Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Timely vs Timeless: A Thought on Mission Statements

     I can't find the Tweet now, and I can't remember who said it; so I'm probably going to misquote it. It went something like "Just adding innovative to your mission statement doesn't mean you really are." I found myself nodding and thinking about all the other trendy words have been added to countless mission statements over the past decade or so: leadership, diverse, mindful, 21st centuryresilient (or grit), global...please complete the list with your own favorites.
     As I've been reflecting on our own mission statement and asking others to do so as well, I've heard and read a great deal about what makes one effective. And, just as importantly, why most lack a certain something. We all know the reasons for each. But this Tweet crystallized for me a notion that I think is worth pondering, mainly because it points beyond mission to a larger challenge.
     When we add such words to our mission, we fall into what I guess is a human trap of grasping hopefully onto the timely. How many times can you think of education having latched onto something and proclaiming it as the silver bullet? Recall that even television was once seen as such. We do the same thing with more abstract concepts such as leadership. When it becomes a buzzword, often school even incorporate it into our mission statements. Our mission can then become like too much of our curricula--wider and wider with perhaps less depth.
     If schools really are re-imagining themselves and their mission statements, rather than take on the timely, they should consider the timeless. Don't just gaze into the supposed future. Instead, plumb the depths of what makes us human, those eternal qualities which have enabled us to innovate for thousands of years.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Charge to St. John's Employees Aug '17

The following is my charge to St. John’s employees during our in-service week. I usually work from notes alone, but I’ve drafted a prose version since some people asked for a copy. So the language is not quite the same as when I speak. It also definitely loses something without the slides, so maybe you can imagine them. And while you’re doing that, maybe you can conjure a sense of my delivering the remarks with an Obama-level rhetorical flair.

The picture you see is Inspiration Point in Yosemite. That seems appropriate given point of a charge. Plus, if we are going to think about the big picture, this puts it in perspective. That waterfall you can barely make out is actually just over 2400 feet tall.
Yes, normally I give you my charge the day before we start; but I decided to do it today for very particular reasons. You know we have our board retreat tomorrow, and heads of school know each of us is just one bad board meeting away. Plus I may still be in jail come Tuesday. No, not the drunk tank; I’m attending the political rally downtown on Saturday evening, and you never know what could happen.  Just as a priest often keeps politics out of the pulpit, I try to keep them from this podium. But there are times one shouldn’t keep silent. That’s tied to why I switched to today. Maybe it’s my own needs right now, and something about this feels a bit self-indulgent. But I know that some of you feeling the same yin-yang of this week as I am. We have the exuberance, energy, optimism as we launch into the new school year. Yet we can’t ignore the larger context of cultural malaise (only way I can describe it). Inspiration, indeed, is needed; and what I humbly will try to provide. I’ll do so by talking about why a St. John’s matters so, so much, especially now.
I’d like to begin by talking about this guy. Anyone know who he is? I doubt it, but if you do, don’t say. Let me give you some hints. He was born in 1976 in Arlington, and he later went to went to St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Austin (a fellow ISAS school), where he was a near-classmate of my sister-in-law. He then attended SMU, where he became an entrepreneur, starting the EZ Laundry dry-cleaning service on campus. He moved to Nashville and started a media company selling billboards for country music, which was bought by Clear Channel. Off to Los Angeles to start the cable network Reality Central. All of this by age 30. Obviously a total slacker.. Then came his second biggest claim to fame—he and sister finished second on The Amazing Race. Do you know yet? You certainly will by Blake Mycoskie’s greatest feat: founding Tom’s Shoes.
In case any of you don’t know Toms, it works this way: you buy a pair, and a pair goes to a needy child somewhere in the world. It started when Mycoskie was visiting Argentina in 2006, and he met a woman providing shoes for children. He learned of and saw the effects of being shoeless—blisters, sores, infections, long-term consequences. Very quickly he decided to start this shoe company, first called Shoes for a Better Tomorrow; shortened to Toms. He began with very limited resources, and was quickly overwhelmed by demand after a media story. By 2013, Tom’s had donated over 10 million pairs. He expanded beyond shoes. In 2011 Tom’s partnered with Seva Foundation to focus on eyeglasses. Each pair bought led to glasses, medical treatment, even optical surgery for someone. Then in 2016 Tom’s Roasters coffee started, with each bag purchased led to week of safe water.
Tom’s has influenced several others. Schools had Tom’s shoe events for their proms. The students would get their fancy duds, then buy Tom’s and decorate them to wear to prom. The Falling Whistles program involved selling whistles to combat civil war in Congo—a program that became part of the first 8th grade service learning capstone here at St. John’s. Warby Parker, which is a 1:1 eyeglass program. Method eco-friendly cleaning products gives part of their profits for environmental clean-up efforts. Veev, which features acai berries in beverages, donates a dollar for every bottle sold to rain forest preservation. Feed reusable grocery shopping bags provide free school lunches needy students. So the ripple effect has been tremendous.
This summer read Blake Mycoskie’s book, Start Something That Matters. At first I was plagued with all sorts of liberal guilt. Yes, I work in education, which certainly matters. But I thought about the privileged circumstances in which I’ve always done so. And it’s crucial for me to feel real purpose and meaning in my life. Meanwhile, the really big takeaway for me was that if you’re going to do something that matters, need three things. You have to care deeply. You have to imagine the possibility of better. You have to muster up the courage to act.
One I stopped wallowing in that liberal guilt, I started thinking hard about why what we do here at St. John’s matter. Maybe it’s rationalization, but we’re working with kids who will be in positions to make a real difference in the world. And that certainly matters.
The ripple effect of Mycoskie’s makes me think of the rice-chessboard story. The inventor of chess was asked by emperor what he wanted for his reward. The inventor asked that the emperor put one grain of sand on first square, and double it on each successive square. The Emperor quickly agreed, thinking he was getting off easy. Well, you can see what happened. Halfway through there were 4,294,967,295 grains of rice, and at the end there were 9,223,372,036,854,775,808.
Here’s the point—take this an analogy. And just as rice was so valuable back then, what you provide now is priceless. If you have a truly positive impact on 10 kids this year; then at some point they have positive impact on 10; then each of those ten… Very quickly you have somehow positively touched 1000 people. It’s not long until that hits a million. And that’s just one year’s worth of work. Plus—and this is truly awesome--any moment can be the one which makes that difference.
Why does that happen here so often at St. John’s? There are many, many reasons; I’ve synthesized them to three.
First, our values. Service, respect, gratitude, connectedness, civility, empathy—we bring those to the forefront and keep them there. They are our values as an Episcopal school. We don’t just talk about them; we put them into action. It’s education with a larger purpose. It’s learning what it means to lead a noble life. It’s how you foster that; how you model that.
Second, our approach to school—more particularly, our approach to learning. We see everything as a chance to learn, and to do so joyfully, and to grow through the process. We recognize that deeper learning involves a double loop. On the surface, one learns to solve a particular problem. But one is also, probably more importantly, learning the habits of learning. It’s also inherent in what we realize meaningful learning is and isn’t. It’s not just knowing answers; not just study or training. It’s more a cast of mind, an outlook, an approach to life. It’s not automatic. It requires energy, thought, even bravery. That’s because real learning is not just finding out what others already know. It’s discovering for ourselves by questioning, thinking, testing something it becomes our own.
Third, our approach puts us on the right side of history. You’ve heard me say many times we have to educate not for our past or present, but for kids’ futures, the world in which they will be living. To do so, have to accept we live in time of discontinuous change. Discontinuous, not continuous, as it can often feel because of numerous small changes. But really significant change happens through what I call the Slinky effect. Forces gather slowly, then burst forth. This pattern tends to prompt progress more than steady change does because it demands more extreme questioning, rethinking, and adaptation. Those are things one can do only if one knows how to learn, and to do it well.
We also are right side of history because of what we do. Think of it this way. If we were to look back at the 20th century and think about the most significant events and figures, a logical selection would be World War II. This would lead us to think of people such as Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt. But, as important as they were, I could argue they are not really the most significant. Instead, I’d hold forth people such as Einstein, Freud, Margaret Mead, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr. Why? They changed the way the world thinks! They caused us to re-imagine possibilities. And isn’t that what you do for kids each and every day?
More contemporarily, we live in a time of intense culture wars. We can assign plenty of blame to all points of the political spectrum and elsewhere, and we’re masters of finger-pointing. The issues are festering, heightening, gaping. There is no telling the effect on kids, now and in the long-term. Remember times like this have happened before and likely will happen again. When they do, it moves far beyond the political. It becomes ethical, spiritual, existential. While cultural, it becomes very personal. Right now, it’s gnawing at me that I taught a founder and now major leader of the alt-right. I wonder how that gangly, goofy kid became a face of evil. How does that happen?
If we look at our nation’s history, this is not something new. It has manifested itself in different ways. During one of our first presidential elections, Jefferson was scorned for owning a Koran. At different times we have feared Mormons and Catholics. We’ve spewed anger at various immigrant groups, including those from which many of us are descended. There’s been both overt and unspoken racism against Latinos, Asians, Blacks; and phobia directed towards members of the LGBQT+ community and other marginalized groups. Some of this we have forgotten. What we remember, we can’t believe we engaged in. Some of it lingers, sometimes in the form of painful scars.
But when we look at that history of our nation, we also should draw hope. We move forward, individually and collectively. The history of America, for all its dark moments, is one of gradually greater acceptance and inclusion. That is how it should be. That is why it’s so crucial that at St. John’ we stress intellectual analysis, civil discourse, character, and service. Our national history is one of gradually learning the principles we already know here, capture in our fifth tenet of Episcopal education, straight from baptismal covenant: respect the dignity of every human being. In doing so, we respond to hatred,  to what and whom we cannot understand with a Christian type of love. We strive to gain that understanding, some sort of clarity. We continue that ongoing quest to heal ourselves and the world
Ours is the type of education that will help answer the real question. It’s not how do we make America great again, but: How do we make America grateful again? Actually, it goes beyond that. The entire world needs the type of education that St. John’s aspires to provide. Because all those things I’ve talked about, those and more, they ultimately do perhaps the most important thing that people need: it’s an education that plants and nurtures seeds of love and hope.

















Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tale of Two Students

       Lately two former students from long ago--the late 1980s, early 1990s--keep popping into my mind. I know exactly why. I'm trying to fit them into the points made in my last post: "The Real Secret to Independent School Success." My doing so initially was prompted by seeing one Tweet several times about the other, although they went to different schools and likely never have met. And that's because of the role each has come to play in current events.
       I need to give you some background about each. For various reasons, I don't want to use their real names. I'll call them J and R.

  • J grew up poor in a very small town in the Deep South. I don't know all the circumstances, but a generous benefactor arranged for him to attend the fairly traditional school where I worked. There he excelled as both a student and community member, eventually becoming a Presidential Scholar.
  • R grew up well-off in a major city in the Southwest. I taught him when he attended a diverse, progressive middle school, and then he went to another top school. 
  • J attended a prestigious university, the first person in his family to attend college.
  • R also attended prestigious universities, nearly completing a doctorate.
  • J is an award-winning journalist who now runs the journalism department at a major university in the Northeast.
  • R didn't follow any particular career path I know of.
  • J explores and comments on how various key topics are being portrayed in the media, often from a liberal perspective. 
  • R has been in the media a great deal lately. He is a founder and a leader of the alt-right movement.
     Since I saw one of J's Tweets and then messaged him about my having taught R, a question has gnawed at me off and on: How did this happen? If you go strictly by expectations based on cultural stereotypes, if anyone was going to become a face of neo-Nazism, it would have been J. Not that I would have ever even thought of the idea. But I never would have predicted it for R, either. I recall a gangly, goofy, friendly kid.
     Even though I lost all contact with R after sixth grade, imagine what it feels like to see one of your former students having become this way. It knocks you off balance, makes you wonder. What happened?  What could have led to different outcomes? If you believe in the power of meaningful independent school education to help people create better selves and lives...well, then, I guess not always.
     I'm not saying that R's education/schools failed him. Yet something and/or someone did. I don't believe anyone is born inherently evil or even hateful. Plus, while it's not exactly guilt, passionate educators are plagued--sometimes irrationally--by memories of the ones we fear we didn't serve well. One or two of them can eclipse the success stories, particularly at times such as that our nation is enduring right now.
     Therein lies the beauty in this weird juxtaposition that is the plot of this tale of two students. For all the angst the story of R might inject into our pedagogical veins, there the story of J, one of hope and promise fulfilled. I'm sure he would tell you an educational opportunity took his life down a wonderful path early circumstances would not have predicted. J likely would have found a way, but the right school truly mattered. There's the moral, the inspiration, the mission, for a new school year.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Real Secret to Independent School Success

       On August 1, 2017, Education Week posted an article by Dr. Stephanie Hull titled "Six Secrets to Private Schools' Success, and How Public Schools Can Steal Them." A former head of an independent school, Dr. Hull highlights six key practices that are fairly common in that world (actually a subset of private school in general). We could debate their effectiveness. As with most things, that depends on implementation and the people involved. I also suspect that private schools could learn quite a bit from public schools. Or, more specifically, I suspect all educators could learn something from quality educators no matter the sector in which they work. Yet I'm digressing a bit, and my point is not to pick a fight with Dr. Hull, as she presents strong suggestions.
       I must wonder, though, whether public schools really can steal them given the politicking and bureaucracy--often being mandated by government officials with no real background in education--that rules that system. Furthermore, the emphasis on standardization and objective testing puts forth the wrong goals. Plus the issue is more than certain policies and programs.
       The real secret to great independent schools' success is not really a secret. It's right there in the name: our independence. That status allows us to focus on our missions. On the ideals of education and what it can accomplish.
       An exceptional independent school helps each student steadily become a grander version of his or her unique, best possible self.
       Ultimately, meaningful education cannot not determined by data, benchmarks, college placement, or exit exams. Instead, it’s about less quantifiable ideals—the soul of the matter. Connections in a caring community. The courage to take risks in search of understanding. Discovery of one’s talents and growing to fulfill them. Development of a supple mind, a healthy body, and a kind heart. The realization of a purpose beyond oneself.
       Each independent school should exercise its freedom to create a unique culture with such an ethos. The richness of the atmosphere prompts people to explore and to plumb the depths of themselves. Diverse experiences and perspectives provoke the deep reflection integral to true learning. Meanwhile, the teachers truly care if they have succeeded, but often do not know for sure. Then, out of the blue, we hear from an alum who is doing wonderfully. Ideally, that person is contributing positively to the world.
       The opportunities and hard work—the rewards and the joys—lie in fostering such an environment. It includes dynamic tensions that challenge our values. For example, how does one balance individuality and community? Do we encourage specialization or generalism? How can teachers cover material yet prod students into thinking as deeply as possible? In a society that stresses quick tangible success, how do we foster perseverance and intrinsic rewards? Schools should struggle continually with such questions, which should drive more immediate decisions such as schedule, policy, and program.
       Similarly, several years ago I participated in an exercise called The Picture of the Graduate. Since then I have led many others through it. Small groups brainstorm the essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes they wish to see in their graduates, eventually paring the list to the three most desired items. No one picks any particular area of knowledge. Instead, every group—school leaders, teachers, students, parents—selects certain attitudes and skills as the most desirable qualities. Synthesized, they reflect the traits of life-long learners; of good citizens; and of well-rounded, balanced individuals.
       Ultimately, education should be about how we live together—about reaffirming a social compact in which we willingly exchange some natural rights for social rights and responsibilities. When Jefferson included the pursuit of happiness as an individual right in the Declaration of Independence, he meant it as a moral claim entailing a reciprocal obligation: that it can happen only in conjunction with others’ happiness.  It’s like the paradoxical benefit of being on a successful team.  As an individual adjusts to the group, the result can be a stronger sense of self
       The best independent schools thus are places where great lives begin. It should be true for all schools.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mission and the Inner Muse

       I love those moments in life when two things merge in my thinking in a way that causes me to rethink something. In preparation for part of our August board retreat, I have been thinking even more than usual about the notion of mission. Also, for whatever reason, I've been seeing loads of references to muses lately, whether in the book I recently finished or the NYT crossword or in various conversations. Whether coincidence or serendipity, when these connections occur, I pay attention.
       At the retreat we're going to do a mission-review exercise. Like most independent schools (most non-profit organizations, I guess) we emphasize that we are mission driven. Everything we do should advance that mission. It's the beacon.
       That is simple in theory, but the challenges are complex. Consider, first, that most schools have the same basic elements and similar words. Yet language is inherently limited, with commonly precise meaning elusive. Just what is, for example, "academic excellence"? It varies by community, and by the members within a community. Another issue is that we most often look for signs that we can declare mission accomplished through affirmation from external sources. It's a natural human impulse, and it makes business sense. It certainly can fuel motivation.
       Throughout the history of creativity, we see artists invoking the muse. At the start of The Odyssey Homer cries, "Sing to me, Oh Muse!"; and Picasso had six women he called his muses. I suspect all of us, when seeking ideas but feeling stuck, pray for some spark of inspiration, whether divine or not. Another natural human impulse.
       I wonder if, in seeking to fulfill our missions, schools seek to inspire students with the wrong sort of muses. When a teacher warns, "You'll need to know this because it'll be on the test" (or even a more subtle variation thereof), don't we conjure up the grade as a form of muse? I'm sure you can think of other analogies. The carrot-and-stick approach works in the moment and can be sustained for a long time. But as Daniel Pink's Drive made clear, it doesn't really sustain human's craving for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
       And the need for those is just as naturally human as those impulses mentioned above. Indeed, it may be even stronger. Living without it can lead to a lack of fulfillment and even depression. It certainly doesn't inspire. So I'm musing on a new way of thinking about mission. What if our mission became about helping each student discover their own inner muse?