Differentiating Traditions From Bad Habits #tbt

In 2011 while working at The Westminster Schools, I wrote a piece titled, “Differentiating Traditions and Bad Habits.” I was reminded of it this week as I have been spending some time during our Spring Break near the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which also happens to be my alma mater, as well as the seat of some wonderful, often eccentric, traditions. Some of the traditions are in fact atavisms in the world of higher education–for accomplished students the wearing of academic gowns fits this bill, for instance. Sewanee is steeped in tradition and, like all institutions, it has been hampered by bad habits masking as traditions.

In independent schools, we are susceptible to the dangers of confusing the two as well. Virtually every school, no matter its history or position, faces challenges in this arena. With this in mind, I am posting my first #tbt blog post from 2011 below:

differentiating traditions from bad habits

I have been thinking today about the difference between traditions and bad habits in schools. It can be so difficult to distinguish between the two that we don’t even try to untangle them from the larger cultural fabric of the school.  But we must try to do exactly that. It may be helpful to think of it this way: imagine that every school has a ledger that marks the long-term debt of bad habit against the revenue of tradition.  My fear is that an audit of that ledger in many of our institutions might reveal that bad habits are costing us more than we choose to recognize.

We are drawn to bad habits—they can be seductive, and we often provide them cover by calling them traditions. Bad habits give institutions practice in the arts of rationalization and self-deception. While traditions bring us together in ways that allow us to reveal our individual best as well as the best of the institution to which we are attached, bad habits are more likely to bring us together in a co-dependence that allows us to repeat myths back and forth to the point we think they represent truth itself.

As we engage the conversation in my school regarding how to become a sustainable Progress Culture, it is necessary to identify the real traditions and thus be ready to preserve them against all comers. It is equally important, however, to spot the bad habits masquerading as traditions. Sometimes what we call traditions are really only atavisms stifling our thinking. And dangerously, in order to preserve such bad habits, we siphon resources—financial resources, as well as resources of good will—away from innovation.

Perhaps the worst of our bad habits in schools is our tendency to tell ourselves what we can’t do (or what our constituents will never accept) even when we believe there may be better way forward than the way we have always done things. In so doing we limit our influence, and we diminish our ability to lead.  Conversely, if we work diligently to break this bad habit and drive it out of the school, we will extend our influence, and we will increase our ability to lead.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An SGIS Faculty Meeting: Engaging, Listening, and Choosing the School

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SGIS PORTRAIT OF A GRADUATE

[In today’s post I am sharing some highlights from of a faculty meeting we had at St. George’s Independent School in November of 2016. I led the meeting twice–once for our Collierville campus faculty and staff and once for our Memphis and Germantown campuses faculty and staff. It was an important meeting. Perhaps most significant, in addition to the discussion of how to create deep student engagement, was the section for faculty members at the end called, “Choosing the School.”]

Key Notes from the SGIS Faculty Meeting November 2016

Creating TRUSTING RELATIONSHIPS leads to DEEP ENGAGEMENT; DEEP ENGAGEMENT leads to QUALITY LEARNING.

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 the result of the moment when curiosity and a need to know more 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.

 The importance of listening to students to create ENGAGEMENT:

  • In education, we have emphasized the importance of students listening to teachers, but we have often missed a key correlation between teachers listening to students and the students’ ENGAGEMENT in and ownership of their learning.
  • Additionally, we have often minimized the correlation between students listening to other students in creating a culture of ENGAGEMENT in our classrooms.
  • As teachers, we can get so caught up in what we need to say that we miss opportunities to hear our students and create ample moments for them to hear each other and collaborate.

Definition of Value = Satisfaction and Perceived Benefits/Actual and Psychological Costs

Centering Our Work:

Whenever we greet them, laugh with them, connect with them, are kind to them, we are affirming their place in the SGIS community. The value of this part of our work cannot be overestimated.

 We must:

  • Deserve the support we seek
  • Have faith in students before they have it in themselves

 Choosing the School:

  • We will be the right school for teachers who strive to put the needs of each student dead center, every day, every class, every interaction.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who want to challenge their own practice whenever there is an opportunity to serve students better.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who, though their participation in departments, grade levels, divisions, etc., model the characteristics of great collaborators and colleagues.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who are ready to be the reason that a student and family should choose our school.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who are deeply aligned with our strategic plan and are earnestly committed to moving it forward.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who reach out not only to the students who make it easy on them, but also to all those who don’t.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who pitch in when they can, however they can.
  • Finally, we will be the right school for teachers who strive to be the sort of people we describe in the Portrait of a Graduate.

The SGIS Three Campus Model: Sustainable Approach to Critical Work

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The  St. George’s Independent School (SGIS) organizational model is unique, and often in my short tenure as Head of School, I have been asked by colleagues around the country about how all the moving parts work together. With that in mind, I think writing the clearest description of the model I can might be helpful to those who seek to challenge the status quo of how independent schools align (or don’t) with the best ambitions of their cities/areas, as well as with like-minded philanthropic resources and community partners.

Almost six years ago when NAIS held its 2011 annual conference in Washington D.C., the theme was “Private Schools with Public Purpose.” Before, and even more after, the conference the theme fascinated me because I had difficulty seeing how our schools would do more than make baby steps in this direction. I sought to find examples of “private schools with public purpose” that were doing more than simply giving a sort of well-meaning lip-service to this idea. At the time I was working at Hawken School in Cleveland, which perhaps as much as any school I could name at the time was leaping in to this space through its commitment to the Gries Center for Service and Experiential Learning, an extension campus in the University Circle Area of Cleveland. Later during my time at The Westminster Schools, I joined a community that had a multi-faceted approach to “public purpose” though the Glenn Institute, as well as the Center for Teaching. Additionally, in reimagining the priorities expressed through our use of time in the school, we not only reinvented how we would use time going forward at Westminster, but we opened the door to stunningly expanded opportunities to partner with the community of which we were a part and to which we strove to contribute.

Grounding all of this work is the idea that our schools have a responsibility to graduate students who are on a trajectory to contribute to the health and ongoing improvement of the communities in which they will work and live. In order to do this best, the characteristics and actions of the school must mirror the characteristics and actions of our ideal graduates. [Please take a look at our “Portrait of a Graduate.”]

The SGIS model: Founded in Germantown in 1959, St. George’s Independent School operated as an elementary school until the late 1990s when the school undertook a capital campaign to develop a beautiful 250 acre campus on the Wolf River in Collierville designed for students in grades 6 – 12. At the same time an anonymous donor group challenged the school to create another pre-K–5th campus in the City of Memphis to serve families who would not otherwise be able to access or afford an independent school education. Today SGIS serves about 1100 students on three campuses–two elementary campuses, one in Germantown and another in Memphis, and a third campus for grades 6 – 12 in Collierville.

Serving 147 students in pre-K–5th grade, the Memphis campus, founded in 2001 is unique in that virtually all of its students receive financial aid based on need, and approximately 60 percent qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. To create a sense of community and camaraderie, each year students from both the Memphis and Germantown campuses participate in numerous events together, and they follow the same curriculum. Students from both the Memphis and Germantown campuses benefit from interacting with each other and developing friendships. These relationships promote unity in an area that historically is divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. This is a city that at various times has pulled itself apart, and through our school we are ambitiously trying to be part of the glue that pulls it together. The Memphis campus attracts families from more than 30 ZIP codes. SGIS as a whole draws from over 50 ZIP codes. The first class of students who began their educations on the Memphis campus graduated in May 2016.

Financial Model: To launch the Memphis campus, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church donated the facilities. A group of private donors provided $6 million in seed funds, and they continue to provide ongoing financial support. About 80 percent of SGIS’s operating budget comes from tuition and fees. The second-largest source, at 15 percent, is private gifts. Students at the Memphis campus pay tuition on a sliding scale based on income. The school’s full pay tuition appropriately aligns with, if it is not slightly lower than, the other top independent schools in Memphis.

Sustainability: The campus relies heavily on donations, drawing on an investment from the donor group to fund operations. We are working to increase the corpus of the investment to ensure sustainability in perpetuity. [If you would like to participate in supporting the Memphis campus, please contact our Advancement Office at 901-261-2340 or visit us on-line HERE ]

Staying true to the mission: Opening the Memphis campus was a unique and complicated idea both because of challenging logistics and because of the racial and socioeconomic divides in  the Memphis/Shelby County area. It operates on a different business model than the other two campuses, and it requires different staff and strategy. Members of the school community work diligently to build relationships across these socioeconomic and racial differences so that all SGIS students may benefit. Communication, planning, and collaboration are essential components of success.

Frequently Asked Questions:

“Does the tuition from the Germantown and the Collierville campuses support the Memphis campus?”  No. Tuition from the Germantown and Collierville campuses does not support the Memphis campus.  Germantown and Collierville tuition is used solely at Germantown and Collierville. Gifts from donors, as well as the tuition paid by Memphis campus families, support the Memphis campus. All Memphis campus families pay some portion of tuition, depending upon financial need.

“Did the creation of the Memphis campus divert funds needed at other campuses?” No. Actually, the opposite is true. The Memphis campus has been a fundraising catalyst for the other two campuses because of a system of challenge matches and releases. We have been able to expand our fundraising net to a larger group, resulting in dollars being released from the anonymous donors’ gift to go to the suburban campuses.

“How is the education of the Memphis campus students paid for and how does the scholarship funding work once the Memphis campus students get to the middle and upper school.” Tuition paid by their families and gifts from donors fund the education of the Memphis Campus students. Scholarship assistance for Memphis campus students follows them as they matriculate to middle and upper school.

[Reading another post, “St. George’s Non-Negotiables: Not Experiments may provide additional, useful background and context]

[To learn more about what is next for SGIS, please read exciting news about our unique partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 through the St. George’s Bunkhouse, a satellite campus in Memphis’s Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood, READ THIS. With 115 bunks in a beautifully renovated space, the SG Bunkhouse gives SGIS a new opportunity for community engagement.]

[To read an excellent telling of “The Story of St. George’s”please follow the link HERE.]

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