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.

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:

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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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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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