Now, About Those Men in Their Gray Flannel Suits…

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Well, my 2012 NAIS Annual Conference is over, and I’ve come to a few conclusions. I’ve had Bill Gates tell me that technology is changing schools, and that in 10 years schools and education will change in ways we can’t imagine. I’ve heard some memorable one-liners, tweeted a couple of these, and apparently missed a great session by Dan Savage (“It Gets Better”) while I was on a scheduled call with a college admission office (damn!). I have notes and reflections enough to fuel Not Your Father’s School for a while.

I’ve even had my mind changed—or at least temporarily opened—on the word “innovation.” I still think we need to be careful lest we devalue this word into meaninglessness (and as an industry we’ve done it before), but in a great session on the subject in general, and on sources of new ideas that we should be attending to, Jonathan Martin made a pretty good point. Jonathan is no slouch—he’s the fountain of energy and good ideas behind the excellent 21k12 blog—and he noted that using the “I-word” as the conference theme this year was intended to give people the idea that 1) doing things in new ways is important—really important—and 2) that innovation doesn’t have to be that difficult. While I think that innovation is and should be difficult, or at least the product of a lot of hard and very intentional work, I decided I would deign to give NAIS a pass on having chosen the word to frame the conference.

I was excited that Jonathan’s session was SRO (click here to access the slide deck, which is one-stop shopping for great ideas), and the same held true for the session my boss, another colleague, and one of the founders of the NuVu program did. I also heard great things about another session I didn’t go to (too many choices, that time) run by the estimable Scott Looney of Hawken School on managing change. It is pretty clear that many hundreds of the attendees have a hunger, a serious hunger, for shifting the way we do things. Pat Bassett and the selection of featured speakers (well, Bill Gates was kind of a disappointment and my jury is still out on Amy Chua, much as I want to understand her) keep pushing, pushing us toward new approaches and new ways.

But there’s a long way to go. Riding up the escalator this morning in my pullover sweater and tastefully frayed khakis (few will ever accuse me of sartorial elegance) I amused myself by speculating on the meaning of the predominant dress code, at least in my part of the River of Humanity determinedly climbing the escalator: So many guys of all ages in carefully pressed dark suits with brilliantly shined shoes! It was like a refugee center for L.A. Law partner wannabes. So many women Dressed for Success, their educational vocation proclaimed by colorful, interesting scarves; C. J. Cregg couldn’t have been more professional!

I understand that there are cultures of coats and ties, and that my father and grandfather would never have gone to a conference with less than spit-shined footwear and their best Brooks Brothers togs. I know that some people use the conference to network for jobs, and that there is a certain amount of old-school membership code to be exchanged at this independent school Gathering of the Clans. I make no judgments; I can and do don the uniform and polish my shoes with pasty, smelly stuff when the occasion calls. I confess that I no longer generally consider the conference to be one of those occasions unless I’m presenting. Call me a rebel.

Innovation and snarky observations on clothing—where am I going with this?

Going here: Once I had settled into Jonathan Martin’s session I reflected on the meaning of those suits, those brass-buttoned blazers, tailored pants, and sensible shoes. And then I looked around the room.

SRO, as I have noted—but the only besuited guy in the room that I could see was Brother Jonathan, who is clearly of my mind when it comes to the presenter dress code. Where were the other Suits? Who were they listening to?

Maybe there was a radical breathing even hotter fire than Jonathan Martin somewhere else. Could be. But I know that the men and women in the gray flannel suits weren’t in the room listening to one of the most complete and concise arguments for and “how-to” presentations on authentic school change that I’ve ever heard.

I found myself wondering whether there isn’t still a pretty significant body of independent school folks who are proudly resistant to all this 21st-century stuff, who see it as the province, perhaps, of the kinds of educators who dress down for conferences and enjoy prattle about project-based learning and the like. That choir can hang out and listen to Jonathan Martin preach, but the real educators will hold out for a more refined, more disciplined way of educating whose rigor and quality are proclaimed by a dress code from the era of Mad Men. But professionalism in education is not defined by a dress code—there are things that we need to be attending to and thinking about, things that we all need to be learning.

Thing is, I missed those guys and women this morning; I really wish they had been there. They need to hear what people like Jonathan have to say, and their schools and their students need the kind of teaching and learning experiences being promoted by Jonathan and a lot of other educators who have decided to create not-their-father’s schools. Yup, it’s radical in its way, and it requires some serious application of creativity and wisdom.

I guess that “innovation” won’t truly define our work, all our work, until more of us start taking more chances on listening to new ideas—ideas and approaches that aren’t really even all that new, for the most part, even as they seem more urgent. “Innovation” was the theme of the conference, not “Innovation except for anyone who wants to opt out.” We don’t like it when teachers opt out of the strategic work of our schools, and we can’t be any more happy when schools or their leaders opt out of the strategic work of our entire profession.

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1 Comment
  1. Great stuff, Peter! Remember “clothes make the man.” Still true, but a different meaning today.

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