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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St. George’s Non-Negotiables: Not Experiments

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Experimentation exists at the center of great learning experiences–it is inextricable from them. Students must learn to experiment—to try various approaches in order to discover what will work best. Importantly, an experiment is something a person or group DOES, not something a person or group IS. So while at St. George’s our students do many experiments, and as a school we pilot a number of ideas designed to discern the best way to serve our students and community, the school, including all its essential parts, is not an experiment.

In the headline of an article printed on-line on Friday and in a special report section on Sunday, The Commercial Appeal calls St. George’s three campus model an “experiment.” (The story was also picked up by USAToday.) The use of this word is, I am certain, well-intended, but it is inaccurate in describing our community in that it potentially makes what happens on the Kimball Avenue Memphis Campus (PK-5) and continues on our Collierville Campus (6-12) seem like something we do at St. George’s rather than something we are. To be clear, each of our three campuses–Germantown (PK-5), Memphis, and Collierville–is essential to St. George’s. Each is a part of a larger body. There is mutuality in the relationship of each campus, and all members of our community benefit from relationships with those from backgrounds different from their own.

Several years ago I started writing about an idea regarding how we should conceptualize the work of great schools operating in a quickly and dramatically changing world. I call this idea “Progress Culture.” A Progress Culture is able to name what should never change within it—what are its non-negotiable parts. Additionally, a Progress Culture is bold enough to ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision of the school, and it is resolute in building the answers to those questions into the fabric of the school even when they require arduous paths forward.

I believe our non-negotiables are:

  • St. George’s mission statement: St. George’s Independent School is a college preparatory school in the Episcopal tradition of education that is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, preparing students for a life of learning and meaningful contribution in an inclusive learning community that nurtures outstanding academic achievement, relationships, leadership, and character reinforced by Judeo-Christian values.
  • Our devotion to our three campus model. Inherent within this model is the belief in the mutual benefit of bringing together students from all over the Memphis area—from over fifty zip codes and from the same wide economic and racial diversity that reflects our larger community.
  • Our commitment to the tenets of an Episcopal education:  centered in a belief that every child is a child of God and that a balance between faith and reason should be critical in the education we seek for our students. This belief is at the core of our work and makes serving students in the best way possible the alpha and omega of any conversation.
  • High standards for academic achievement, as well as school community engagement. Our collaborative learning environment is built around a belief that 2016 Salutatorian Sydney Lanyon captured in her commencement address by quoting this African proverb: “If you want to go quickly go alone; if you want to go far go together.”
  • Learning about and serving our city and area. At St. George’s we believe that the education we provide is not just for the person receiving it but for the communities and professions in which he or she will serve and lead. Their path toward playing such a role as adults begins when they are with us. In a blog entry I entitled, “Ready to be Part of What’s Next in Memphis”, I wrote, “if we want our students to become civically engaged, community leaders as adults, our schools must be civically engaged. We must demonstrate as institutions the skills and priorities we want our students to learn within our curriculum and extra curriculum.”

What is negotiable are the means by which we strive to live toward fulfillment of the non-negotiables. I am particularly interested in how piloting ideas can drive us toward better fulfillment of the non-negotiables. (I have written extensively on this blog about this topic HERE). Pilots are institutional experiments. A pilot program’s success is less defined by whether or not it is something we would replicate exactly in the future than it is by the extent to which we learn ways to improve our work in one of the non-negotiable buckets from it. For example, this summer beginning today actually is a three-week summer pilot course called, “Amplify Memphis.” Taught by Associate Head of School Will Bladt, Director of the Institute for Citizenship Jason Hills, and Giving Strategist for City Leadership Justin Miller, the course will immerse students in their city. (You will be able to follow the course blog HERE). It is a result of our desire to “learn about and serve our city and area.” Please see the course description and essential questions below:

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I am certain students will have a great experience in this unique course this summer, but I am equally certain that the course will not be exactly the same next year. The teachers who lead and the students who participate in the course are pioneers and experimenters. We will learn a great deal from their experience that will help us refine the idea, reinvent it, or even perhaps abandon it for something stronger next time. This is how we learn. This pilot is a form of experimentation. Please note, however, nothing that happens in the course will change the fact that “learning about and serving our city and area” is a non-negotiable aspect of our identity as a school.

The example of the Amplify Memphis experimental/pilot course paired with the non-negotiable “learning about and serving our city and area” illustrates the difference between an experiment and identity. Because what The Commercial Appeal‘s headline indicates is an experiment is as essential to St. George’s DNA as any other non-negotiable component of our identity, a different headline would have better captured the full significance of St. George’s bold three campus story.

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To hear about the St. George’s experience from members of the Class of 2016, follow these links:

To learn about our unprecedented partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 through the new St. George’s Bunkhouse, follow this link:

To keep track of the good work taking pace at St. George’s, follow these links:

Deep, Thoughtful, Engaged Lives NOW for our Students

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St. George’s Independent School –A view of the Collierville Campus, affectionately called “The Lodge” by the student body.

As I left The Westminster Schools this summer after serving as Upper School Head, I found myself refining my wishes for high school students in this particular moment in history. In an interview about my departure for the school’s magazine, I said:

“It’s not what our students are going to do ten years from now; it’s what they’re doing now. We spend too much time worrying about what students will do next when what really best paves the way forward is to live our lives richly, deeply, and thoughtfully now…”

When I look back on that statement from my new post as Head of St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN. I am more convinced than ever that we owe our students opportunities for deeper engagement now in life of the body, mind and spirit, as well as the life of civic engagement we need for them to lead. While the answers can, will, and should vary widely between schools, the priority should be clear:

If we want students to live creative, passionate, and civically engaged lives as adults, they must go about living toward those priorities now, and we must go about the work to support them in this effort.  

If we want them to contribute to the communities in which they will live and work as adults, they must contribute now. In order to accomplish this, our schools, places of business, and non-profit institutions must go about modeling the same priorities we wish for young people.  

…And most importantly we must model the priorities in our lives as individual community members. To do less risks creating a generation passive and cynical about the positive role they might play in the world.  

As I have been going about the business of learning my new town, a number of factors have conspired to keep the topic of this blog front and center for me:

  • The Memphis area has explicit needs that should demand all hands on deck—young, old and in-between. The community doesn’t simply need them at some future date–it needs them now.
  • The seniors at St. George’s are so clearly ready to live toward the priorities named above. St. George’s is fortunate to have a great senior class who lead in myriad ways. They are deeply engaged in the life of the school and the life of the community.
  • Meeting people in the Memphis area who are leading lives toward the priorities I named are making a real difference everyday. I want our students to know them and to learn from their example, so that before they head to college they can see clearly that such lives are not only necessary to the success of our communities, but that the lives of these role models is achievable and rewarding.

Won’t You Be, Please Won’t You Be The Helper: A Cum Laude Induction Talk

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Good Evening!

It is a pleasure to welcome parents, family, and friends to the Cum Laude Induction Ceremony.  And most importantly, it is a pleasure to welcome our honorees, accomplished members of our senior class—congratulations to each of you! The praise we offer you this evening is well-deserved. The challenges you have faced that led you here are real. And yet, this evening, at least this part of it, is really more about what you will do than it is what you have already done.

Fred Rogers once said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Fred Rogers who created and starred in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, a children’s program that ran for decades on public television, was a significant presence in my early childhood. Even ahead of Sesame Street, which was brand new when I was headed into preschool, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was my favorite show. I would sit cross-legged in front of the television and be absolutely ready to join him as he invited neighbors into his home, as he invited us to get on the make believe trolley, and as we arrived in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.”

Rogers was an impressive thinker, and he had much more to say than his children’s television program could contain. Humane, kind, and strong-willed, he had some powerful things to share not just with small children, but with all of us. While some it might sound quaint to our ears, it is often also relevant and challenging.

For instance, he provocatively challenged the power of culture when he said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.”

He encouraged us to see the many facets of others, stating: “What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re MUCH more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.”

He even had something to say about keeping events such as Cum Laude Induction ceremonies in proper perspective, asserting: “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”

This evening, however, I would like to focus for a few minutes on something Fred Rogers said that tends to recirculate after national tragedies. Here goes—

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

In the wake 9/11, only a couple of years before his death, Fred Rogers appeared as a familiar and comforting voice to the very parents who had once been young devotees of his television program. This generation of adults was now struggling to explain the unexplainable tragedy of 9/11 to their children. Given the chance to speak to us once again, he told us to look for the good, to spend less time trying to make sense of what happened and more time seeking the good in others. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, it was not hard to find the helpers he described. First responders by job title or by inclination were ready at every turn to help others even if it meant putting their own safety at risk.

The helpers showed up after the Boston Marathon bombing as well. Even as most were understandably running away there were plenty of people running to provide aid and comfort to the injured.

It is not just after tragedies, however, that helpers are relevant difference makers. These helpers have likely looked out for you, our inductees, at virtually every turn in your life—your neighbors, teachers, coaches, friends, religious leaders and…not to be missed this evening in particular…your parents have played this role for you in ways both visible and invisible to you. Helpers don’t often get a movie’s heroic soundtrack to announce their good work, and they come in a fascinating array of shapes and sizes, an infinite variety of backgrounds and professions. It is my belief that they outnumber, and will always outnumber, the forces that corrode, abandon and destroy.

I have been thinking a lot recently about people who have found their way to professional lives that incorporate the helper role. This should be a particularly apt moment for such ruminations as you have a universe of potential paths ahead of you, and you will have some choices to make not only about what you will do, but who you will become. There are innumerable examples we could discuss here—I will spare you a catalogue and focus on just one.

John Woolard and I were classmates at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. Yesterday morning there was an article about John in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Here is an excerpt from that article, headlined “Passion for the planet led to big gig at Google for Richmond native”:

“During graduate school, Woolard’s interests had grown to include climate change and energy conservation.

“I was really focused on how you could take the power of the free market and use it to drive environmental change,” Woolard said.

Silicon Energy, which Woolard co-founded, produced software that helped utilities and other businesses save energy.

“It was one of these companies that really changed the industry. … Just through zeros and ones, or computer software, we were able to do the equivalent of avoiding the construction of two large coal or nuclear power plants,” Woolard said.

In 2006 at age 41, Woolard became president of BrightSource Energy, which built three of the country’s largest solar energy plants in the Southern California desert. “We did enough solar to serve 170,000 homes.”

Last July, Woolard joined Google, where he is vice president of energy.

Google uses a lot of energy in its data centers and other facilities, “so we try to make sure we are doing it efficiently,” and the company also buys a lot of renewable power, Woolard said.”

John is living the life of a helper—his own brand of that species. His is a life that creates a synthesis of both his professional ambition and skill, as well as his devotion to energy conservation and environmental sustainability.

So, Cum Laude Inductees, the question you and all of your classmates will have to work out in the coming years is this: what are you going to do with your remarkable gifts? You have them, oh my goodness but do you have them. Tonight we name that for you. You are going to know enough, connect enough, excel enough. But how are you going to become the helper? The most valuable things you do in your life, the things that will most clearly define you, will be what you give and how you help.

Fred Rogers can provide us one more insight before I close this evening. For me, it reveals the beauty of the helper most simply:

“There was a story going around about the Special Olympics. For the hundred-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and, at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him–every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”

If the members of this group of unique sprinters in a race choose to be helpers, you, my friends, you can be helpers as well, and you should be, and you must be.

Thank you.