One Body, Many Parts: An Opening Convocation Reflection

[I gave the following homily at the Opening Convocation of St. George’s Independent School on its Collierville Campus two days after the violent and tragic white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.]

Good morning!

Good first morning of the 2017-2018 school year. A particular welcome to our sixth graders just joining us for the first time on this campus, as well as to the remarkable and impressive Class of 2018.

Hear the last part of today’s scripture from Romans again: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

These lines got me thinking about our differences and our interconnectedness. It also made me think about our individual bodies and how when one part is not working well, all the other parts are affected. This played out in my life when I faced significant hearing loss.

For the first time in 2002 in my left ear and later in 2015 in my right, I had a condition called Otoschlerosis. When one has Otoschlerosis, the stapes bone—a tiny bone—the smallest in the human body—stops vibrating. That means that there is nothing to communicate sound vibrations to the ear drum. As a result, over the course of about six months, I went deaf in the affected ear. Hearing aids reduced the problem to an extent; however, hearing aids seemed to eliminate a lot of sounds and voices in order to allow me to hear the voices closest to me. In order to do what they do, they simplify the world of sound.

During these two periods of hearing loss, it was stunningly disconcerting to find myself in a world that felt constricted, too small, oversimplified. I was missing so much. I felt out of balance, and in fact, I would lose my balance sometimes.

The condition left me discouraged and exhausted because I knew what better hearing sounded like. I remembered what it was like to hear clearly and make meaning from the many voices around me. I knew I was missing what I considered to be a necessary variety of voices that surrounded me.

Fortunately, there is a surgery that largely solves the problem called a stapedectomy. It is an amazing surgery in which the stapes bone is removed and replaced with an artificial stapes bone made of platinum and Teflon. Today my hearing is close to normal. Going to our scripture today, I have never been more aware of the value and interrelatedness of all of our different body parts and systems than when the bandages were unwrapped a couple of weeks after surgery and immediately I could hear again. I felt whole again.

I was so overwhelmed with the amount of sound I could now hear after these bandages were removed that I had to sit down for a while before driving. The world had opened back up, and I was overwhelmed and elated for an hour or so, a dangerously distracted man. For the first time in many months, I could hear people speaking around the corner, and I could understand people without having to look at them while they spoke.

The sort of deafness I experienced is not the only kind of deafness. Deafness can also affect a group of people who cease to hear voices not their own.

Here is my worry: in our country and in the world there is a risk of becoming deaf to each other because we forget the importance of hearing different voices. Rather than losing our hearing to a medical condition, we could simply forget to use our ears. St. George’s stands against that kind of deafness. Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.


Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.


Over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, evidence of deafness to those of different backgrounds revealed itself in the hateful, bigoted statements voiced by white supremacists, and their actions led to dreadful acts of violence.

Following this violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, issued a statement that said in part:

“Violence and extremism in the guise of racial identity or racial pride are as sinful and twisted as violence and extremism committed in the name of God. The tragic events in Charlottesville today, and the hatred that fueled them, grieve the heart of God. All of us need to repent of the racism that still flourishes in our nation.

Together, we join with all people of conscience and goodwill to pray, in the words of our Prayer Book, that God would “take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth.”

Reverend Hollerith continues, “We will pray for the victims of this tragedy; for God to soften the hearts of those blinded by racial hatred; and for all Americans to find the courage and strength to do the hard work of repairing the racial divisions among us.”

The work of our school, and any great school, is to create an environment where we do hear each other, care about each other, and recognize our shared humanity. This effort has never been more important. There is so much wonderful work and fun and shared purpose ahead for us this year at St. George’s—it is in our hands to make something valuable out of this school year, but I want to challenge each of us to fend off the deafness wrought by arrogance and narrow-mindedness. I want you to listen to the experiences of those different than yours, listen to those who go to different houses of worship than you do, listen to those that come from a different zip code than you come, listen to those who look different than you look. Becoming educated involves learning more about others and challenging our assumptions. To do this, we have to listen carefully.

In the school year to come, let’s remember the gift we have been given that allows us to come together in this school, and help us to hear and learn from the remarkable variety of voices around us. I am excited about the year to come at St. George’s—I can’t wait to get it all started.

Thank you.

Some pictures from the first day of school at St. George’s…

 

 

All Little Children, Love One Another: An Easter Chapel Reflection

[I spoke yesterday at the Easter Service for the sixth through twelfth grades at St. George’s Independent School. As students walked in, we projected a scroll of pictures from an event Tuesday where a number of our students and faculty joined with CityCurrent and Samaritan’s Feet to provide new shoes for children in need in Memphis. It was a remarkable event held at the St. George’s Bunkhouse that included foot washing. Such an event happening during Holy Week is particularly poignant given its parallel to the story of Christ washing his disciples’ feet and then announcing his commandment  “to love one another.” I have included today’s scripture from John below, and my talk follow it.] 

John 13: 12-17 and 31-35 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Good afternoon!

Besides being a central reading of the Easter Season, today’s scripture is particularly relevant to a number of our students who spent Tuesday of this week at the St. George’s Bunkhouse. In case you are unaware of the work of the St. George’s Institute of Citizenship, City Current, and Samaritan’s Feet, I wanted you to see this:

[At this point I showed a highlight video of the event featured on the CityCurrent Webpage.]

I’d love to have everyone, students and faculty alike who played any role in this remarkable event to stand and be recognized.

In reflecting on today’s scripture, I am reminded that there is so much that is difficult and challenging in the Bible. In the Old Testament, academically referred to as the Hebrew Bible, we navigate ancient stories that leave us searching to draw consistent conclusions about meaning. In the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, we have examples placed before us that confound us, that raise a bar high enough regarding who we should be that we struggle to imagine clearing it. The Bible is not an easy read.

The complexity of it is particularly poignant in the season of Easter when we face the defining narrative of the Christian faith, the culmination of a story set in motion thirty-three years earlier in a manger in Bethlehem.

Interestingly, we know the end of Jesus’s story even before the story of his birth begins, and in the Christian calendar we reenact the entire story annually. Christ’s nativity and his death on the cross were thirty-three years apart in history, but for us just over three months separate them. In December he is an infant, in April he hangs painfully on the cross on Golgotha. It happens fast and presents us with a kind of spiritual whiplash. We focus on the ending in Jerusalem when the beginning is still relatively fresh in our memory. So, as we reprise, as we retell, the familiar story, we seek clarity, meaning, and solace. What we find, however, is often ripe with complexity, elusive in meaning, and full of discomfort. For me this discomfort boils down to this: as we come to understand and accept Christ’s divinity, we have to face our own human weakness. As we face the truth of his life and death, we have to confront our failings. Such an experience is hard, but it is essential. You can’t go around it, above or below it—you have to go through it. Not easy. The good news is this: you don’t have to go through it on your own.

Many of you will remember that Jesus’s disciples often refer to him as teacher. Fortunately, Jesus is a hall of fame teacher. The best teachers are able not only to set a bar for us higher than we can imagine reaching, but they can provide us with the tools to clear it. Just yesterday I watched the First-Grade Animal Play—how many of you remember being in the first-grade Animal Play? In addition to lots of family members of first graders, the audience included the kindergartners. To them, the first graders probably seemed impossibly knowledgeable. Some of the kindergartners were likely in awe of the first graders who each had their lines memorized and spoke clearly and confidently.

One year from now those same kindergartners will be in the same play and will be as beautifully prepared as this year’s group. What makes the difference? Teachers. Teachers who point the way forward step by step. For our first-graders they learned the songs a bit at a time from Ms. Colgate, and even as they were performing she was still there facing them, mouthing the words. Additionally, they worked with their classroom teachers learning their lines until they arrived yesterday ready to go, ready to teach their audience what they had learned.

We are each like first graders at the feet of a great teacher. I am and you are. No matter your own specific faith background or where you are eon your own spiritual path, I believe we are all seeing a great teacher in action in the scripture today. Think about what he does:

  • First, he demonstrates the action he wishes for his students to take. By washing the disciples’ feet, he illustrates a lesson about taking care of others…all others. He lives out a challenge to the hierarchical structure of society where only those lower would wash the feet of those higher.
  • He names the learning he wants them to take away—he doesn’t hide it when he explicitly says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” No mystery there.
  • He reiterates his call to action when he says: For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” He makes it clear that he is demanding that each of the disciples emulate him.

Perhaps the fact that he calls the disciples, each of them fully grown men, “little children” inspired my reference to first graders because it seems important that Jesus is highlighting that we are children of God in need of a teacher. And Jesus isn’t done with his lesson yet, because like the rarest of teachers having brought his students through one challenging lesson, he points to the next and greater lesson and demand. Hear it again: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Here he takes it up another notch and adds the commandment of the new covenant, which is for us to love one another as Christ loved. In the final act of this teacher he prepares his students for life after him when he says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” He is teaching right up to the moment he must let go, and he is leaving them with his greatest gift—the gift and the teaching of the Easter Season. That gift delivered long ago continues to be delivered today as if brand new—just take a look at what happened at the Bunkhouse on Tuesday. On that day and in that place, many of our students rose to the essential lesson Jesus left us—to love one another.

Amen.

Because it was raining for the SGIS/CityCurrent/Samaritan’s Feet event, they had to figure out an alternative activity so our students created a questionnaire that asked the children about basic needs, such as food, clothing, school supplies. Purely out of their initiative, they did a needs assessment survey with the hope that it will drive further programming.

Response to Questions from the MEMPHIS BUSINESS JOURNAL

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“THE SPEED AT WHICH THE WORLD IS CHANGING SHOULD CALL US TO GRADUATE STUDENTS WHO KNOW THINGS, YES, ABSOLUTELY, BUT THEY SHOULD ALSO KNOW HOW TO MAKE MEANING FROM KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTAND HOW TO WORK WITH OTHERS TO MAKE SOMETHING VALUABLE OUT OF THAT KNOWLEDGE.”

[Last week the Memphis Business Journal published an article about Memphis Independent Schools. In advance of that article, they sent me a fairly long list of questions. As is the case with most pieces of journalism, the final piece only reflects a very small percentage of the information they collected, so I am posting here the entirety of my responses (minus some basic questions abut my professional life before I came to St. George’s Independent School.]

What has been to this point your most influential year of your educational career and why?

My second year as Upper School Director at Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio. Having arrived at the school early in the tenure of a new school head, I saw the benefit of what a strong partnership between school leadership and board leadership could do. As a result of a deeply ambitious strategic plan, as well as extraordinarily bold leadership of the Head of School and Board Chair, Hawken was able to take giant steps forward. During that year and the couple to follow, Hawken founded an urban extension campus, reinvented the use of time in the school, and moved toward curriculum far better suited to what we now know about the environments within which students learn best. It was an exciting time and not only did it change the game for independent schools in the Cleveland area, but it also had an impact on the national conversation about how independent schools could not simply sit still as the world changed around us. That year in particular led me to seek out the opportunity within each challenge.

Why did you accept your current position? What attracted you to Memphis and to this particular school?

The three-campus model of St. George’s Independent School is unique in the country, and fascinatingly, it is in many ways more well-known nationally than locally for the remarkable work it has done to knit itself into the full richness of the Memphis community.  Drawing students and families from over fifty zip codes, I was drawn to the current ambitiousness of the school, as well as its history of boldness to do what is best for students. At times schools can—even with the best of intentions–lose sight of what is most important (student learning and experience) and drift toward a conversation that is centered in what best serves adults—not so at St. George’s. While fiercely protective of what is most important in the school and thus should never change, it was also a place with its eyes firmly focused forward. When I first visited, I was impressed with its strong sense of its Episcopal mission and most critically, I was impressed with how that sense of itself was intertwined with everything from long term strategic discussions in Board Committees to daily interactions with students in the hallways. St. George’s became a compelling choice for me and for my family even though we would be making the move from Atlanta and from a school that we loved [The Westminster Schools]. Interestingly, what cemented the choice for me was seeing how students were so intimately involved in the search process. I have found that only in the very best schools—the ones most comfortable in their own skin—are students brought so close to the critical decisions of the institution.

What are the challenges your school faces today and what do you see as the challenges for your school in 5 years and even 20 years from now?

Our critical challenge is to make sure the story of our school finds the ears of all the students and families for whom we would be the best fit. Having years of success under our belts as a strong college preparatory school and having sent graduates to the very best colleges and universities, we need to be very good at telling our story, so that all those kids who would be best served here find us and choose us.

Another challenge is to continue to refine and deepen our work to create the engaging learning experiences for our students. Without student 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. At St. George’s we seek something more meaningful and relevant for all the students who populate our classrooms, hallways, athletic fields, and stages.

As for challenges five and twenty years down the road, I believe schools must demonstrate far more flexibility and finesse to be prepared to move toward what we continue to learn about how students learn best both in the context of traditional academic learning and in the context of character education. Schools can become simply repositories for the way things used to be done, and while we should be careful not to throw out the “tried and true”, we must also be willing to clear new paths. The speed at which the world is changing should call us to graduate students who know things, yes, absolutely, but they should also know how to make meaning from knowledge and understand how to work with others to make something valuable out of that knowledge. At St. George’s we want our students not simply to know how to live in the world as adults, but we want them to strive to make the world better. This will be the long-term challenge of our work.

Another five and twenty-year challenge is sustainability. In order to find equilibrium in this area, we focus on changing the question from “how will we be sustainable?” to “WHY should we be sustainable?” If we make it our long-term goal to be forever ready with great answers to that question, I believe the HOW will largely take care of itself.

Give us a window into the typical day as of the head of your school. What does that look like as far as responsibilities, interaction with staff, etc.?

Given the nature of leading a three-campus school (not including the St. George’s Bunkhouse), there are very few typical days. However, my days include the likelihood of spending some time on at least two of the three campuses, as well as a great deal of interaction with both students and faculty. My overall job is to oversee the day to day operation of a complex school, thus many of my meetings are with members of my leadership team to ensure I am able to give them the support they need to do their work. Another aspect of my work is Board stewardship, meaning that I spend a substantial amount of time in conversation with my Board Chair and with Board members and committees who are charged with providing strategic guidance. On my very best days, I get to see our prefects. I serve as the advisor to this exceptional group of Class of ’17 leaders. The prefects and I spend our time discussing the same strategic topics I discuss with the Board and with the faculty, and I have often relied on their counsel.

The American educational system is often criticized for falling behind other first-world countries in education, how are you working to improve education at your school in that context?

For us there are two central ways we are working to improve the education we provide: 1) As mentioned before, deepening student engagement, 2) connecting in more and more dynamic ways with the community and with the natural world.

For our students to compete advantageously in a globally competitive workplace, they must be deeply engaged in the work and in the challenges that face them. However, it is not simply the ability to engage a challenge on one’s own that will determine success—it is one’s ability to work with people from different backgrounds to reach common ground and to take thoughtful action informed by a wide range of perspectives. So much of our students’ collaborative work has this end in mind. Engagement in this sense combines the ability to engage material/content and also to engage others in seeking solutions to the problems they will face.

We believe that the best education is not confined to the four walls of the traditional classroom. To improve education in our country, we must help students see the relevance of their learning. Whether it be taking advantage of the St. George’s Bunkhouse to engage the vibrant Memphis community or it be exploring our 200 plus acre Collierville campus wetlands as part of an Environmental Biology course, our students can see the relevance of their learning. For too long in schools we have taught students facts or concepts without the requisite context into which to place that knowledge. At St. George’s we are working diligently to make the relevance of what students do clear to them at each step along the way.


“For too long in schools we have taught students facts or concepts without the requisite context into which to place that knowledge.”

What key things will you carry forward from the previous head of school’s tenure and what key things will you do to put your stamp on the school and the head of school position?

My predecessor, Bill Taylor, shepherded the school through remarkable growth. He had to combine two skills that are rare to find in one person—he had the vision of a great school leader and he had the tenacity and day-to-day finesse to ensure the legacy of the school through a stunning era of change. I believe his greatest gift to the school was his devotion, evident in all he said and did, to the school’s Episcopal identity. I hope I can mirror some similar gifts during my tenure.

I am excited to play a part in helping to guide this school as it matures in its established role as a premier independent school in Memphis and Shelby County. This school has an important role to play. In a city that has at times pulled itself apart on both economic and on racial lines, St. George’s is, and should continue to be, part of the glue that pulls people together.

What is your most innovative idea for your school for the 2016-2017 school year?

 This Fall we moved to a significantly reimagined schedule for grades 6 – 12. Without describing the new schedule in full, its key components include: longer classes (70 minutes) that meet less often and a significantly later start to the school day (8:30 a.m. start Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and 9:00 a.m. start on Wednesday). Our goals were to unify our Middle and Upper School schedules, to provide opportunities for deeper, more engaged learning, and to improve student life and balance. In order to assess our progress at this stage of implementation, we surveyed students, families, and faculty. When over 90% of each of these constituencies reports that the schedule is an improvement over last year, it becomes resoundingly clear we are on the right track. The data provides tremendous support for the schedule and should provide us with additional momentum.

How the retirement of long-time leadership in private school throughout the city could affect the overall private school landscape?

There is always loss when a long-tenured school leader departs, and my sense is that to the specific school communities most directly affected that sense of loss can be poignant. The stamp of the departing leader—in terms of personnel, facilities, and curriculum—is doubtlessly deep. That said, I believe that such change gives members of the community a change to kick the tire anew, to assess where the particular institution is and perhaps should be. Notwithstanding the loss inherent in change, schools shouldn’t blow past the tremendous opportunity to determine what should never change, as well as what we might reassess. Leadership change is not easy, and the success or failure of this moment will be largely determined in the degree to which the school community is willing to take all the steps necessary to support the new head as he or she settles into the difficulty work ahead. I have been fortunate beyond any expectation I might have had in the support I have been given at St. George’s, and I wish nothing less for my colleagues in similar posts at other schools.


“Notwithstanding the loss inherent in change, schools shouldn’t blow past the tremendous opportunity to determine what should never change, as well as what we might reassess.”

In 20 years, what is your legacy at your school?

I hope that my legacy includes that St. George’s continues to graduate students prepared to take on positions of leadership in Memphis and beyond and that they play critical roles in making their workplaces and communities better for their presence.

In support of this goal, I am immensely gratified to be involved in the launch of a new facility in Midtown. In partnership with Serve901 and Living Hope Church, St. George’s Independent School opened the St. George’s Bunkhouse on Mclean Boulevard in Memphis, TN in October. The beautifully renovated space can sleep up to over 110 people provides access to the church’s sanctuary spaces. Located between Rhodes College and the Crosstown Concourse, the school will use it for many purposes, largely focused on community engagement. My blog post on this topic provides more detail.

I hope that my legacy includes a school community that continues to be both humane and demanding, one that finds the perfect balance in the education that it provides between a) very high expectations for student achievement and character and b) the nurture necessary to support students reaching those elevated bars.

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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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