The Head’s Letter: Responding to a Changing World

Carson's Corner, named for Carson Head, SGIS Class of 2014. "FIGHT LIKE A KID"
Carson’s Corner, named for Carson Head, SGIS Class of 2024. “FIGHT LIKE A KID”

The Head’s Letter is a monthly newsletter largely for heads of independent schools. Published by Educational Directions Incorporated, it focuses on topics of particular importance to school leaders. They were nice enough to ask me to write the piece I copied below as the cover of their December edition.

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The topic I discuss in The Head’s Letter should be no surprise to people with whom I have worked or who regularly read the blog: I have been writing about Progress Culture for years now, and I have been highlighting the need to learn from and create partnerships with entities beyond our schools for almost as long. As we look to move our schools’ ability to deepen learning for our students forward, it is imperative that we lean into the learning we can do beyond the confines of our respective campuses and curriculum.

At St. George’s Independent School (SGIS) we are energized by this aspect of our work–we call it SG901. So far the most visible artifact of this effort is the St. George’s Bunkhouse, which represents an unprecedented partnership with Memphis’s City Leadership and Serve901. You can read about the October 2016 opening and ribbon-cutting of the St. George’s Bunkhouse HEREIt is worth reading particularly for the remarks of one of the members of the Class of 2017, Alton Stovall, who spoke at the ceremony.

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Over the weekend the SGBunkhouse, located in the Historic Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood, served as a great location from which to go cheer on runners in the St. Jude Marathon. SGIS’s relationship with the work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is profoundly close due to two SGIS students–Carson Head, Class of 2024, who passed away in the summer of 2015 as a result of childhood cancer and Adam Cruthirds, Class of 2016 who continues his cancer fight now as a freshman at Rhodes College. (You can read a talk Adam gave exactly one year ago in an Upper School Chapel Service HERE). Supported by faculty and Upper School student volunteers, around sixty members of the SGIS Lower School community, families and students from both our Memphis and Germantown campuses, spent the night in the newly renovated SGBunkhouse space. On Friday night they made posters to cheer on the runners, and they played games, ate pizza, and watched movies. On Saturday morning they ate pancakes before heading out to cheer the runners. Many more members of our school community–students from each campus and division, alumni, parents, and faculty–participated on Saturday as runners, walkers, and cheerers.  It is an example of a kind of community engagement we would like to see growing through the SGBunkhouse: an opportunity to connect with each other AND with the community where we live. 

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TWO, FIVE, TEN Revisited: A Change Management Framework

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Hawken’s University Circle Extension Campus: The Sally and Bob Gries Center for Experiential and Service Learning

Last week I participated in a meeting hosted by Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio. I worked at Hawken for four years as Upper School Director, and much of what I have learned about change management comes directly from that experience. The TWO, FIVE, TEN approach I describe below is something I developed later though it is derived from my experiences at Hawken, which was bold and smart in its work to move the school forward both in improving the quality of what it delivered to its students and in positively impacting its place in Cleveland’s crowded school market.

During the meeting last week much of the conversation was less about what we envisioned for the future of our schools than HOW we might best move incrementally toward those strategic visions. We know more now about how students learn (and there is much discovery doubtlessly on the way); however, the HOW question looms before us and often paralyzes us. Because of the imposing presence of the HOW question, we risk continuing to operate in ways that fall short of what we might do to serve students better because we don’t know how to move from where we are to where we want to go. I offer the TWO, FIVE, TEN approach as an option for becoming assertive at the moment we might turn back from moving in a direction we believe has value.

Below I have copied a post I wrote in 2012. At St. George’s Independent School we used this approach to create our new 6 – 12 daily academic schedule. The new schedule has landed extraordinarily well (you can see the survey data HERE). In this post I have added some more detail to original in order to put a bit more flesh on the idea. I marked the new additions I made in bold.

TWO-FIVE-TEN: A Change Management Framework

TWO: “The Non-Negotiables”

I believe there is room for two priorities that are non-negotiable. These are the goals that, if not met, should result in abandoning or re-starting the process. For me, the TWO is an opportunity for leadership to create the all important frame for the process. I have used the TWO as synonymous with a CHARGE. Leadership should not in my opinion define more than the two, but the TWO allow leadership to provide the larger compass for the scope of the work

FIVE: “The Critical Ingredients”

There is room for five critical items. The hope is that all five will be largely intact at the end of the process; however, there has to be a recognition from the start that compromise and a kind of horse trading is likely. The FIVE create an opportunity for the larger community to impact the direction and purpose of the process without the possibility of high-jacking it to a role in conflict with the TWO. In this way there is clarity from the beginning that while the FIVE are hugely important, there is no doubt that they may have to undergo some compromise to get to the ends of the process described in the TWO.

TEN: “’The Wouldn’t it be Nice if’ Group”

These are the items that capture other hopes for the initiative. Getting all of them would be like hitting the lottery, getting six of ten would be good news. The TEN provide the community with the chance to dream about what would be ideal. A community conversation involving the TWO can also provide leadership with unique insight into what the school community values. Thus it is important to give this aspect of the conversation enough breathing room even though there is little chance the process will lead to a place that accomplishes everything on the TEN list.

Approaching a change initiative this way does several things:
  • Creates appropriate and manageable expectations for progress.
  • Prevents a business or school from overpromising and under-delivering.
  • Positions the people leading the conversation to maintain focus on what is most important. Nothing is more important than the TWO, nothing on the list of TEN should stand in the way of getting as much out of the FIVE as possible.
  • Provides a disciplined framework with some flexibility. While it is important to stick with TWO and FIVE, the TEN may indeed be a slightly shorter or longer list.  
  • Gives the community affected by change a vitally important voice in that change without giving them a veto.  

I set this down here knowing that the muddiness of an actual change process will confound this approach to some degree. Getting everything to fit neatly in this form will always be difficult; however, the exercise of pushing the conversation toward these guidelines will demand a kind of discipline that is lacking in many change processes. I believe schools have often confused an earnest approach with a disciplined one. An earnest approach is one in which we express our earnest desire to reach for a new and improved program or vision without providing any understandable system for getting there. In so doing we try to insert belief  in the correctness of a direction where the labor of change management should be. With a disciplined approach, a school has a far greater likelihood of building a kind of consensus of understanding that empowers the eventual proposal for change. Done well such consensus will also accelerate the adoption of the change. The lesson I have learned through being a part of both successful and unsuccessful change processes includes this: having the right (or more accurately a thoughtfully appropriate) proposal doesn’t matter unless enough people believe in its validity. In order to make something really work to the advantage of the students we serve, many, many people (students, teachers, families) need to be invested from the beginning in achieving success. 

I have written a great deal about aspects of change management in schools. I linked three examples that you may find relevant here:

“Approaching School Days as Architecture” …and

“School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture” …and

“Creating a Progress Culture Through Pilot Programs”

 

A Senior Prefect’s Helpful Insight

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“[At St. George’s] I HAVE learned not WHAT to think but HOW to think, and not just HOW to think but HOW to think WITH OTHER PEOPLE.”

I have been meeting with my advisees to discuss their upcoming student-led teacher/family conferences. I met with four of the seven of them yesterday, and two more today. My first meeting was with our Head Prefect Sope Adeleye who was telling me about her recent college visit to Harvard. She has a tough choice to make in the next couple of weeks, and while not yet resolved, I was witnessing her thinking about what she wants out of her college experience gelling. While she was talking about her different college visits, she pointed out that her understanding of the value of her experience at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN was coming into focus. I asked what that meant, and she said: “[At St. George’s] I HAVE learned not WHAT to think but HOW to think, and not just HOW to think but HOW to think WITH OTHER PEOPLE.” The first part of the quotation was not original to her (she heard it from a “new friend she met during her visit”), but the last part–“[I have learned] not just how to think but how to think with others–was all hers.

It was a great way to start the day. In direct and clear language, Sope expressed my hope for great learning at our school. There is always a bit of tension between the reality of the school and its ideal vision for what it should be. This is a constructive tension, and its existence defines how a school challenges itself to get better at its work for the students who populate it. Sope’s statement is a poignant reminder that remarkable and rare things are going on in this school right now, every day. As we move forward to live toward the vision of St. George’s, it is vital to preserve the value already here. This is a core tenet of what I call “Progress Culture”. I believe it is true that students who become awake to the power of their education learn “how to think with other people.”

To impact positively the issues that define Memphis, our country, our world, leaders will have know “how to think with each other.” There is no other option that can possibly work. All of us regardless of political, economic, or religious affiliation, can cite far too many examples of leaders failing to think with each other. The generation of leaders graduating from high school late this Spring and those that will follow them in the years to come will need to have this skill at the ready. It is our ongoing work to make sure St. George’s students will.

Like so many of her classmates, Sope wants to change the world for the better. Some of them like Sope will tell you so. After you meet this crowd, you’ll have little doubt that in ways large and small, they’ll do it.

[I have written extensively about the idea of Progress Culture. You can find links to all of that writing HERE.]

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Student Engagement: It has to come First

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In response to the question, “What does outstanding academic achievement “look like” at St. George’s?“, faculty members responded with a resounding emphasis on “ENGAGEMENT”. They should. There can be many priorities in teaching and learning, and given different moments in the life of a school, those priorities can, should, and will shift. However, engagement, student engagement, comes first. It is Alpha. Without it, there is no traction for learning. With it, everything becomes possible.

I am writing this from Gate 66 in the LAX Delta terminal after catching a shuttle from San Francisco on my way to Atlanta on a red-eye, followed by an early morning final leg back to Memphis. Memphis generally, and my school specifically, have been much on my mind over the last few days as I have attended three gatherings. On Wednesday I represented St. George’s at its Winter INMAX meeting. INMAX is a consortium of twelve relatively large, and certainly complex, independent day schools. Over the next two days I attended the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference.The top highlight for me was seeing Sarah Cowan, our Director of Communications, present alongside Patti Crane about school marketing and branding strategies. Starting Friday evening and wrapping up this afternoon, I finished my time in San Francisco by participating in a unique design gathering called SPARKplaces, led by Carla Silver of Leadership+Design, Christian Long of Wonder, By Design, and Howard Levin of Convent and Stuart Hall Schools.

View from the library of the Flood Mansion, hone to the Convent and Stuart Hall Schools and location of SPARKplaces
View from the library of the Flood Mansion, home to the Convent and Stuart Hall Schools and location of SPARKplaces

It has been a remarkable week, and I know of a number of takeaways that will likely at some point find their way onto this blog. However, the thought I have this evening–as a the chaos of a busy international airport slowly shortens my temper–is that, within all our talk of thinking about schools of the future, we can not  lose sight of the primacy of student engagement in setting our teaching, learning, and design compasses for the path ahead.

Some relatively unpolished thoughts about engagement:

  • engagement begins with teachers building trusting relationships with students. In order for students to lean into the discomfort of great learning, there must be faith in the adult creating the context and driving assessment–both formative and summative.
  • students will not be engaged in the intended learning if the teacher is not.
  • deep engagement is not comfortable. It is born of curiosity and a need to know more that outweighs the desire to stay comfortable in pre-existing knowledge or belief.
  • engagement is a gateway to vital components such as collaboration and critical thinking. Once a student feels a need to know and to understand, the necessity of reaching out to others becomes natural. Efforts to create collaborative environments where critical thinking is central hinges on student engagement.
  • without engagement, academic experiences are only that–academic. Without engagement, classroom experiences are empty calories, a virtual skimming across the surface of learning. Most dangerously, such experiences can become cynical exercises in jumping through hoops for academic rewards.
  • we will fall far short of our responsibilities to our students if we are comfortable with passivity.

So much of what I found compelling this week has a direct relevance to engagement. It has to come first. Alpha.

View from my hotel room on the final morning of my visit to San Francisco
View from my hotel room on the final morning of my visit to San Francisco

[In future blog entries I plan on writing about several other ideas inspired by my various commitments in San Francisco this week. There is a lot to digest. I am perhaps most interested in this statement by the John Chubb, former head of NAIS who died late this fall: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.”]