Back Like a Truant Kid, with Excuses and Promises

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It’s the middle of July, for crying out loud, and never before have I been so laggard in maintaining this blog. I truantplead both personal and professional reasons; I’ve had plenty of mostly welcome distractions—with an unhappy sidebar—that have been keeping my head busy in other ways. I’m going to use this post to explain, promising more to come soon on topics more in line with the usual Not Your Father’s School fare. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming that you are willing to bear with me.

On July 1 my retirement became official from 35 years at a single independent day school on the edge of Boston. It turns out that you can’t just slink out the back door when such things occur; there are legal and financial details to attend to, and inevitably people want to recognize and even celebrate. Whether they’re celebrating the occasion itself—“He’s finally leaving!”—or the thirty-five years, recognize they must, and somehow this takes a certain amount out of the recognizee, especially if he happens to be on the retiring side (it’s a miserable pun, yes) when it comes to social affairs. But the school did it right, did it tastefully from my perspective, and enough embarrassingly nice things were said to make the parting authentically bittersweet.

I have had a summer neighbor who for many years has been head of a small boarding school from which he, too, retired this year. We weren’t close, as mostly our times in our little cottage colony in the North Country didn’t overlap by more than a day or two, but I knew a bit about his work from the school’s website and second-hand reports. As it happens, he died suddenly of a heart attack this past week while hiking with his brother in the Rockies, a cruel and very sad end that echoes stories I hear too often about the very newly retired. Not just Andrew Wilson’s family and friends but also Grier School have been thrown for an unexpected and unwanted loop by this tragic turn of events, and I offer my condolences here by way of recognizing his life’s work and his loss.

The lives we lead in schools are not simple or easy ones, and stories like that of Andrew Wilson remind us that as much as schools fuel and affirm us, they also drain us, taking their toll on our lives and often those of our families. Mostly we find compensatory elements in our lives and work, but not always. My friend and fellow July 1 retiree, Steve Clem, late of the Association of Independent Schools of New England, once mentioned in a workshop that classroom teachers make over 400 instructional decisions a day; what he didn’t mention, but I probably have elsewhere, is that each of these decisions has some sort of emotional content. Administrators make similar kinds of decisions, often freighted with even heavier emotional content that affects the work lives of multiple adults as well as the learning experiences of students by the score. People who scoff at the “soft” lives of educators oughta try it for a while.

My world passed two other milestones since the middle of May. The first is that my mother turned 90, a nice round number that invited recognition and celebration as well as a little road test administered by me to see that she really is still fit to drive herself to the store and the doctor, if not much farther. She is a remarkable role model, and now she is wondering whether to replace her desktop computer with an iPad as she works to simplify her life. (I think she needs both, as she still does quite a lot of writing and I have yet to find the iPad keyboard I could call my primary.)

The second is that my “retirement project,” the Independent Curriculum Group, has grown in a matter of weeks from a kind of abstraction with a website and an events calendar into a rather large consortium of schools with urgent shared needs and an urgent shared purpose.

If you’re reading this you have already found my personal website, on whose other pages I flak my services and writings, so you have a sense of the kind of work that interests me. The Independent Curriculum Group, with an astonishing and unexpected 70-some Partner schools and organizations, is a plural embodiment of the need for such work to be done, whether by me or by the many, many experts represented among its partners and among our friends. In all events, as executive director of the ICG I have been watching our rolls grow with ever-widening eyes and my own urgent need to figure out how to work with this vast partnership to improve the nature of schools and the learning that happens in them.

I promise, though, to be back here with much more regularity and frequency, as all these milestones have me thinking about a great many things that relate to the state of not-your-father’s schools.

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