The two-week winter break offers some important lessons. In many ways the first week is simply a continuation of the school year, packed with rushing around and the rapid completion of pressing tasks. Truly restful sleep remains elusive, and exercise is crammed in when possible. Even though I avoid work-related items as much as possible, it isn’t a break. Only during the second week does it begin to feel like vacation. The pace slows, and I find myself lolling around at times. Ironically, even though I’ve begun doing some things for school—my in-service presentation, clarifying goals—I feel more relaxed as I can focus and reflect. I can even stop and take some deep breaths.
Most of us live hyperlinked lives. Like surfing the web, we quickly glean what we need from a site and then click for the next page. Often it’s done thoughtlessly, in the name of expediency. Done! What’s next? Analytics show that when people use Google, they seldom go past the first page of hits on any search. I have to wonder how much they think about the information they find.
In a way it’s like a meal prepared entirely in the microwave. It may taste just fine, and it may even be relatively healthy for you. But compare it to a lovingly prepared meal, full of fresh ingredients. The various aspects of the cooking come together slowly, and it makes you want to savor it rather than scarf it down.
In our frenetic worlds, as we’re always wondering about the next item, where is the space for the sort of intellectual serendipity or randomizing that always seems to occur while we are in the shower or exercising? In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson illustrates how vital this is for innovative thinking. Perhaps, like me, you wake up at 2 A.M. with insights or ideas. Those are the times when we finally let our minds off the leash. They can wander in subconscious muck rather than march down the linear to-do list.
Recently I read about a hotel chain that caters to business travelers. In the showers they have placed special whiteboards. In this way someone can jot down any great ideas had while lathering up. I think this captures both sides of the issue. Slow down and relax and let those brain juices flow—but don’t waste a moment.
To twist another idea from the business world, I fear that top schools have gotten caught up in a non-virtuous circle. You may know that in the concept of the virtuous circle, certain aspects of an organization are plotted on a circle as they affect each other. The circle generates momentum, like a flywheel. The organization grows stronger.
In the non-virtuous circle, however, the effects are deleterious. Here’s how that happens. Independent schools want to fulfill their missions, so they try to do more. Parents want to see a return on their investments in those schools. So schools try to do more. Parents want their kids to have advantages, so they do more outside of school. More leads to more leads to more leads to... As a current film makes clear, it can become a Race to Nowhere.
This doesn’t strengthen the school, and it certainly isn’t great for kids. We see the stress and exhaustion. How will this affect what type of adults they become? Meanwhile, schools and families can grow upset at each other, rather than realizing they are both adding to the problem. Yet we ultimately share the same values and hopes and dreams for our children. That’s why we choose each other.
We need to have deep, fruitful conversations about this. And let’s not forget to breathe. Deeply.