School People and Highway Engineers: A Slightly Uncomfortable Reflection on the NAIS Annual Conference

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I am reading Bill Bryson’s 2015 book, The Road to Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain. I love the way he writes, and after buying it in the Baltimore airport on Saturday, I had to slow myself down as I found I was speeding through it too fast. I needed to savor it. Bryson, perhaps most well-known in the South for A Walk in the Woods (his story of walking a significant portion of the Appalachian Trail), has a facility for hilarious turn of phrase. I don’t want to miss the best stuff by speeding through it.

While discussing the traffic problems in Britain, he asserts this: “In my experience, the last people you want trying to solve any problem, but especially those involving roads, are highway engineers. They operate from the principle that while no traffic problem can ever be truly solved, it can be spread over a much larger area.”  Here he provides sort of a double punch line; first, he presents a comic irony regarding highway engineers–they are the least likely people to be able to solve any problem associated with roads; and second, he compounds his criticism of them pointing out that all road issues expand under their care. After I finished laughing (perhaps a bit too loud) and feeling far superior to highway engineers while awaiting my connection at Gate B18 in the Atlanta Airport on my way back to Memphis from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Conference in Baltimore last week, I began to wonder to what extent are school leaders like the highway engineers that Bryson lampoons. It was not a comfortable wondering.

My answer: perhaps we are more like highway engineers than we would like to admit. Maybe we in fact ARE highway engineers.

As school teachers and leaders, we are forever trying to maintain, repair, or replace roads–that is, if you will, for the sake of this blog post, accept that a road can a metaphor for our individual classrooms and for our entire school. These educational roads are the ones our students travel through both time and space from age three or four through high school and on through college and beyond. Very quickly this metaphor, originally built for simplicity, is tugging us toward complexity, however, for not only are we charged with maintaining, repairing and replacing sections of this road, but we are also charged with changing their path and their design as the world for which we are striving to prepare students is a moving if not impossible target.

At this year’s NAIS Annual Conference, there was a kind of momentum building to reimagine some of our road engineering skills. Now this is always the case to an extent at this conference, as we are forever working on how to improve our ability to maintain and repair our roads.  Interestingly, at this year’s conference I felt greater momentum for working toward replacing sections of our schools’ roads. Such work does not happen quickly, of course, and no reader should get nervous that any grand change will sneak up on them. That said, it was invigorating to sense such wide-spread willingness to reimagine swaths of our work over time. It is time.

So…if Bryson’s conclusions about highway engineers are fitting for school teachers and leaders, what then must we do to rise to a higher mark? This is the question that landed with me back in Memphis.

For interested readers, the Conference’s General Session speakers were particularly impressive, and indeed resonate, this year. They were: Onaje X. O. WoodbineSusan CainSir Ken RobinsonBrene Brown. Additionally, there is a fascinating conversation taking place among close to one hundred independent schools (and growing fast) regarding how we might reimagine the relationship between our schools and college admissions. This consortium of schools is called the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). Founded by Scott Looney, who serves as Head of Hawken School in Cleveland, OH where I worked a number of years ago, the MTC seeks to “change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.” St. George’s Independent School is the first participant from the Memphis area, and I am excited to see where this important effort might lead over time.

PS While I was at the conference I tweeted a lot–it is an easy way to take notes and share them..here is one I am glad I captured:

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One thought on “School People and Highway Engineers: A Slightly Uncomfortable Reflection on the NAIS Annual Conference

  1. garygruber March 6, 2017 / 4:02 pm

    Thanks for the good thoughts, insightful and penetrating. I loved Bill Bryson’s “Notes From a Small island” and he nailed it. Also love his quote, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” That said, back to the highway engineer metaphor for schools and school leaders. We should really think seriously about building some new roads not just repairing the old ones, totally new bridges which is usually the case, not just retrofitting old ones. So with schools, time for new schools, not remodeling old models.

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