On the occasion of this year’s observation of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, I felt compelled to share some thoughts on one of my favorite figures from American history.
In his incredible “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King, writes these unforgettable words: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” It goes without saying that in this day and age of divisive and demeaning rhetoric, the images of a “network of mutuality” and a “garment of destiny” to which Dr. King refers should describe our own responsibilities as educators and leaders of children and families.
Too many leaders today, as I see it, view their primary tasks as centered on leaving their marks on the institutions they shepherd or the efforts they champion. Whether this drive is the unfortunate result of hollow ambition or, worse still, simple hubris is for others to discern. However, I am sure of this: such an approach to leadership is far from the heart of Dr. King’s challenge and even further from the leadership style that we at Presbyterian School (or, any school, for that matter) should embody. Honest teachers know that students leave more lasting marks on us than we do on them, and honest leaders should know that tapping into our own institution’s “network of mutuality” and weaving ourselves into its “garment of destiny” are critical to our success as leaders and vital for the people, places, and programs we are called upon to lead.
Several years ago, I received a moving challenge along with a large group of independent school educators when we heard the late Harvard professor and theologian Peter Gomes confront us with the increasing hollowness at the center of our educational system. Education—particularly independent school education—should, according to Gomes, weave together personalities and destinies in much the same sense as Dr. King’s garment mentioned above. Borrowing imagery from Matthew Arnold’s “Rugby Chapel,” Gomes compelled those of us in the room to enliven in our students, parents, and colleagues “souls tempered with fire.”
What a perfect image for us to embody today. It seems clear that hollow souls seeking to leave their marks are succeeding only in producing equally hollow institutions—choose examples of this hollowness from one of any number we see around us today. On the other hand, institutions inhabited by souls tempered with the fire that comes from respectful relationships; from shared intellectual, emotional, and spiritual pursuits; and from laughing, crying, mourning, and celebrating together will reflect the very sentiment about which Dr. King wrote so many years ago.
Let’s all agree today that the support and education of each child is too important an endeavor to leave to hollow souls.
I feel compelled to write today for two reasons. First, I want to address a controversial Netflix series that has become a topic of conversation among school leaders across the country as well as among some of our own students. Second, I want to share some information and resources regarding some of the topics and issues raised in this series
The Netflix series is called 13 Reasons Why, and is based on a novel of the same name written in 2007 by Jay Asher. Rated TV-MA (reserved for programs specifically designed to be viewed by adults and “unsuitable” for children under 17), the series focuses on a young girl named Hannah who makes the decision to take her own life, but not before leaving behind thirteen audio tapes—one for each of the persons she feels has played a role in her decision. The creators’ stated intention is to begin a much-needed national conversation about the issue of teen suicide. However, mental health professionals have not only given the series largely negative reviews, they have also provided serious criticisms of the program as a whole for glamorizing suicide, portraying adults as feckless bystanders in their own children’s lives, and for displaying in graphic detail not only suicide but other topics such as rape, intimidation, cyber-bullying, and shaming.
The National Association of School Psychologists has written this about the show: “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters or develop revenge fantasies. While many youth are resilient and capable of differentiating between a TV drama and real life, engaging in thoughtful conversations with them about the show is vital. Doing so presents an opportunity to help them process the issues addressed, consider the consequences of certain choices, and reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems and that help is available.”
Having now watched the series myself and discussed it with colleagues in the mental health field, I believe the many warnings about the show are warranted. Make no mistake, the TV-MA rating is justified. There are graphic and gratuitous depictions of drug use, underage alcohol use, and sexual assault to go along with rampant profanity that is often degrading to women and demeaning to people on the margins of society. Put simply, children the ages of our students at PS should not be watching this series without an adult. If your child has already viewed the series, or if you are planning to view it with your child, please follow the guidance of mental health professionals and talk directly with them about their perceptions of what you are watching. Make sure they know that they have adults in their lives with whom they can talk honestly, directly, and purposefully…about anything.
Criticisms of the show aside, it is an excruciating tale of adolescent pain. That children feel this depth of pain at times is indisputable. To propose (as I believe the series does) that these same children are virtually alone as they try to navigate this pain is irresponsible, in my opinion. At PS we try very hard to represent and promote a community focused on uniting in the education and support of each child, and we are called to provide daily reminders to our children and to each other that we are not alone…that our children have us and that we have them—no matter the circumstance, no matter the situation. At the same time and as people of faith in that same community, we are also called to remember that we serve a loving God whose compassion knows no bounds, whose forgiveness is limitless, and whose grace defies understanding.
The vital importance of a supportive community coupled with a sustaining spirituality are two very important ideas that are completely absent from the Netflix series, and these omissions are the two reasons why I'm not willing to buy into the narrative it's trying to create.
Here are some helpful and informative resources that we hope can guide you in your conversations with children about the issues raised in this series:
“13 Reasons Why: Should Parents Be Concerned About This Netflix Series?” by John Ackerman, PhD: http://700childrens.nationwidechildrens.org/13-reasons-parents-concerned-netflix-series/
“13 Reasons Why Netflix Series: Considerations for Educators” (from the National Association of School Psychologists website): http://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/school-safety-and-crisis/preventing-youth-suicide/13-reasons-why-netflix-series-considerations-for-educators
“13 Reasons Why: Talking Points for Viewing and Discussing the Netflix Series”: https://www.jedfoundation.org/13-reasons-why-talking-points/
The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting and Health for Lifelong Thriving: http://www.lisamillerphd.com/
In the program for today's service, my talk is called a "meditation," which, for our younger students, is really just a fancy word for "something to think about." So, let's all start this meditation thinking about one of my favorite songs from musician Ben Rector. It's called "More Like Love"...
Now, listen to this Scripture passage from John’s Gospel:
Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet
13 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 12 When Jesus had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
What does love look like and, more importantly, how can WE look more like love? Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever asked yourself those questions? If, like the song says, we want to look more like love, we should have an image of love in our minds that we can emulate in our lives, right? Too often, I think we want love to be BIG and momentous, like Easter and the resurrection. Most of the time, though, love really appears in small acts at seemingly insignificant times…like washing feet and Holy Thursday.
Jesus gives us a pretty challenging answer to this question about what it means to look like love, doesn’t He? He says it looks like washing your friends’ feet…at the end of the day…when they are the dirtiest and grimiest and smelliest…when you probably least want to wash them. That, Jesus says, is what it means to look like love.
But, as you might expect, Jesus doesn’t stop there. Our Essential Question this year is “How Will I Lead” . . . What Jesus goes onto say is that when we look like love we’ll be answering this question, too. When we look more like love, we’ll be leading. Jesus is telling us (as responses to the song’s lyrics) …
It’s not about “having all the answers” or “knowing I’m right” all the time…It’s about LOVE.
It’s not about “climbing higher than anyone can climb” or being the best…It’s about LOVE.
It’s not about “getting what I want” because that will never be enough…It’s about LOVE.
This next observation is oversimplification, for sure, but aren’t most things on Pinterest oversimplified? In any event, I saw this posted on Pinterest the other day, and it resonated with me as I was thinking about this talk and as I was thinking about love: “The Buddah wasn’t a Buddhist. Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Muhammad wasn’t a Muslim. They were all teachers who taught love. Love was their religion.” And guess what…the Buddah, Jesus, and Muhammad also taught (again, in response to the song) that love is “the one thing around here we don’t have quite enough of.”
So, how can you look more like love? How can we all look more like love? Whether you are the smallest Kindergartener here, you can look more like love, can’t you? Whether you are the oldest eighth grader in here, you can look more like love, can’t you? You better believe that as the Headmaster of this school, standing way up on high in this pulpit, I can certainly look more like love…and my Easter prayer for all of us, myself included, is that we will begin very seriously and very earnestly to look more like love…and not in BIG, momentous ways, but mostly in small and seemingly insignificant ones.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
Our essential question at Presbyterian School this year is, “How will I lead?” and the ways we talk to our children about the answers to this question have never been more important. One of my favorite essays is Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Begun on the margins of a newspaper and then finished on a pad his attorneys left him, King’s Letter is a timeless commentary on power and leadership. Some of my favorite lines appear above. At PS we must read these lines from Dr. King as a challenge focused on what it means to be a leader in confusing and self-centered times.
As resources all over the world reside in the hands of an ever-shrinking few, my generation especially is coming to grips with the reality that the paradigm of “leadership through strength” is something for a bygone era. New research suggests that Machiavellian paradigms of power and leadership have less staying power than those focused on stirring others to make a positive difference in the world. At PS we call this new “power paradigm” Servant Leadership.
Where are the examples of Servant Leadership in our world? Don’t look to the sad and divisive campaign for President of the United States to see them, that’s for sure. Therein lies all the evidence you need of the antithesis of leadership through service, leadership by advancing the good of others, leadership that embraces integrity, or leadership that builds bridges between opposing viewpoints or perspectives. If the adult leaders we are offering our children can’t or won’t live out the answer to the question of what leadership really means, then how much more difficult will it be for our children to rise above the flawed answers shown them?
Since the training and lessons our students receive—or do not receive—during their years with us will have an impact on their character and their choices well beyond their time here, this year I invite you to join our own authentic conversations about what it means—what it REALLY means—to be a leader in our world today.
We should be talking to our children openly about the dynamic and diverse society in which we live, but impressing upon them the responsibility that comes with living in such a society. It is a responsibility rooted in respect for others’ differences—whether those differences come in the form of appearances, opinions, or backgrounds. It is a responsibility rooted in educating ourselves about others’ ideas, cultures, or beliefs before making decisions or judgements about them. It is a responsibility rooted in a faith that teaches us that all those who work together in the service of a forgiving God in order to create greater justice and love in the world... are equal to one another in His eyes.
In the end, our responsibility is to see this world as the poet Maya Angelou writes in The Human Family:
I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.
Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.
The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.
I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.
I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.
Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
Let’s take as our focus this year the “alikeness” that we all share as members of “The Human Family,” and then let’s propose to our children examples of leadership that acknowledge that we are, indeed, “tied in a single garment of destiny” whether our world’s leaders realize it or not.
I love the Olympics. Every four years, I move my favorite chair into position in the living room of my house, I get an extra, extra large cup of Diet Coke, and I settle in to watch any and all of the events that come on TV. In fact, when my brothers and I were kids, my mom would let us stay up to all hours of the night as long as what we were watching was the Olympics. Ping pong at 1:00 in the morning? I’m there! Equestrian horse jumping at 2:30 in the afternoon? I’m there, too! Gymnastics and swimming in prime time? Of course!
It goes without saying that I love the Olympics so much because of the excitement and the pride I feel especially for the USA’s athletes, but this year I’ve found myself loving the Olympics even more because of our school’s essential question along with something a friend of mine wrote in one of the best books I’ve ever read. As we do every year, we ask an essential question as a way of challenging ourselves as a community to think about big ideas and the opportunities those ideas present to us. This year we are asking, “How will I lead?”
In my friend’s book, she answers this question by focusing on the choices that we make as leaders. As it turns out, these choices are a paradox . . . which is a fancy word for a puzzle. They’re a puzzle because on the one hand the choices seem pretty simple, even simple enough for a Kindergartener to make. However, as you dig a little deeper, the puzzle gets harder because we realize that we have to make these choices EVERYDAY, and they’re pretty hard . . . so hard that even an 8th grader might have trouble making them.
First, leaders choose courage over comfort. Think about that for a minute. Courage over comfort. As I’ve been watching the Olympics, I’ve been amazed at the accomplishments of all the athletes. But, did you know that the vast majority of competitors who go to the Olympics will lose? That’s right . . . if we define “winning” as coming in first or receiving a gold medal, only 3% of the athletes who go to the Olympics will “win.” There are only 300 gold medals and more than 11,550 athletes, and in some cases (like Houston’s own Simone Biles) some of those gold medals will go to the same people. Each and every one of those 11,550 athletes is choosing courage over comfort when they don’t go to the movies one night or they don’t go to the school dance or they don’t even drink that Coke or that Sprite so that they can hopefully achieve their Olympic goals. Training for the Olympics is hard, it’s time-consuming, and it’s even uncomfortable, but those 11,550 people choose to be leaders in spite of the odds against them and in spite of the difficulties that they will face each and every day. It’s courageous to train for the Olympics, but it’s also courageous to stand up for your friend on the playground when people are being unkind; it’s also courageous to ask for help when you don’t know the way, the answer, or the directions; it’s also courageous to try something new at school that you’ve never tried before or to be friends with someone at school that you’ve never met before.
How will we lead by choosing courage over comfort today . . . and every day?
Next, leaders choose what is right over what is fun, what is fast, or what is easy.
(From the New York Times): New Zealand 5000-meter runner Nikki Hamblin was lying on the track, dazed after a heavy fall and with her hopes of an Olympic medal seemingly over. Suddenly, there was a hand on her shoulder and a voice in her ear: “Get up. We have to finish this.” It was American runner Abbey D’Agostino, offering to help. “I was like, “Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympics Games. We have to finish this,’” Hamblin said.
Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino set aside their own hopes of making the finals in their event to look out for a fellow competitor. In short, they chose to do what was right instead of what was fun, fast, or easy. Winning that race would have been fun, don’t you think? Winning is pretty much always fun, but that’s not what Abbey did. Running past Nikki would have been faster than stopping to help her up, but that’s not what Abbey did. Finally, it wasn’t easy at all to stop and help Nikki up, but that’s exactly what Abbey did. In the Olympics . . . with all her training and all her hopes and dreams on the line, with the whole world watching, Abbey chose to do what was right over what was fast, fun, and easy. You don’t have to be in an Olympic race to do what’s right, you know . . . you can pick up your classmate on the playground after a fall, in the classroom after a tough test, or on the stage after a forgotten line.
How will we lead by choosing to do what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy today . . . and every day?
Finally, leaders choose to practice values rather than just profess them. In other words, actions speak louder than words. The Olympic Creed says this: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” At the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was moving along at a quick clip, even though the seas were very rough. About halfway through his race, he seemed to have a firm grip on the silver medal when disaster struck. Lemieux heard the cries of two Singaporean sailors competing in a different event nearby. One of them was clinging desperately to his boat, which had capsized under the six-foot waves. The other had drifted 50 feet away, swept off by the currents. Instead of staying in his race, Lemieux set a course for the sailors and pulled them out of the water. His hope for a medal dashed, Lemieux waited for rescue boats to arrive. By the time they did, he’d fallen to 23rd place. But Lemieux’s bravery did not go unrewarded. The Olympic committee gave him a special award for sportsmanship. It has been said that “what we do speaks so loudly that others can’t even hear what we say.”
How will we lead by choosing to practice your values rather than merely professing them today . . . and every day?
In addition to our essential question, we also offer a Scripture passage every year as a guiding answer for us to consider all year long. This year’s Scripture comes from the book of Titus and says this: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity and seriousness.” To be sure, the Olympics provide us with some pretty great examples of doing “what is good.” However, the best example by far is in the person and teachings of Jesus, who chose courage over comfort; who chose what was right over what was fun, fast, or easy; and who chose to practice his values over merely professing them when He sacrificed Himself for each and every one of us.
Now that’s an answer to How will I lead that seems even more challenging than training for the Olympics!
When we launched our Strategic Vision for the Future last spring in the annual Window magazine, we discussed three essential questions that drove the plan for that Vision:
- What makes Presbyterian School exceptional?
- What will Presbyterian School need to do in the coming years to make absolutely sure that our youngest students entering today will be well-prepared to learn and lead upon their graduation in more than a decade?
- How can Presbyterian School continue to thrive in the midst of constant and disruptive change that seems to characterize our culture and particularly the educational milieu?
We continually refer back to these questions in order to evaluate our program and to ensure that it is not only compelling and relevant in today’s dynamic educational marketplace, but also of the highest caliber for each of our students. We feel strongly that our model of education must be responsive to the changing landscape of our world and that it must make sense to a new generation of learners.
With these goals and outcomes in mind, we will expand an existing and integrated program that develops and extends each student’s ability to identify and solve problems using critical and creative thinking skills. This program literally revolves around three key ideas, challenging students to:
- Think deeply about problems, ideas, projects, and research;
- Make real-world objects and applications that flow out of their thinking; and then . . .
- Talk to members of our community about what they’ve made and how to make it even better.
This Think-Make-Talk paradigm, represented by the circular graphic to the left, is our authentic and research-based approach to the “design thinking,” “makerspace,” and “STEAM” movements sweeping through schools across the country. We are already engaged in this paradigm of learning in many of our grade levels with projects like the fourth grade Texas museum and the eighth grade Physics Festival serving as two stellar examples.
In the final analysis, we need to provide our students with more opportunities to grapple with the sorts of situations that the real world is going to throw at them. With fingertip access to resources that were unimaginable even a decade ago, our teachers and students are in the early years of a new age of learning that must promote the following skills in each student:
- Comfort with self-direction and initiative;
- Awareness of personal connectedness—that our experiences have value not only for ourselves but also for others;
- Awareness of curricular connectedness—that we must confidently link disciplines and tools such as Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics;
- Understanding of the meaning and power of collaboration;
- Ability to navigate and utilize the readily available abundance of information and intellectual resources;
- Engagement in making things that are uniquely and creatively crafted;
- Discernment—the intelligent and intentional combination of analysis and synthesis.
We are eager to see what our Think-Make-Talk approach yields from our community as we continue to promote Confidence in every Child.
Much of what occupies a Headmaster’s time these days (and, a parent’s time, for that matter) is the consideration of young people’s relationship with technology . . . or, ANY person’s relationship with technology, if we’re really being honest. Questions related to how we choose to use, or not use, this “device” or that “application” can make a huge difference. Unlike in the recent past, that difference doesn’t just relate to our individual productivity—whether in the workplace or the classroom—but it also relates to the impact it can have on our own happiness, our relationships to ourselves, and our connections to other people, communities, and institutions.
As I’ve been thinking about this, our Chief Technology Officer, David Robertson, shared the following article with me from Vanity Fair: The Human Factor, by William Langewiesche. In his piece, Langewiesche uses the crash of Air France Flight 447 as a case study, prompting us to think critically about how dependent we have become on technology. In a striking and unexpected twist at the end, Langewiesche actually suggests that the answer to the problem raised by AF447 is not less technology, but more.
Contrast this viewpoint with that of Dr. Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, who presents a much more cynical and cautionary tale of life in a hyper-connected world. Citing tragic and pervasive disadvantages that technology provides related to more control and convenience in our interpersonal relationships, Turkle argues that even though we may feel more connected than ever, we are becoming hollow men and women doomed to shallow relationships bereft of real intimacy.
Here is the rub . . . at least as I see it and captured in a fascinating observation from Langewiesche’s article: “It seems that we are locked into a spiral in which poor human performance begets automation, which worsens human performance, which begets increasing automation. The pattern is common to our time . . .” This same sentiment has been spoken in virtually every context one might imagine. In fact, it was likely said in the educational field twenty years or so ago at the advent of a movement like “Chicago Math” and with technologies like the graphing calculator. Proponents of both argued (and they argue still) that we should use available research and technology to liberate children from “doing math” so that they can “think math” instead. Fundamentalists (and I use that term in its most literal sense) in Math Departments everywhere lamented each of these individually as the end of a student’s ability to accomplish either; two of many outcomes have been that all major textbook companies now offer some type of “conceptual approach” to mathematics, and college entrance exams now require graphing calculators.
Another example more intimate to teachers and pedagogy is this one: the “technological” advance of introducing blackboards in the United States in the early 1800’s took the concept of the “personal slate” and made it into a communal display. The resultant shift in pedagogy transformed the teacher from individual mentor or, as we like to say in educational circles, from the “guide on the side” to the “sage on the stage.” Two-hundred-plus years later, we are trying to reverse this trend . . . partly because of the revolutionary introduction of our generation's "personal slate"--something called an iPad.
Enter the key question on every Headmaster’s mind . . . and every parent’s mind, too: How do we use the many evolving tools around us in ways that promote “human performance” rather than worsen it, connecting to Langewiesche’s quote above? That’s the real rub, isn't it? We master it, or it masters us. (And our track record in this isn’t great.)
How do we promote “human performance” while avoiding “mastery by technology”? In education, particularly, I think we first have to consider the context of that performance and then ask a few key essential questions:
- What skills will be valuable in that context?
- What skills that we have traditionally taught will NOT be valuable in that context?
- Does the creative and purposeful use of technology, in that context, afford teachers and students the opportunity to accomplish some set of learning goals that could not be attained in the absence of that technology?
We need to view technology and any of the other countless “innovations” emerging in the educational paradigm through a clear lens focused on learning—both student and adult learning, for that matter—rather than one focused on the fanfare surrounding the technology or innovations themselves. This is the view that we try to promote at Presbyterian School. After all, when was the last time you heard your child or a teacher rejoicing over the transformative impact of a pencil . . . or a textbook . . . or a blackboard?
As we usually do at this Convocation, let’s talk about this year’s Essential Question. Each year we grapple with one of these as a school because hard questions uncover big ideas; they make us think really seriously; they might even get us to think about other questions; and (if they’re really good) they’ll keep coming up throughout the year.
This year, we want to think about the broad question, “What matters?”
It seems like such a simple question, doesn’t it? We might hear it in any classroom of the School at any time of the day. Even our friends in Kindergarten can answer this question, can’t they? At the same time, it’s a really comprehensive question that I can imagine more than one dinnertime conversation being focused on the answers discussed the day, the week, or the month before. Finally, it’s such a substantial question that I can foresee very different answers emerging over the course of a year in which all of our children will grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
In fact, as I wrote to parents this summer, I’ve been considering this year’s question myself and planning on the sorts of answers I might provide:
- As an active participant in a world filled with interesting people, I seek friendships that matter, but I wonder if relationships matter more. Friendships can be one-sided, can't they? We might say someone is our “best friend” one day only to have them disappoint us the next. Relationships, on the other hand, imply a more two-sided mutuality: each person has just as much invested as the other. Maybe this is why we say we HAVE friendships but that we are IN relationships . . . just a thought.
- As an old English teacher in love with language, I’m reminded that the denotations of words matter, but I wonder if the connotations of those same words matter more. Consider one of my least favorite words: RETARDED. Now, this word’s denotation (its dictionary definition or what it’s SUPPOSED to mean) is pretty harmless: characterized by slowness or limitation. However, its connotation (what it REALLY means or, has come to mean) is very harmful and insulting: stupid or dumb or worthless. It seems to me that this one example would tell us that words matter . . . a great deal.
- As a professional educator, I truly believe that knowledge matters, but I wonder if understanding matters more. Knowledge is knowing the formula for calculating something--like surface area. Understanding is being able to use that knowledge to figure out how much paint it would take to cover the sanctuary on our campus. Imagine how useful that would be!
- As a citizen immersed in the immediacy of the digital age, I know that the message matters, but I wonder if the tone matters more. Here is a challenge to parents and students: email and text messages are very efficient ways to get your message across; conversation, particularly one that happens face-to-face, is a much, much better way to convey the tone of that message.
- As a leader who prides himself on having good ideas that seem pretty important, I believe (perhaps too often) that being right matters, but I still wonder (perhaps not often enough) if being kind matters more. Here is a challenge to our teachers: if all we are teaching this year are the RIGHT answers to simple questions, then we are just covering the “visible” or the “expected” curriculum. If we are exploring harder questions, focused on the KINDNESS at the heart of our Core Values, then we’re getting at the “hidden” or the “unexpected” curriculum.
- As a flawed and sinful follower of Christ, I find that it’s not difficult to hear loud pronouncements that belief matters; it’s harder to hear the still, quiet admonitions that suggest faith matters more . . . Dr. Billy Graham is known for saying that belief is in our heads but that faith resides in our hearts. I'll confess to feeling that battle between head and heart wage all too regularly in my own life.
- Finally, and this one may be the most difficult to wrap my mind around. As a husband and father, I know how much life matters, but I really wonder if love matters more. Life is a BIG, BIG thing, don’t get me wrong. It’s the most valuable gift that God has given us, and we should view it as that gift and try to savor each and every minute of it that we have here on Earth. At the same time, I think LOVE resides in all the little things that make up our lives during those savory minutes . . . LOVE and the ways in which we give it and receive it are our gifts back to God, don’t you think? And there’s no better day than the first day of school to see all these little displays of love. Take, for example, two examples from my own morning today.
- My little boy Richard loves nothing more than running into his sister’s room to wake her up EVERY morning. He dashes across the landing upstairs from his room to hers, labors to crawl up into her bed, and then just buries his head in her long, blonde hair, giggling all the time. He’s been doing that since before he could walk, and he’s still doing it today. This morning, despite the hustle and the bustle of the first day of school and the eagerness to get up and get going, we still enjoyed this important, LITTLE, ritual of LOVE.
- My wife Laurel loves nothing more than taking pictures of virtually every family occasion. First day of summer? Picture time! Second day of Christmas vacation? Picture time! Pair of new shoes? Picture time! Car wash? You guessed it—Picture time! So, you can imagine what the first day of school must be like for her. This morning, again—despite the hustle and the bustle of this kind of a day, we still enjoyed this important, LITTLE, ritual of LOVE. (And judging by the number of pictures I was involved in at school this morning, I’d say our family is not alone in this practice!)
So, what matters? Little, tiny bits of everyday love that live inside relationships, connotations, understanding, tone, kindness, and faith all matter . . . and all these little, tiny bits of everyday love live inside of each and everyone of us and should work together to remind us that what really matters is captured in Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:33: that we should steep ourselves in the will of God, so that we can rest assured that our own needs and concerns are met.
So, that means we matter, too, especially if we are seeking to do the will of God every day. One last thought to take with you from a very wise person in my own life: “Those people who really matter don’t mind; those people who mind, don’t really matter.” Think about that . . .
Let’s have a memorable school year—one that really matters!
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.
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