Monday, January 30, 2012

Pride and Perspective

      About a year ago, I read a bit of wisdom from a veteran school head. It was something like, "A head of school cannot love his school too much. What he really has to love is the vision of what that school can become." I understand the logic behind this statement. There has to be a degree of objectivity and a certain distancing to allow for certain hard decisions. But recently some ongoing work and a couple of meetings have made me think quite a bit about this statement.

     In my year-and-a-half here, I've been learning more and more about my school community and developing a better sense of just what it can become. I first laid out some notion of this in a presentation last spring. It was expansive and far-reaching; no one could have taken all of it in. Recently I've been trying to reduce all those thoughts to a short, yet comprehensive written package. It's getting there. The process is very invigorating. Who doesn't like to have big dreams? Who doesn't like to wax idealism?

     At the same time, I've been deep in the budgetting process. Sometimes I feel like a parent telling his children what they may and may not have. Everyone has his or her idea of where those limited dollars should go, and inevitably the wants are greater than the dollars. 

     Both these processes--the visioning and the budgetting--share an inherent danger: each can cause one to focus heavily on what's missing. Certainly I have found myself doing that at times. Often the two go hand in hand. For example, as I work on the vision, I wonder how we will find the money. I have to weigh each decision carefully, and it can become frustrating. Sometimes I just want it all!

     But two visitors last week helped me regain perspective.

     The first was a young woman from one of the most famous and prestigious schools in the nation. In fact, the school is also one of the most expensive, with tuition for day students close to $39K. It's a gorgeous place, with incredibly bright, well-credentialed faculty and students from very prestigious families. You'd recognize plenty of names from the alumni list. As I toured her around the school, she commented on many things that she found engaging. The warmth of the colors and artwork filling the building, and also of the interactions she saw between people. The spirit of our prayer wall. The incredible lab and teaching areas we have in our middle school science wing. The media center and our daily student broadcasts. A SmartBoard in every classroom. She may be moving to Dallas and is looking at schools that she finds attractive.

     The second was a young man in the Teach for America program. He told me about how he has 161 sixth-graders during the course of a day and how he tries to differentiate instruction as much as he can so they learn to read. Out of all those kids, only 20 parents showed up on meet-the-teacher night. If he calls a home, the automatic response is fear about what the child has done wrong. He has several conversations each week trying to convince students not to drop out as soon as they can. He tries to inspire them with stories of positive role models. Sadly, this idealistic, talented young person may leave teaching because of his circumstances. After spending some time here, he is thinking about looking for a position in the independent school world.

     Both these people reminded me of some of the many reasons why this school is special. They helped me to recall anew why I joined this community. Yes, there is plenty of work to be done, various enhancements and changes to be made over the next however many years. After all, we can never stop improving. Yet at the same time, we must take caution not to lose our soul. As I see my role, it is not to turn this school into my ideosyncratic notion of the "perfect" school. Instead, it is to help this school become the very best possible version of itself. In the best cases, those notions match.

     There is, as I alluded to in the paragraph on budgetting, something parental about being a head of school. About teaching, for that matter. The endless and exhausting work of parenting and education both are re-fueled by love, by dreams, by the art of possibility. We see those young people, and it's hard not to imagine who they might become. But it's also vital--for us and for them--that we celebrate who they are right now.

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