School Leaders: How to Keep Your Unicorn Engaged | Niki Conraths | 3 Min Read

August 23, 2022

Organizations love to secure one or two unicorns in their midst. Schools are no different. Unicorns are the teachers or staff members that are described as “visionary” or “out-of-the-box thinkers”. You don’t have to search for long to identify the unicorns in your school—most everyone you ask about visionary thinking will spit out the same two names without hesitation. 

Unicorns make “dreams become reality” as the paper plate my supervisor made for me at the end of last year stated. There it was, written down with a black sharpie, decorated with sparkles. 

Blessing or curse, to be such a unicorn? 

It’s a fine line and those of us in leadership positions need to keep our unicorns a little supported and protected. For many years things were wonderful. I loved working in a community that appreciated new ideas and colleagues that were willing to take on more projects for fun. Out-of-the-box programming, collaboration, and interdisciplinary curriculum development are a lot of work.  And yet, when I was teaching in the arts, my “unicorning” was what fueled me and gave me the energy to get everything else done as well. There was a measurable benefit too. New programs and activities help a school raise funds, feel innovative, recruit students, and impress parents who have a lot of schools to choose from. 

Unicorns are those employees that always seem to have multiple skill sets. On a practical level, they are engaged teachers, enthusiastic community members, solid administrators, and good colleagues. Unicorns also have vision and the ability to see their siloed school as a unified whole and verbalize the needs of the school beyond the end of their day.

There is a catch: Putting in 120% of one’s effort at all times, picking up extra projects, or leading PD days, places one at risk of overdoing it even at the best of times. For unicorns, being a dream factory acts as an equalizer that balances out the day-to-day mundane routines. For each project the unicorn pours their heart and soul into, they can absorb extra percentages of the “job after the job” you need them to do. It seems like a win-win situation and often it is. The more dream projects the unicorn proposes, the more you, their supervisor, can pile work on their plate and take it off yours with a clear conscience. 

It is a wonderful benefit for the school to have a healthy unicorn and a head of school that wants to innovate. Dreams are the super energizer for unicorns you see, providing a seemingly endless bank of energy resources. They also get a great deal accomplished. The problem is that the behavior has addictive traits. Unicorns are “experience” junkies, gluttons of sorts.  

As a supervisor to a unicorn, your challenge becomes taming this scintillating creature to ensure they do not overexert themselves. Resisting the temptation to have the unicorn help you look fresh, is hard to say no to. Here is why.

Your unicorn, hungry for new adventures, smart, and much more strategic than given credit for knows where leadership is feeling the squeeze. Like a predator chasing a mouse, you are invited to the tit-for-tat bargaining dance. 

Need another body to sit on a summer (!) hiring committee in addition to the ones the unicorn is already on? 

Sure if the unicorn can get funding/permission to do dream Z with colleague Y. Check.

Could you do with an extra teacher for an online course on assessment (wah!)? Willing to summarize its benefits to the community?

Yes, if the unicorn can launch a complicated partnership with an outside organization. Check. 

Have you been postponing the rewriting of the employee handbook (which after hundreds of additions motivated by employee wrongdoing now reads and sounds like a crime and punishment book in ancient Rome)? 

Yes, if the unicorn can announce a trip to Tuscany, which the unicorn will also plan, manage and accompany (of course).

Being a unicorn during normal times is a groovy thing. Twice in my career, I have had the luck to work with a dance director and a head of school where making dreams a reality was a part of my job description. 

Pandemic times put an end to much of it; schools doubled down holding on to the tried and true. Unicorns were asked to turn into workhorses, depleting their energy and crushing their spirits. Sad, trotting race horses. 

I wonder how the unicorns in your school are doing today?

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Nicola Conraths for Intrepid Ed News.

Nicola Conraths

Nicola Conraths has worked in independent schools for 15 years, serving as Director of Artistic Studies at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and as director of Comparative Arts and dance instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Nicola merges her many interests into projects that connect unlikely topics, people, and places. Recently she has worked with New England Conservatory Prep School, Boston Ballet, YOLA/LA Phil, and SMOC/Headstart schools. Her newest venture, Das Surrealistische Büro, is a consulting capsule for tangential thinking. She lives in Detroit.

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