When I was in high school I remember the excitement every year when my uncle, who lived across the street and was doing his stint as “headmaster” of the small boys boarding school that was still at that time the family business, prepared each year for “NAIS.” I can imagine, in retrospect, him carefully preparing his wardrobe: checking the camel’s-hair for moth damage, having my aunt press a few bow ties, steaming a colorful blazer or two.
I have no idea what was happening at the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference back in the the late 1960s, but now I wish I could have been a fly on those walls. For my senior project in 1967–68 I had convinced my own aged school head (who had been a student of my grandfather; this really can be a small, incestuous world) to allow me to investigate why there had been a sudden and disturbing drop in the level of “student interest,” symptomatized by smaller turnouts for some clubs, activities, and athletic events and a sense that “chapel” no longer seemed to be compelling my schoolmates in any definable moral direction. I had even been permitted to create a long questionnaire for faculty students, although its questions had been carefully vetted to avoid potential embarrassment for the school. What I wouldn’t give for a copy of that survey and the resulting paper now!
You didn’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing in those days, but at least my school had tried hard to seal the windows and head for the storm cellar. I would say now that my “study” had really been about “compliance,” not “interest,” and in our own quiet way students were just then beginning to throw off the burdens imposed by an independent school culture of simply doing what was expected, with questioning and even reflection regarded as signs of concerning, perhaps dangerous, rebellion. In a year or two Peter S. Prescott would soon be producing A World of Our Own, a thoughtful and comprehensive narrative of another independent boys school’s passage through those same seas of change.
I wonder if my uncle or any other of the headmasters and headmistresses peopling the precursors of #NAISAC2016 fifty years ago had any inkling of what was to come, the changes ahead in school cultures, school structures, pedagogy, curriculum, technology, and in the hearts and minds of students and teachers? At “NAIS” in 1968 were they excited, afraid, or just worried about moth-holes in the tweed?
And what would these men and women have thought of the themes of some of our more recent conferences: “Advancing Our Public Purpose,” “Imagine/Invent/Inspire/Dream,” “Dare to Explore and Discover,” “Design the Revolution,” and this year’s “What’s Your Story? The Power of Trailblazers, Catalysts, and Calamities”? I can imagine my high school head cringing at the thought of such an onslaught of change, such forthrightness about things like revolutions and calamities.
And so in 2016 we’ll see how it goes, and I’ll be there. There will still be camel’s-hair and bow ties and people whose titles contain the word “master” (just as, this very week, Harvard has announced the title that will replace “Master” for the heads of its resident Houses). It will still feel a bit like a world of our own; there will still be a certain amount of skepticism and even willful denial in the room as presenters propose new ways of thinking about and doing our work. There will be cocktails.
But I can’t imagine that in 1968 there would have been anything like the level of excitement and eagerness that the vast majority of attendees of #NAISAC2016 will be bringing to the Moscone Center in San Francisco. As an industry we are beginning to fully recognize that things are changing, that they’ve probably always been changing, and that our job as educators and leaders is to dig deeply into the new ideas and to discover which new ways of capturing student’s “interest” and liberating and fully harnessing the power of their ideas.
Some may argue that we have a very long way to go, but the independent school sector is beginning to develop a level of self-awareness that may yet help us truly advance our public purpose in ways that contribute to the national dialogue on education. If we can frame our stories in the context of this larger dialogue about the needs of our society and all of its children, if we can tell our stories and listen to those of others with honesty and humility, we might even start to push ourselves toward becoming, as an entire industry, actual trailblazers and catalysts.
Let the storytelling begin!