A Commencement Reflection on Gratitude: The Bargain of a Lifetime

[I gave the following talk during Commencement at St. George’s Independent School on Saturday, May 18, 2019.]

Good morning! Welcome to our celebration of the Commencement of the Class of 2019. The faculty, staff, and I are grateful to share this moment with you and with your families and friends. A special welcome to the recently installed fourth Episcopal Bishop of West Tennessee, Phoebe Roaf. It is an honor and pleasure to have you here. I like that your presence today will become part of our story as a school. Also welcome to former Head of School, Rick Ferguson and his wife, Elizabeth—by the way saying that Rick was simply Head of School is like saying that Houdini did some nice little card tricks. And also special welcome to Norris and Lauren McGeehee—I am so glad you recognize your membership in and kinship with the families of the class of 2019, we certainly do.

Seniors, you have been on a long road to get here…and today surrounded by friends and family you complete this leg of your journey and you head toward what is next—great places, new people, new challenges. Just for a moment though let’s look back before you sprint off. While you have had myriad successes as individuals and as a class, you have also faced losses and struggles and disappointments. On your best days you have faced both these successes and losses with grace. However, not all days are our best days. I often say about students (and teachers, and staff, and Heads of School) that they are each incomplete sentences—in other words we are never quite fully who we might become. We each have work to do. As you prepare to leave us I’d like to focus just for a few minutes on an ingredient I believe is necessary to do that work, to complete our sentence. Gratitude. Gratitude for all the gifts of this life is at the core of our ability to move through the mountaintops and the valleys of our lives with improving grace.

I was in a conversation with early childhood teacher, Beth Lawo, recently that at its core had to do with gratitude. I believe she and I had each independently reached a conclusion that science has increasingly backed up—that gratitude is not only spiritually beneficial, but it is also physically beneficial to our overall health. … A couple of weeks after our conversation where we each had sat in chairs designed for the little people who usually populate her PreK classroom, she gave me a copy of a gratitude Journal—a place where I might write down things that I am grateful for.  She inspired me to speak to you on this topic today.

The title of the journal is long…here it is… Okay Fine, I’m Grateful: A journal to catapult me from my default position of griping and negativity to the long-resisted stance of counting my blessings, because it turns out that focusing on the positive actually might be better for my mind, body, and spirit, in no small part because unhappiness is the gap between expectations and reality, so even though this whole gratitude thing feels like a bandwagon on the woo-woo train, the fact is that deep down I’m ready to start looking for the roses rather than the thorns, and if you absolutely force me to admit it, I will say that in all actually I do have very much to be grateful for.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence attempts to capture the benefits of Gratitude:

“More than any other personality trait, gratitude is strongly linked to mental health and life satisfaction. Grateful people experience more joy, love, and enthusiasm, and they enjoy protection from destructive emotions like envy, greed, and bitterness. Gratitude also reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders, and it helps people entangled with those and other problems to heal and find closure. It can give you a deep and steadfast trust that goodness exists, even in the face of uncertainty or suffering. Not only is gratitude a warm and uplifting way to feel, it benefits the body as well. People who experience gratitude cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health, including lower blood pressure and better immune function. Unlike other positive emotions like hope and happiness, gratitude is inherently relational: it reaches past the person experiencing it and into the social realm. It is gratitude in large measure that inspires people to acts of kindness, since it’s natural to respond to gifts with heartfelt gifts of your own. And that strengthens your bonds with other people. Grateful people are rated by others as more helpful, outgoing, optimistic, and trustworthy. Grateful people are rated by others as more helpful, outgoing, optimistic, and trustworthy.”

St. George’s Independent School community this should be us—it should be all of us, and it certainly should be you, members of the Class of 2019.

As students at St. George’s you have learned to be analytical—you have analyzed math problems, literary texts, historical events, scientific challenges, and even game film after tough losses or great victories. As I see you here ready to graduate and ready to get on to what is next, ready to “commence,” I am not worried about whether or not you have learned to analyze things—you have, I know you have. I am, however, particularly interested in whether you have learned to be grateful. Gratitude is at the entryway of life paths that allow us to help make a better world—it allows us to recognize and appreciate what is good and want to play a part in creating more of it. Thus, gratitude is vital to understand and participate in things greater than ourselves alone.

As the Head of this school on this beautiful day, under this lovely tent with this large, happy group gathered here, I am grateful for many things, most obviously for the lives our Seniors have shared with us, but most importantly, for the lives of leadership and service they will lead in the years and decades to come. This class has already been hard at work in ways that indicate a willingness to put gratitude into action.

We can see expressions of gratitude through the service of Kaitlyn Bowman, who as 2019 Miss Memphis Iris Teen, visited schools across the Midsouth reading to children. Or through Tyler Wilson who has been an active volunteer with Best Buddies and the Special Olympics swim meet. Or though Laura Beard serving on the Memphis Youth Council and seeking to find ways to address the opioid crisis. Or though Alexis Bourdeau tutoring 2nd and 3rd graders weekly at Streets Ministries. Or though Attison Womack working with Room In The Inn and hosting a Room In The Inn night at the St. George’s Bunkhouse for homeless women. Or through Andrew Joyner volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse. Or though Mimi Young, Jensen Lewis, Katie Mullinix and Angie Heger committing themselves to imagine and lead toward a better world through their work as Bridge Builders. The class of 2019 is loaded with so many people making similar contributions that the students I mentioned are not at all unique within this class but instead they are representative of this class.

In my life at our school, I get to see the whole sweep of the St. George’s community—from Memphis and Germantown through Collierville, and as a result I am reminded every day of the stunning commitment our community of families make to St. George’s students and to our school. I witness the overwhelming nature of this truth most poignantly at the end of the year when we gather for so many performances and celebrations and ceremonies. This has led me to this conclusion: I believe our families do this in largest part out of gratitude for each of your lives and out of hope for what you will become. The fact that you are here, that you have been at St. George’s is evidence of gratitude and hope.

Members of the Class of 2019, what you have accomplished is impressive, but you didn’t do all this on your own—you have been carpooled, shepherded, corrected, celebrated, and challenged; you have been humbled, and you have been raised up. Your families have sacrificed for and loved you at every turn. Our school’s gratitude for your families runs deep and, in many cases, goes back many years. For a number of families, our specific gratitude goes back to when you were still small children wobbling uncertainly and sleepily down the hallways at Memphis and Germantown. Your families not only supported you but they have supported the school in remarkable ways—they have volunteered at book fairs, they have supported auctions and supported capital projects. They have served on the PA; they have provided us with guidance, and they have asked for our help. In short, they have made us a better school, and I am grateful because a school is an incomplete sentence too, one made up of a cohort of people seeking earnestly to do the best it can for the students it serves.

Expressing gratitude and taking action based on it may be the secret to completing our individual sentences, the secret to reaching our potential as children of God because it leads us to reach beyond ourselves and move toward lives of meaning and of contribution.

Class of 2019, my prayer for you is inspired by a couple of key lines from our school prayer. I pray that you will strive “to see [God’s] presence in those who are around [you] and that you will serve God and express gratitude through service to others as well as to things greater than yourself alone. Think of it this way: you can live longer, healthier, and happier if you count your blessings and seek to improve the lives of others—this sounds like the bargain of a lifetime to me.

All best, Class of 2019. And Godspeed. Thank you.

The author with Fourth Episcopal Bishop of West Tennessee, Phoebe Roaf; Rector of Holy Apostles Episcopal Church, John Leach; and St. George’s Independent School Chaplain, Jessica Abell

 

The Increasing Relevance of Great Schools in a Technology-Driven World

St. George’s Independent School Head Chaplain, Jessica Abell, recently asked two questions during a homily at the Germantown campus: “How many of you have Alexa at home? And, what do you ask her? The first question elicited a multitude of raised hands, and the second question included answers such as: “I ask her the answer to math problems.” “I ask her how to spell things.” “I ask her to tell me funny jokes/to read me stories/to teach me dinosaur facts.” How interesting. One student said Alexa can also order things…Yikes!

In my experience as a student, I didn’t have Alexa to provide such information. I remember arguing with a classmate early in middle school about who had more major championships to his name, Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall. We could not resolve such a dispute quickly.  We needed a library or an authority on the topic, perhaps our tennis coach. As a result, we just argued in such situations, at times seemingly endlessly. It was not unheard of for similar disagreements to end at last with grass stains and bruises. Today’s students get to move quickly past finding out the right answer to questions far harder than the Laver or Rosewall question and toward more important challenges. How is what I know important? What else do we need to know? Where is the most reliable source of information that might help us? What do we now do as a result of what we now know? How do we communicate what we have learned?The brand of middle school disagreements I participated in are virtually extinct today.  Of course, the quick accessibility of facts is not a news bulletin in 2018, but understanding its impact, its challenges and opportunities, occupies those of us working with students. As educators, we might feel tempted to feel a bit obsolete in a world where asking a question often takes longer than it takes to provide the answer. However, the teachers at St. George’s, teachers willing to take advantage of what we know about how kids learn best, have never been more necessary for young people, for we are moving into a time when the primacy of content delivery is waning, and the role of teaching skills, such as collaboration and synthesizing disparate pieces of data are ascending. It is not good enough to know something (though students must also know things); they must know what to do with what they know, how to make meaning from it, and how to work with others to create shared understanding and purpose. They also have to learn how to disagree, how to compromise, and how to stand their ground. And increasingly, we must help student become accomplished at discriminating what is true in a bottomless sea of falsehoods. Against a backdrop of national debates that are too often devoid of quality thinking or requisite facts, the work of our school is taking on a greater importance. I am reminded daily at St. George’s that the best learning experiences happen when our students are connected to each other through the work of a great teacher. In such an atmosphere, students have the appropriate space to work together, to disagree and to agree, and to find common ground.

Indeed, becoming educated is not a solitary act, and it does not have just one beneficiary. The education our students work toward at our school is a gift to them individually, yes, but it is also a gift to the families they will be a part of, the professions they will occupy, and the communities within which they will live and serve. Choosing St. George’s and partnering positively with the school to educate these remarkable kids has a ripple effect that will undoubtedly last a life-time. In short, as parents our choice of and partnership with the school is among the greatest individual gifts we can give our children, and it is far, far more as well—such an education has the power not only to transform the trajectory of the lives of our individual children, but also the power to transform the neighborhoods, cities, and nation they will inhabit.At St. George’s we are busy providing experiences that go far beyond simply content. Whether our kids are making soap and lip balm through the second-grade bee project or they are testing water in our Collierville wetlands with University of Memphis researchers, our students are allowed to go deeper into learning than memorizing facts and content. As advanced as the technology Alexa and Siri represents is, it is equally as limited. Students need a great school like ours to make learning experiences more engaging and more collaborative, thus allowing us to prepare them to thrive in the lives they will lead.

Taking PROGRESS CULTURE and TWO, FIVE, TEN into the World

I read a blog post from Tracie Mastronicola, Academic Dean at  San Francisco Friends School, over the weekend. Having worked with a small group of faculty members at SFFS over a couple of days in early February regarding creating a process by which they might redesign their daily schedule, I was particularly interested to read her piece entitled, “‘Committing to The Air’: An update on our scheduling process”. It is a lovely piece–one I hope you will read. I love the metaphor in the title. It led me to reflect on my visits to a couple of extraordinarily different, but equally fascinating, schools with whom I had the privilege to spend some time over the last months.

Perhaps once or twice a year I work with leaders and faculty members at independent schools to help them frame out a process for change. Usually these conversations have had to do with daily schedule reinvention; however, while daily schedule change may be the end, I am most interested in the means–a smarter process to hold the ambition of complex schools striving to make impactful change. [At the end of this post I will include a small sampling of links to posts addressing aspects of this topic].

In the last six months I have worked with two schools–Punahou School in Honolulu and San Francisco Friends School. Both experiences have been remarkable and invigorating, and importantly, they each have informed my reflection on my school, St. George’s Independent School where we have used the same framework, and in some cases aspects of it, to guide our key conversations.

I am left with this conclusion: if we are to be able to move our schools with enough finesse and thoughtfulness, as well as move them at a pace that will:

  • preserve the elements of a school and its culture that should never change,
  • allow us to keep up with our evolving understanding of how kids best learn, 
  • and allow us to remain steadfast in a global socio-political environment undergoing stunning progress, as well as unprecedented strains and failures,

we must be willing to change the means by which we try to accomplish change processes.

I do not make the claim that the specific process I help schools work with is the only way to do this; however, it is the way I have found to be most helpful in not only arriving at a great answer for a step forward, but ensuring that a school community is healthier at the end of the process than it was leading into the process. As opposed to the terrible habit of process corrosion that often occurs when large institutions engage a change process, the approach to which I subscribe places becoming healthier as a culture at the center. In fact, becoming healthier as an institutional culture should always be the invisible number THREE of the TWO, FIVE, TEN, meaning it should be one of the non-negotiables in any significant change process.

School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture

The Role of Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture 

Foreshadowing Progress in a School Culture

Differentiating Traditions from Bad Habits

Two, Five, Ten: Guidelines for Establishing the Priorities of a Change Initiative 

Approaching School Days as Architecture: An Idea Revisited 

The Heads’ Letter: Responding to a Changing World

Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture #tbt

In November of 2011 I wrote “Stretching the Rubber Band on a Progress Culture.” As the second installment of Ross All Over the Map #throwbackthursday, this one comes back to mind for me quite often as I reflect on how schools can become best equipped to move forward strategically. The rubber band metaphor has held up for me as a way to conceptualizing healthy progress in an institution.

On the knobs to the medicine cabinet, poised to make the nose dive into the toilet if my hand knocks them on the way to the aspirin…on the coffee table peeking out from under the magazines and books…on the floor under the couch…in the corner of the kitchen counter grouped in the eddy where keys and purses and ball caps wind up, RUBBER BANDS, specifically hair bands, are all over my house. 

Since they play no practical purpose in my own life, I tend to think about them metaphorically.  This is the sort of thing English teachers do when faced with a reality. My daughter—a hair-banded whirlwind of activity—often reminds me, giggling as she speaks, that I am bald. Strangely enough, when she does this, I both love her more and have a fleeting desire to sell her to the circus.

So…how can rubber bands help us understand what a Progress Culture will look like in a school?

Some school communities/school cultures seem surrounded by walls.  Membership is predicated upon sharing a tightly defined set of static customs and expectations—they are built for continuity.  I think of the Cardinals that meet in order to choose a new pope upon the passing of the Catholic Church’s leader. This gathering has changed little if at all over the last few hundred years—clearly one of the ways it defines its success is by the extent to which it has not changed its operation.  Schools that share some of these characteristics experience change glacially if they experience it at all.

The opposite of a walled community/culture is one that can quickly disappear within the larger cultural context in which it exists.  It is loosely organized and the factors that drive it are as fickle as wind.  Not only does it not have walls, but the bonds it encourages are likely to be so loose as to be easily broken. For a school, the idea of quickly disappearing is hard to envision; however, schools that seem to reinvent themselves according to the whim of constituents are numerous.

While the walled school community/cultures denies the existence of the tide, the wall-less community/culture is washed up and washed away by it. In a school with a Progress Culture, I see a third option. We need to create a school culture that is held together by a rubber band.

In order for progress to occur in a school, the strategic resolve, the entrepreneurial thinking of a faculty member, or the initiative of a student must be allowed to get ahead of the institution temporarily. Having participated in conversations at several schools about what language we will write that will describe the truth of the school and the aspirations of the school simultaneously, I have found that the tension between what a school is and what it desires to become is prerequisite to any lasting steps forward. To be a Progress Culture, we need vision, faculty members and students to get ahead of us, but not so far out in front that the bond that holds the community together is broken.

A Strategic Plan, a vision statement, an individual, or a small group can stretch the rubber band away from the larger group.  As it stretches, tension builds.  In the context of a school, that tension comes out in the form of hard questions—what does this mean for me? Will this diminish the desired outcomes of the school? Who will not choose to stick around to see how all this turns out?  How will this affect what we already do well?  Once the tension in this rubber band reaches a certain point the groups have to pull back together.

But which side will move first and where will the two sides meet? These are the questions that determine institutional resolve.  If the people and ideas that got out ahead of the culture/community must do all the moving back, the school will have a difficult time being believable the next time it invites community members to stretch the rubber band, and the right next steps forward will be missed.  If the established community/culture does all the moving forward, there is risk that the school will lose things of substantial value in their move to reduce the tension in our rubber band.

The good news is that when both sides engage this process thoughtfully and earnestly, a school can take great strides forward, while not sacrificing what should never change.