they perform that particular duty: Coordinating Administrative Travel was a popular job, while the task of Updating School Web Site did not fall to many assistants. Viewing the entirety of the workload of the assistants showed that, at the majority of schools, the assistants play a vital role in school operations.

Many of the assistants’ jobs show tangible results: managing facility and maintenance requests, maintaining student reports, ordering classroom supplies, coordinating professional development activities, communicating with the board of trustees, managing their boss’s calendar, planning meetings, coordinating campus visits for job candidates, and organizing major events such as graduation.

Then there are the less tangible duties: taking the phone call from an irate parent or neighbor, tending to an injured or ill student, and even counseling a teacher in need.

For Laura Foerster, administrative assistant to the head of Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC, getting to school at 7 AM every day helps her to get her work done and stay organized. In addition to managing DuBose Egleston’s calendar, correspondence, travel, gift purchasing, and events, she helps him coordinate with the board of trustees by scheduling the meetings, two events for them, sending announcements, and keeping minutes. She is solely responsible for graduation each year, and she receives the applications for jobs on campus. She coordinates travel and hotel stays for out of town applicants and has even helped with relocation for new hires.

She also has learned that, as carefully organized as she might be, life happens: an unusual snow day in Charleston or a family with a crisis. “The biggest challenge is the unexpected and what it does to an entire day,” Foerster said. “Sometimes you have to cancel a meeting with 20 people that has been on the calendar for two months but it’s what has to be done.”

Sometimes the head’s assistant serves as a counselor to faculty. “With the faculty, there is some hand-holding and you have to calm them,” she said. “I know a lot about the faculty and what’s going on with their families and their lives. You carry a lot on your shoulders and confidentiality is key.”

Foerster also has found in her three years as the assistant that everyone – teachers, parents, and students – has different expectations of the school head. “A lot of times when people have an issue, they want to go straight to the top to him,” she said. “I’ve learned to be very protective of him and this office. You can be tough and kind at the same time.”

Jennifer Bird, who is in her first year as assistant to Paul Krieger, head of Christ School in Asheville, NC, was not expecting so much confidential information to come through her office – sometimes the head’s assistant is the first to hear someone’s bad news or that a parent is upset about something. As a former admissions manager, Bird was accustomed to dealing with parents and was prepared for that part of her job. She now does double duty as the school registrar and the head’s assistant.

Bird also oversees travel arrangements for her boss and other administrators, though some take care of that themselves. She organizes the school calendar and works on the school portal as well. She coordinates interviews and travel for job candidates and provides some orientation materials for new hires; the school’s director of human resources provides other services. She organizes everything in relation to board of trustee meetings and manages three major events per year: registration weekend, parents’ weekend, and graduation.

Bird oversees meetings for her boss and is the primary point of contact between him and the faculty but, she noted, “He is very self-sufficient and there is a lot that he chooses to do himself.”

When she stepped into the role in July 2017, she inherited a very organized annual calendar of duties from her predecessor. “She was well prepared and could envision what was coming up,” Bird said. “The calendar is very valuable asset.”

In doing such a variety of jobs within their jobs, it’s easy for assistants – especially the executive assistant – to feel isolated. Sometimes their physical location on campus may be tucked away from the main activity, making it difficult to connect and communicate with others and limiting their opportunities for camaraderie.

This past summer, Jackson Academy in Jackson, MS, sent all five (three pictured at right) of their administrative assistants to the SAIS institute, which has been rebranded as the Institute for Administrative Assistants. No longer solely for the head of school’s assistant, the program addresses the challenges that these particular school employees face every day and aids them in improving the way they work.

“Each conference has been beneficial to us in our respective roles, whether it is sharing tips to help make our office lives run more smoothly, hearing from speakers who know what our jobs entail, or simply having the time to converse with each other and those in similar positions at other member schools,” said Patrice Worley, assistant to the VP/dean of school at Jackson Academy.

Attendees have enjoyed time to chat with each other in planned small group roundtables and also during breaks at the institute. “Many assistants who attend do not have peers at their schools, and the opportunity to share and build camaraderie with others is invaluable,” said Worley, whose team drove together to the event, giving them additional time to talk with each other.

“One of the best benefits was for our assistants to spend time together for team-building,” said Steve McCartney, upper school dean at Jackson Academy. “We’ve seen better communication among them this school year. Each division office has been positively affected.”

One change that his assistant, Nancy Sykes, implemented this year was holding a regular meeting time to review current projects and assignments. McCartney realized he was not delegating as much as he should to Sykes and their division of workload and communication has much improved. “It’s been extremely helpful,” McCartney said.

The 2018 SAIS Institute for Administrative Assistants will be held June 27-29 in Asheville, NC. Registration will open soon. Visit sais.org/IAA for more information.

And school heads, mark your calendars now for Administrative Professionals Day, April 25 – a great time to recognize the hard work of school assistants. 


Calendar more
Athletic Directors Conference
January 16-17, 2018 | Charlotte, NC
A professional development opportunity for new and experienced athletic directors from across the region.

Finance Institute
January 16-17, 2018 | Charlotte, NC
An overview of independent school finance for aspiring and early career heads of school.

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