Last week I was at meetings with my fellow Independent Schools Association of the Sothwest school heads for our annual meetings. It's always a wonderful time for us to gether and share stories of success and failure. This is invaluable because it's hard for anyone else to know just what running an independent school is like. I'm not talking about how difficult or complex it is; plenty of leadership jobs share that. I'm talking about the uniqueness of the role.
Of course, when we see each other, the conversation often begins with a single question: Did you have a good year? Natural way to begin. Similarly, my board begins my annual review with a similar one: How do you feel about the year? In the first case, it's really just a way to begin talking, to kick off a dialogue between peers who can provide mutual understanding. In the latter it's a bit more pointed becasue of the circumstances. Most years I just roll with that and don't really think too much about it. But I know that I have a tendency to become overly intellectual about certain things, particularly in certain circumstances. It's part of being introverted and deeply reflective. But this past year has been an unusual one, even downright "weird" in some ways. We faced some very sticky problems and we were launching a massive initiative with our Imagine 1:1 iPad program. And as I told my review panel, I'm not sure yet how I would describe my thoughts and feelings on the past year. To some degree, that really should be the answer each year, if for no other reason than one just doesn't really know until time has passed. The more time, the better you know.
Still, I have been pondering what I've decided should be an essential question for all schools and individual educators: What makes the year a good one?
In some ways the answer can be rather simple. Testing data, next-level placements, awards, fundraising--these are some of the tangible measures. Things become a bit murkier when one begins to consider the impact of initiatives on teaching and learning, remaking true to mission, assessing cultural shifts. In The Art of Possibility Ben Zander proffers shining eyes as the ultimate sign of success when working with kids. Often it simply comes down to a feeling of being good tired rather than bad tired.
I accept all these notions; we even use all of the and others. Still, I wish to put forth another measure, one which truly invokes the ethereal. In the best schools, a good year is one in which the school has managed to achieve an apparent paradox.
Kierkegaard wrote, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." Thoughtful, purposeful, responsive schools manage to do both simultaneously. In other words, they reflect constantly on mission, philosophy, and values, keenly aware of who they are as institutions and their reason for being. This core does not change, yet the way in which it manifests should as a school evolves to meet what its students will need in their futures. For example, consider the rather timeless mission element of academic excellence. Critical thinking is a key facet of such. How that is taught, leanred, and expressed should change regularly. Bottom line is that you hold true to who you are while becoming what you need to be.
Of course, even beyond the paradox, operating In such fashion is fraught with various tensions, most borne of our human-ness. But it also points at what great schools ultimately are about: helping everyone there become better. When that happens, then one can confidently respond that it was indeed a very good year.