I just completed the following questions submitted to me by a first grader from another school who is interviewing me for a project he's working on. The questions, to me, are far more interesting than the answers . . .
1. Why do you work at a school ? I work at a school because it’s the only place to work where I can be around smart, creative, and excited children all day long. The best part about being a Headmaster is that I get to see children of all ages all during the school day. (Sometimes, I even get to read my favorite books to them!)
2. Why do we need Headmasters? Good question. Headmasters get to think about BIG ideas and ask ESSENTIAL questions about those ideas. Then, we get to challenge teachers and students to be the best that they can be ALL THE TIME. It’s fun to ask someone a really hard question and watch them work through the answer on their own or with a group of others. Taking part in this sort of learning process is very, very exciting.
3. Why do Headmasters have to be in charge? Well, the easy answer to this question is that someone always has to be in charge, right? The more complicated answer is that teachers have so much to do with helping students learn and be the best they can be that they shouldn't have to worry about anything else. That’s really what Headmasters are for: we worry about all the things that teachers don’t have time to worry about.
4. Why do Headmasters get to yell on the speaker? Unfortunately, I have never been the Headmaster at a school that had a speaker system. But if I did, I would announce that every Friday was “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream” Day!
5. What is your uniform and why do Headmasters have uniforms? The uniform if the Headmaster is a man (nice shirt, nice slacks, dark socks, and a tie . . . sometimes a jacket) is part of the “Headmaster Handbook” that we all have to read and memorize before we can take the job. Some other rules in the Handbook include: knowing how to read and reading to students when they don’t expect it; shaking hands at the beginning and ending of the day; telling funny stories; giving and getting hugs and high fives in the hallways; and having candy in your office.
Those close to me know that my favorite essay of the 20th Century is "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the many compelling passages from his powerful piece is this one: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” While I am pretty sure that Dr. King did not have the shortfalls of education in 2014 in mind when he penned these lines along the margins of newspapers while he was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama, in April of 1963, I am just as certain that the “network of mutuality” and the “garment of destiny” to which he refers could just as easily describe the current debate centering on the place of values in the curriculum of our schools.
Whether we are directly involved in education or not, the degree to which virtue and character are addressed (or, not addressed) in our communities affects each of us in very compelling ways. Today, in more ways than one, we have taken a less-decisive pathway toward core values and have rewritten Dr. King’s last line to read, “Whatever affects one directly doesn’t necessarily have to affect others as long as they don’t think it should affect them.” To my ear, this new version doesn’t pack the same rhetorical (or, moral) punch that the original did. Somehow the version of values promoted in our schools and in our society over the last five decades doesn’t pack much of a punch either.
This lack of vigor, in my opinion, is likely rooted in an inability on the part of leaders across the spectrum—in education as well as in government—to come to any sort of agreement on a few pretty essential questions. The first is: How do we define the particular values we want to teach? The second is: How do we equip teachers and other adults to handle the task of facilitating a discussion of these values when there isn’t any agreement on what they are? (A corollary question is this: How fair is it to our students and these same adults when the latter are often not the proper models for the very values that they are supposed to teach?) Finally, and here we are presupposing that we’ve gotten over the first few hurdles, how do we infuse these values into both curricular and noncurricular activities? This last question opens a veritable Pandora’s box for schools and has, to my mind, discouraged many from implementing even the most basic programs to promote values in and out of the classroom: should values-based instruction be a separate “class” that students attend just as they do English, Math, and Science? Or should values and virtues permeate the curriculum so completely that they are at the center of every class and every activity?
Once we can answer these questions, daunting as they may be, research is pretty clear that the focused participation of both teachers and students will predict positive and lasting impacts. All of this research and all of these studies point to the efficacy of our own Core Beliefs as well as the Core Values program we are instituting this year. Perhaps the most stirring difference in our program, though, will be the foundational role that Christ’s profound life and ministry play in its conception and execution among our faculty and students. At the heart of our mission, our Core Beliefs, and our Core Values is the sacrificial and transformational message that Christ brought to the world and that lives on in this His School today.
The first of these core beliefs is that our program is rooted in our Christian mission, and at the heart of this mission is trust—that is, there is an implicit trust that exists in the bond that unites us, and there is an explicit trust that exists in the aspiration that we can work together for the sake and advancement of our children. Our work together in the service of God’s children and families necessitates that we believe in and value a climate and a culture rooted in trust.
Evidence of our second core belief comes from one of the ten founding objectives of the School: “To help children develop a positive sense of self-confidence, self-worth, and security so that they will be able to stand up for what they believe and take risks throughout their lives.” Risk is at the heart of education. If we are willing to let our children (and ourselves) stretch and push then, along the way, we will come to appreciate that, by accepting the challenges of going too far—to paraphrase T.S. Eliot—we discover how very far we can go. Our work together in the service of God’s children and families necessitates that we believe in and value a climate and a culture that embraces and encourages taking developmentally appropriate risks.
Finally, our third core belief: earnestly striving for our personal best each and every time we encounter a task or a challenge or a struggle will produce more lasting results than trying to be the “best of the best” every time out. We believe that this commitment to “be our best” is supported by our theme line of Confidence in every Child and is exemplified poignantly in the philosophy statement on the Athletics page of our school website: “Our singular focus in athletics reflects the same growth mindset that we espouse in our classrooms and is elicited by these two simple questions: (1) Did I give my absolute best for my team today? (2) Am I getting better every time I lace up my shoes, my cleats, or my spikes? As a Panther, maximum effort and constant improvement make winning and losing irrelevant.” Our work together in the service of God’s children and families necessitates that we believe in and value a climate and a culture that promotes each child’s personal best.
These core beliefs promote a school climate that we hope is preparing the child for the path rather than preparing the path for the child. Too often in our culture, we seek to prevent hardship, adversity, or even mild discomfort from cluttering the paths our children tread toward adulthood. To be sure, the motivation behind preparing the path for the child is the sincere desire for parents to provide better lives for their children than the ones we had. However, if we are honest with ourselves by eliminating from our children’s lives any chance for failure, we simultaneously eliminate the chance to learn, grow, or assert the all-important autonomy we hope they achieve prior to having children of their own. By fostering a climate that is rooted in trust, that embraces risk, and that seeks personal best, we believe the partnership we have with parents will prepare their children very well for the many paths they will encounter in their lives.
To be sure, a plan like ours represents a huge undertaking for our school as we attempt to connect not only with our students but with our parents and our larger community as well. But isn’t this interconnectedness just what Dr. King was talking about in 1963 as he described the “network of mutuality” and the “garment of destiny” that touches us all? Similarly, as he stood on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered his most famous and most stirring speech. His “dream” of a nation that would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . that all men are created equal” was most certainly a dream rooted in what he hoped were shared values among blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Gentiles. In fact, one of the most oft-quoted lines of this same speech finds King dreaming that his own children will “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King’s dream for his own children and grandchildren, indeed every parent’s dream for his or her son or daughter, need not be lost in the difficulties, the bureaucracies, or the uncertainties of the 21st Century.
It is my hope and the hope of those involved in reinventing the values curricula in schools like Presbyterian School all across the nation that this void of character will be filled so that we all might be able to dream again.
I was pretty amazed (and disheartened) to read the following statistics the other day related to cheating and the perception of cheating among US High School students. Below are some of the highlights, or lowlights, as the case may be:
* 80% of “high-achieving” high school students admit to cheating.
* 51% of high school students did not believe cheating was wrong.
* 95% of cheating high school students said they had not been detected.
* Almost 85% of college students said cheating is necessary to get ahead.
* 75% of college students admitted cheating, and 90% of college students didn’t believe cheaters would be caught.
To be sure, we in schools often call cheating what in the real world is called collaboration, but the statistics above speak more to an attitude of acceptance related to getting ahead at the expense of others rather than partnering with others to achieve a collectively important goal. There are countless conclusions that can be drawn from these data points, ranging from blaming “kids today” for always taking the easy way out, to blaming my generation of “lawnmower parents” for abdicating our responsibilities for teaching integrity to our children in favor of fighting all their battles for them, to blaming a “Harvard-at-all-costs” education system that sets ultimate goals too high too soon for too many.
As with many tough issues at play in our world today, it’s easy to ask “why has this happened,” to lay blame, and then to walk away smugly. It’s harder to ask “how do we proceed,” to pose solutions, and to dig into reshaping a more positive future. It will come as no surprise that, on the one hand, the rise of this particular issue is certainly related to the absence in our culture of the core value of perseverance that we tout at PS—it’s easy to copy, cut and paste, plagiarize, and “borrow”; it’s much harder to conceive of one’s own ideas and then (through really hard work) flesh those ideas out into lucid and compelling arguments, solutions, or theories.
Just as importantly, though, I think this propensity to seek an “easier way,” is related to our continued dismissal of the importance of one of the most transformative (and undervalued) educational concepts around. The cheating statistics above and the concomitant scandals at more than one prestigious university speak to an educational culture that still values answers more than it values questions—really good, really provocative, really essential questions, as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have been defining and promoting for years.
Here are my essential questions . . . about questions: Can you “cheat” on a question that is, by definition, transferable to other topics and areas? Can you “cheat” on a question that provokes serious thinking rather than merely retrieval of content knowledge that’s readily available on Google, Wikipedia, or your friend’s iPad? Can you “cheat” on a question if you’re arguing through complex problems rather than ones that predict simple “right” or “wrong” answers?
In the end, can you really “cheat” on a question designed to promote and sustain more questions?
What a summer we’ve had! As I wrote to our parents a month ago, this really has been a “summer of scandal,” hasn’t it? In Major League Baseball, a former Most Valuable Player has been suspended for using performance enhancing drugs and then lying about it. Not to be outdone, a former college football All-American and NFL superstar has been indicted on multiple murder charges. And, finally, the leading candidate to be the next Mayor of the nation’s largest city (New York) is at the center of an investigation into inappropriate text messages. All of that in one two-month period. Wow!
As is our custom every year, we have an essential question this year that serves as our theme for our work together in the year ahead. At its heart, this year’s essential question has something to say related to all three of these incidents that I’ve just mentioned. When we ask, “Whom do I serve,” we are really asking about what we value or what we think is really important in our lives. In fact, we might even rephrase the question by asking, “What do you truly value?”
- The baseball player who is cheating himself and his teammates by using illegal drugs might answer that he values or serves fame and fortune or even “being the best” in his profession . . .
- The football player who seems to have no regard for others’ lives might answer that he values his own life and livelihood more than the lives of those around him . . .
- Finally, the politician who seems to think that he can get away with anything and not get caught in his poor behavior might say he values power and notoriety and “being in the spotlight” so much that he’s willing to do anything to stay there . . .
These are all obviously suppositions, or guesses, about the motivations of others related to whom they serve or what they value. Sometimes, suppositions can be accurate, but sometimes they can be really off track. With that in mind, I decided to reflect on my own life and my own values, with which I live and grapple every day . . .
- First, I have to admit that I really value being “DR.” Carleton. I worked really hard in school for a very long time. I studied for and completed many, many tests; did my fair share of research; and even wrote a book before I sat in front of five accomplished and intelligent college professors and answered some very tough questions. At the end of all that, I got two things that I’m extremely proud of: one was a pretty snazzy robe that I like to wear around my house and office from time to time, which tells everybody who sees it that I’m “DR.” Carleton . . . the other was a really big diploma that I have hanging in my office to commemorate my accomplishment. If you look really closely at the diploma, you’ll see something interesting related to our conversation this morning: the diploma was conferred “in the year of our Lord.” Interesting, don’t you think? Keep that phrase in mind as we move to the next item that I really value . . .
- Second, if I’m honest with myself and with others, I like having money in my pocket. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not so in love with money that I’m willing to do anything to get it, but I do like to have a little cash in my wallet so that I can do the things that I like to do. In fact, when I was nine years old and cutting my grandmother’s grass for five dollars every week, I would ask her to pay me in $1 bills so that my wallet would be so thick I could FEEL the money in it ALL THE TIME! Now, there’s a part of this money that I’d like to call your attention to as well: each bill has the words, “In God we Trust” on it. Also interesting . . . Are you starting to see a pattern?
- Lastly, I really do value this school . . . part of this feeling is certainly because it is my job to value it (I am the Headmaster, after all), but part of this value resides in the fact that I spend a great deal of time thinking about this place and trying to figure out ways to make it even better than it is right now. So, it’s safe to say that I value it for a variety of reasons—some of which are probably good, but some are probably a little worrisome . . . consider that I have ten Polo shirts and at least as many t-shirts with the PS logo, and you sort of get the picture. With that “value” in mind, consider our School’s motto as a last point of reference for my talk this morning: “As Children of God at Presbyterian School, we respect ourselves, each other, and the environment.”
Every day we are given choices among competing values, and we are asked which of them truly define our lives—which of them will indicate whom or what we serve. So, when I look back over three things that I really value, if I’m being careful I might notice that God is in the background of each of them, which is unfortunate, because if I’m looking more carefully, I should notice that He is actually at the foundation of each and every one of them.
- The time I spent working on and earning my education is governed by a calendar that has at its foundation an acknowledgement of God so significant that it appears on my diploma . . .
- The currency that we exchange in this country, which has become the most valuable currency in the world, has a phrase on each and every piece that places trust and respect in that same God . . .
- The School at whose opening we find ourselves today calls not only on this same Lord each and every day but also welcomes His church into partnership with families as we seek to support and educate each and every one of you.
Whom do you serve? What do you value? Is God in the background of these answers, or is He at the foundation?
Consider Psalm 100 as you think about the answers to these questions from your own lives:
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the Lord Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His loving kindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.
Thank you all for coming this morning; it is my pleasure to announce the official opening of the 2013-14 school year. May God richly bless us as we do His work together . . .
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