Even before I became a business officer, I was known as someone who “wore many hats.” In college, I was once spotted quite literally wearing three hats to late-night diner breakfast — a spot where students would congregate for food before calling it a night. I always tell Portledge’s graduating seniors that to get the most out of your experience at college, you need to get involved. The same applies when you work at an independent school — the more connections you have to the organization, the more you will get out of your employment experience.
Being a product of independent schools myself, I graduated college with a clear picture of what I wanted from a career: a place I could be part of a community and coach ice hockey. Fortunately, I found both at Portledge School in 2006, when the then-athletic director asked if I would move to Long Island to work as the athletic department associate and hockey coach.
In 2010, when the Upper School division head who had been academic scheduler for 30 years announced his retirement, I was approached for this assignment by the head of school. He thought I was someone who “had a brain that was good at puzzles” and could probably figure it out. So, like any good team player, I jumped into the role and was the academic scheduler for 10 years.
In my 16 years as an employee at Portledge, I have coached four sports, taught PK-12th physical education, taught a high school humanities course, and have been a class and student advisor. Those responsibilities have been in addition to the six different primary roles I have held, including assistant athletic director, systems coordinator, payables coordinator, director of human resources, academic scheduler and grading coordinator. I currently serve as controller/director of financial reporting. I have enjoyed all my roles and think that each one enabled me to do the next one more efficiently.
I joined the business office in 2016, and it has been a great transition for me. I wasn’t aware that I had such an interest in finance and administration, but it turns out I do! The transition was made easier due to support from my colleagues, such as outgoing business manager Connie Sullivan and our past CFO Rick Fleck. And the learning programs at NBOA were a great introduction to the business office. Without those programs I would not have been able to learn on the job as quickly as I did. The two most valuable programs to me were the HR101 course from NBOA (now Human Resources Fundamentals for Independent Schools) and NBOA’s Business Officer Institute. These programs were not only fun and informative, but also helped cultivate my desire to continue to grow in my role.
One benefit of taking such an unconventional road into school business operations is that I have a deep institutional knowledge that allows me to do my job more effectively.
One benefit of taking such an unconventional road into school business operations is that I have a deep institutional knowledge that allows me to do my job more effectively. I can think of few other industries or sectors in which an employee would have the opportunity to hold such a diverse array of positions. Having come through both athletics and scheduling gives me a deep understanding of the demands on the budget. Additionally, having worked all around campus, I have knowledge of all the different divisions, and I can more easily assist school faculty and staff because we come from a similar place of understanding.
As it happens, I write this article while on the girls’ varsity hockey bus. We are on the way to our first game of the season at the Millbrook School, and I am coaching again, after a 10-year hiatus, with that same colleague at Portledge who originally found me at Hamilton College.
Zoe Schwam is director of financial reporting at Portledge School, a pre-nursery through grade 12 day school in Locust Valley, New York.