Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

Whatever Our Passions, There Is a Time to Be Still and Listen


Every now and then I am overcome by guilt over my own role in this echo chamber of the blogosphere. I’m as guilty as the next guy of (un?-)helpfully providing lists of “11 Things Your School Has to Be Thinking About”; it’s a bit about arrogance (I’ll own it), a bit of grandstanding (I’ll confess to that, too). In my case it is also a simple wish, for deeply felt reasons, that all schools might live up to their ideals and provide experiences precisely consonant with the promises they imply by their missions.

What are these reasons? Here goes.

When I was a wee laddie my family was in the school biz. I never had even an inkling that any of the adults around me wanted to do less than support and help every one the kids at the family school. I saw a lot of grown-ups doing a lot of worrying, some of it about enrollment and the bills, but a whole lot more of it about how to do a good job for Barry or Judd or Donald or Randy—the kids for whom the school was going to be, hopefully, the last stop before college, college being a place none of these dyslexic boys’ previous schools had ever thought they could get to. I ate a lot of TV dinners waiting for my father to come home from dinner, from faculty meeting, or from just checking in with his students in evening study hall. If I didn’t eat in the dining hall with him, I didn’t have breakfast with my father, ever.

The school was small and unadorned and so was its mission, and I had a front-row seat at the show as Mission: Impossible became Mission: Accomplished for a couple of dozen seniors every year.

I was hooked on the life from an early age, and I read everything I could about schools and how they worked. The glossy school catalogues and newspapers that arrived in the mail regularly were my comic books, and a slightly out-of-date Porter Sargent Handbook of Private Schools was my bible. I’ve been a sucker for “prep school” novels since discovering Good-Bye, Mr. Chips in my grandfather’s bookcase, and A Separate Peace made me hurt when I first read it.

I believe in independent schools the way Bostonians believe in the Red Sox, and I want these schools to be the best. When I was younger this manifested itself in preppy arrogance of the worst kind, and I owe the world an apology for that. By the time I was settled in as a real teacher—and I had to run away from home at the start of my career to accomplish this on my own terms—I came to realize that being the best isn’t about winning, it’s about being the best version of oneself, living up to all of one’s ideals and hopes and aspirations. This, I realized a while back, is what I want for independent schools.

Independent School Nation, to push the baseball analogy, is made up of schools and educators and students and parents and students for whom I have the highest of expectations. Just as I want every at-bat for Big Papi to be a home run and every inning Koji pitches to be perfect, I want every teacher to be energized and skilled, every coach a paragon, every head a leader of wisdom and compassion, every school a place of justice and mercy, and every word spoken in or about any school to be true. I want students awash in opportunities to embrace and assimilate ideals until each and every one becomes the very best possible version of themselves, and I want our communities to give each student the gifts of circumspection, fair-mindedness, and generosity of spirit so that they can be part of this saving-the-world project we are all embarked upon.

It’s not about being better, or truer, or wiser than other people in other kinds of schools; it’s not about being exemplary, because that’s arrogance, too. It’s simply about living up, in our little closed communities, to what we say we want to be, to what our missions and values statements and visions and strategic plans all promise. This is a responsibility we have to ourselves, and to our society. Along the way we need to find enough humility to fall into real conversation with our peers in other sectors—because those sectors have their own believers, folks as great and as accomplished as, say, Deborah Meier, and because those sectors are responsible for a lot more kids than we are.

So that’s why I occupy this space, and that’s why I tolerate and even join in when the preaching begins.

I have had some role in moving an actual school from survival mode to a growth mindset, imbuing a faculty with a new sense of their own capacities amid an abundance of new ideas and resources. I’ve listened as students doing unsupervised group work in the hallway workspace outside my office door moved from being maybe 40% on task to more than 80% on task, a transition just a few years in the making and the greatest single affirmation of  a new culture of teaching and learning that I can imagine. I’ve watched as a school guided only by the simplest of tech “visions”—a set of basic criteria for deciding which way to go—ramped up a transformative 1:1 BYOL program in less than a calendar year. I’ve been in charge of dropping a school’s last AP-designated courses and then having the pleasure, as a college counselor, of explaining our school and successfully advocating for an amazing corps of students to colleges that some feared would be skeptical of AP-less transcripts.

I know, in other words, that change works. I know that wrapping a school’s programs and practices around principles based on contemporary understandings of what kids need and what kids can do can take  teachers and schools to undreamt-of places, both in terms of basic things like reputation and advancement and in terms of real educational possibilities.

Sometimes, though, I think we all need to shut up, including me. I think we need neither to add nor attend to the hectoring of our twitter feeds and PLNs but instead listen to the still, small voices within ourselves and, better still, to the physical voices of our students and our colleagues as they wrestle with growing and supporting one another and figuring out how it all goes together. We need to remind ourselves of what we believe in and to understand how all of this makes a full, big picture in, and of, our lives.

  1. That’s the perfect voice to be listening to. We ought to think about T-shirts reminding us of these “opportunities and responsibilities we cannot afford to squander”! Thanks very much for sharing that.

  2. So I took your advice, Peter, and listened to that small voice. It whispered something I heard from a fellow independent school educator yesterday. She told me that she was committed to independent schools “not because they were better than other schools but because the freedoms and opportunities independent schools have to innovate and change as we collectively strive to do our best by children give us opportunities and responsibilities we cannot afford to squander”. Go Red Sox.