Come March 2020 my email and phone went suddenly eerily quiet. What was supposed to be the busiest season in admissions proved to be a time when I had the most time to reflect…and worry. Enrollment was dropping and I could not answer the most pressing question of all times: what will school look like in a pandemic? I must confess that, in talking to parents between March and September 2020, I made up stories of what I thought school would be, based on the many, MANY, meetings we had in various committees. What I would tell them was mostly based on what I hoped would happen, and I lived in constant fear of having provided wrong information or having misled families. And, if I am really honest with myself, I did mislead. It was an exercise of the blind leading the blind and one of the most difficult times in my career of two decades in the admissions office. The pull of what we know, of the automatic, of the familiar is tremendous, especially in uncertain times, and it is easier to fall back on what we know rather than innovate. Come March 2021 I fully realized that if I am to do my job well, I must depart from the familiar in terms of what an admissions meeting looked like and steer my efforts in another direction in which I understood some things to be true – and most probably not only during the pandemic:
The most important thing we need to do when welcoming families on campus – virtually or in person – is to listen. Being curious before you share information, asking questions about their family, their interests, their worries and expectations, and hearing them out in a focused and intentional manner will offer the path to take next. Easier said than done, I agree. It means you are present 100% in every meeting, that you can only make so many plans and that things can go wrong. But is there any beauty without risk?
2. Tell the Truth
It is important to tell the truth, to the best of your abilities and knowledge – even if this means saying I don’t know. Even if this means that maybe the family you are meeting for a third two-hour meeting will choose the competition.
3. Be Involved in All Discussions
In the 2020 – 2021 school year, as regulations in Romania were not very clear to all schools, some private schools found loopholes in the law and remained open. Understanding the spirit of the law (protecting the community’s health), AISB chose to follow the guidance of health authorities and remain closed, with classes online, whenever it was asked to do so. This decision did not sit very well with some of our parents, and we lost students. I immediately had to include some narrative about this in my daily discussions with current and prospective parents. What helped me the most in this regard was being involved in all discussions that were related to school opening. I was therefore able to offer facts, to sound credible and to offer counter arguments that held water to the many statements that were, let’s put it mildly, unfriendly.
4. Work in Tandem with Educators
Our campus used to be a flagship. The pandemic pushed us into looking at what actually was happening on our campus, understanding the educational process, and the many ways in which our students are served and supported at school. Working in tandem with educators is key – more than ever. In a world in which a virus can close schools for months on end, it is what happens on the campus that matters more than the top-notch facilities that are offered. If teachers, learning support educators and counselors are the ones sitting across from the prospective families, offering their time, expertise and honest feedback, the meeting is that much more meaningful and families understand that they are important to you and that you are intentional about your admissions and addressing student needs.
In December 2019, prompted by the arrival of our new Director, AISB started reflecting on our statement of vision and on our mission. Through an extensive effort involving parents, current and former students, and staff and faculty, we reached a very important conclusion: that our vision is to create a compassionate, creative and courageous community at AISB.
These days, after I listen closely to families, I engage my creativity, compassion and courage in the way I respond and present the school. Creativity may look like pausing in a different place on campus for each family depending on their interest, taking more time to talk rather than tour or involving other parents or colleagues to offer a deeper dive into a certain subject the family considers important. I try to be courageous enough to tell the truth – always. Granted, some truths can be very uncomfortable, but still better than lies discovered down the road. Above all, I try to be compassionate, especially in tough meetings. I understand very well the fact that people will always remember how you made them feel and so I try, to the best of my abilities, to make them feel heard (even when their views are completely opposed to mine or to our vision), to support them (especially when I realize that they can’t be admitted to our school or that their path at AISB will be tough) and to interact from a place of authenticity rather than advertising (talking honestly about my experience as a parent and as a human).
This pandemic has been catastrophic for our human race, it has taken so many lives, it has uprooted so many businesses and created an even bigger divide between people in some situations. There is no question that this has been tragic. But there is a silver lining: it has been really hard to be anything but honest in this past year and a half. Because when everything is uncertain, everything that is important comes to the surface. And the truth of the matter is that what makes or breaks the school experience is what happens with each and every student and not how beautiful their classroom is. So, to my fellow admissions professionals, I say, have the courage to learn, unlearn and relearn, to be authentic, to listen closely and to offer a story to each family you meet that is relevant to them. I promise, you cannot get things wrong this way, regardless of the state your school is in.