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HR Goes Back to School

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Recently I took a position as the Director of Human Resources for a not-for-profit, private school. After 15 years working with 400+ small businesses in more than 50+ industries, I thought I was prepared for what I would encounter working in a private school. After all, how different could it be from the start-ups, medical practices, home builders, manufacturing, financial services, or high-tech companies that I had been consulting with the last seven years?

I had no idea the culture of a school would be so unique.

We are not producing a product or providing a service; we are educating kids. While our mission may seem similar to other non-profits, our purpose feels so much bigger. Our responsibilities seem so much greater. The smallest word, gesture, or behavior is being observed, and possibly modeled, by kids who are watching us all the time. The other day, I almost stepped in a huge mound of ants outside the cafeteria. As soon as I saw what I almost stepped in, I involuntarily screamed “holy crap!” and the students who were watching the ants probably heard what I said. Instead of hearing professionals use much stronger cuss words and not think twice about it, I felt guilty for my pseudo-swearing and thought, “Wow, I really have to watch what I say!” As an HR professional, I am usually careful what I say anyway, but this type of situation feels different.

I have summer employees who are students. This is usually their first job, and I am teaching them how to clock in and out, take breaks, and report in to a supervisor. I am used to working with professionals, engineers, office workers, and CEO’s; I am not used to having a conversation with a sixteen-year-old who has never worked before.

One of my employees had her car dinged by a student driver in the school parking lot. Instead of dealing with a typical workers compensation or insurance claim, I was discussing how to commend the student for leaving a note.

We have cyclical peaks and valleys reminiscent of month-end deadlines at for-profit enterprises, but our cycles are based on whatever month we are in. When we talk about the “first of the year”, we mean August, not January. When we say “that will have to wait until next year,” we are referring to the next school year more than a year away.

Employment contracts take on a whole new meaning for school recruiting. We recruit for open positions months in advance when we know a contract will not be renewed, rather than waiting until an opening unexpectedly arises. Candidates must interview with department chairs, deans, receptionists, student advisors, the business office, and the head of school, and every candidate gives a presentation to a large panel of potential colleagues. Their first day of work does not necessarily mean the day their contract begins, and their last day of work does not typically mean the day their contract ends.

There is an energy and excitement working in schools that I rarely see, except perhaps in start-ups. The passion that every faculty and staff member brings to their job is inspiring to witness, and watching an awards or commencement ceremony reminds me why we do what we do. It’s fun and challenging and unlike any experience I have ever had in HR. Who would have thought I would be back in school again at my age!

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