The first book I read this summer for sheer fun was Mary Alice Monroe’s environmental fictional novel The Beach House. Although more than 10 years old, it seemed very relevant as I was enjoying the start of my summer in Satellite Beach, Florida. I went to the ocean to reflect upon and regroup from more than two years of decision-making in the complicated Covid landscape in which our schools were operating. The book and my actual location have given me a great goal for my retirement one day. I am going to become a turtle lady.

During my June stay, more than 40 sea turtle nests were found right outside our place. I watched with great interest each morning as members of the Marine Turtle Research Group of the University of Central Florida drove up the beach in their Gator to check on nests and seek new ones. They walked the shore with clipboards noting tides, currents, and locating tracks in the largest loggerhead sea turtle nesting area in the Western Hemisphere. Volunteer opportunities exist for oversight and overnight monitoring. I’m in.

Don’t laugh, but I think Heads of School can learn a few things from sea turtles. 

Sea turtles have survived in the Earth’s oceans for the last 110 million years. Recent research has found that turtles have remarkably slow rates of aging. Thus, they can live a very long time — 50 to 100 years. They migrate thousands of miles in their lifetime through ocean basins and high seas. 

The journey begins when a tiny hatchling makes its way from its nest and ambles toward the water, dodging every predator imaginable. As young (or juvenile) turtles, they head out to sea. From there, we are not really certain of their whereabouts, so scientists call this “the lost years.”

Once they are fully grown, turtles head back to where they were born to mate, even if they have not been there for 30 years. Males never leave the ocean, while females will come ashore to lay their eggs on sandy beaches. In a single nesting season, females lay between two and six clutches of eggs, each containing 65 to 180 eggs. That means in their lifetime they could produce 4,200 eggs! 

Four Key Learnings

The sea turtle’s perseverance is extraordinary, as is that of my Head of School colleagues. Here are four leadership lessons Heads can learn from sea turtles.

The journey is long, often lonely, and filled with obstacles and triumphs.

From the moment a baby sea turtle leaves the confines of its nest, danger is ever present. While it may leave the nest with its siblings, much of its singular journey will be spent alone. Yet it is the endurance and the stamina required to stay alive that propels the turtle. They understand it is a marathon, not a sprint. Their undertaking takes place over a long distance and over a long period of time which demands great physical and mental stamina. Turtles, known for slow and steady progress, model endurance — take your time, think deeply, swim confidently through fast waters, learn from failure, and always find your way home. To improve your own endurance and stamina, schedule a standing meeting weekly with yourself. Use the time to reflect, read, write, strategize, take a walk, or practice mindfulness. 

Juveniles thrive on independence as they navigate their personal journey.

Mother loggerheads do not guide their children to the ocean, nor do they guide them through life. Instead, female sea turtles give their children the opportunity to emerge from a nest close to the water and let the moon and the sun guide their journey. Educators love and guide many, many students over the years — sometimes even through what might be described as the lost years, or as I like to say the years where they are searching. We help students reach their full potential and find their individual talents and passions often after some trial and error. This should be the highest priority of education. Students, and teachers, need to exercise independent choice to find fulfillment, challenge, and happiness in their work. Heads must create and foster this culture of independence, curiosity, and creativity.

We can age more slowly.

Like sea turtles, we are in a great environment to age more slowly by being around young children day after day. Find joy in the little moments when you interact with students and teachers. Nothing is better than seeing a light go off in a young mind, receiving a bright smile, a spontaneous hug, or watching a teacher create and deliver compelling lessons. Students keep us young if we can appreciate the world through their eyes. Reading aloud to students, using all the feels and voices, regularly, can definitely make you feel younger. Schedule “wandering” time for yourself so you can appreciate your colleagues and students in action. Be grateful.

Home is a beacon.

Sea turtles return to the beach area where they were born to mate. Home is a powerful beacon calling them from the ocean to the security of familiar sands in which to build their nest. Be sure that home is a beacon for you. Create a space away from your office that is a safe and calming place for you to reflect, write, and breathe. Make sure it is a place where you can plant and cultivate seeds of thought for your school community, and for your personal endeavors. 

During turtle nesting season, lights on the beach are required to be off at 9:00 p.m. so turtles can find their way to the shore using the moonlight to guide them. Carry on!