When many of us come to the NAIS Annual Conference, we ultimately want one thing: affirmation. It always happens to some degree, albeit in many different ways. This year I feel it greatly.
As I listened to Bryan Stevenson preach (yes, that’s the right word; he didn’t just speak), I could imagine an NAIS banner behind him with the words “Mission Accomplished.” He’s every school’s picture of the graduate come to life, a sort of contemporary Gandhi being the change we need to see. I found myself thinking of what I’ve always said in my Statement of Personal Philosophy: that a meaningful education helps one to discover a life of meaning and purpose. I’m not sure anything matters more. And it has to be something beyond one’s self. That’s particularly daunting in an era that can foster narcissism. Too often the reason for service is because it makes the recipient feel good; and, ironically, social media can become a sort of mirror. It also affirmed for me that we have to take the long view on things. We’re in the formation business, and the making of a life never ceases.
The past few days also have affirmed for me that this is a crucial time for independent schools, and many of us seem to be asking the right questions. But I challenge us to dig more deeply, more honestly, more courageously. Branding is a hot topic right now. We heard that few schools have figured out how to tell the story that really captures who they are and differentiates us. I agree. Perhaps more urgently, we must things about the story we are telling. The messages can prove confusing. We claim to fuel a love of learning…but we tout out test scores and next-level placement as the signs of academic success. We cry for equity and justice and hand out financial aid…but everyone knows how the names get on things. It’s not hypocrisy; it’s a realistic tension of our world. Just as we know that education is a slow, ongoing process, but we become frantic in the busy-ness of daily school and can lose sight of what really matters.
I remain optimistic, my innate hope affirmed. I sense shifts happening. People are asking better, more crucial questions. I heard more and more about new models and fresh ideas, many of them already being implemented. In some ways it’s too slow, but momentum is building. That leads to my final affirmation. We can never stop improving, never stop evolving, never stop searching. We must be like the family in an old New Yorker cartoon. They are travelling by camel, and the father says, “Stop asking if we’re there yet. We’re nomads.”