Three Refrains for the Class of 2017: A Commencement Address

Good afternoon! Welcome to all gathered here in support of the St. George’s Independent School’s Class of 2017. This class has on a regular basis made me proud to be a part of this community.

These seniors have earned this day in this place surrounded by this group—surrounded by families, by faculty, by staff, and by friends. They are an accomplished group—it is beyond my ability to delineate every contribution here though suffice to say, the members of this class have impacted our school in positive and lasting ways. They have been scholars, artists, athletes, actors, friends, mistake-makers, victory-winners, supporters, leaders, Saturday-schoolers; they have been members of teams, makers of grades, givers of service, and they have sometimes stayed up most of the night and slept most of the day. They have been part of us, vital parts of the body of this school, their school. Perhaps representative of this, next week many of them will continue to represent St. George’s in state athletic competition in Track, Tennis, Baseball and Soccer. LET ME ASK ANY SENIOR COMPETING NEXT WEEK TO STAND AND BE RECOGNIZED. Clearly, we aren’t quite ready to let go of you yet!

 I too often live in my head—there are always things churning around up here between my ears. And indeed, such was the case as I started to work through what I might tell this class, this memorable class of 2017, before they cross this stage and move ahead to what comes next. I started and restarted and stopped and pondered. I was taking too long, and I was risking falling short of my duty, my last duty, to this group before they join the impressive alumni group of this school.

And then I had a three-campus experience Friday morning that resolved my dilemma. In the first three hours of the day, I shook hands with Memphis campus students and families heading into their awards ceremony, and later I witnessed as teachers on the Germantown campus recognized students for citizenship, and finally, I hurried over to Agape Chapel where I met up with you and read you a story and rehearsed this very ceremony. After all that, I realized that I don’t have something new to say, but I do have a couple of refrains to share—I need a last determined calling out to you, imploring you to stay focused on what is most important. Here is my list: number one, honor others; number two, celebrate other’s accomplishments; number three, remember the simple good.

The Memphis campus students are becoming excellent at shaking hands and making eye contact with me. I think I may have scared some of them earlier in the year when I mentioned in my teacher voice that I would like them to work on this skill, so on Friday as I was greeting them, a number held their eyes particularly wide open to make sure I would note their quality eye-contact, as they stopped long enough to say: “Good morning, Mr. Peters” or as a few say, “Good morning, Mr. Ross Peters.” They are learning that that it is important to greet others well in order to recognize and value, even in that fleeting moment of a hand-shake, the lives of others. This ritual of shaking hands is a way that we honor each other, a way that we name each other, and a way that we humanize each other. A warm greeting, long enough to make eye contact, short enough not to hold up the line, stands for all the ways we honor others.

I missed a good bit of the Germantown Award ceremony in route from the Memphis campus. Hurrying from my car I made it to the Chapel just in time to see the Citizenship Awards. I edged along the outside aisle to find a seat behind Ms. Colgate, who along with Carolyn Wilder Morton, Jane Finney and Pat McGraw is retiring at the end of this school year. LET ME ASK THAT EACH OF THEM STAND TO BE RECOGNIZED. So after taking my seat, I had a perfect view of each teacher greeting and celebrating with the students being recognized. There was a lovely intimacy in this exchange—the teacher handing a certificate to an excited child, the two of them turning together toward the camera to get their picture taken. Beyond the stage there was a joyously full chapel with kids and families, teachers, and staff not simply clapping for those recognized but living within a connection to each other—a kind of communion. It is a beautiful convergence for me that just moments ago we celebrated the accomplishments of four members of our community whose lives within St. George’s were defined by supporting and celebrating the accomplishments of others. So, to the Class of 2017 in whatever life you build, do that, please, do what they and many others have done for you…celebrate and support others.

After ghosting away immediately after the Germantown campus Awards Ceremony, I drove to the Agape Chapel and met you there. I did on the last weekday of your Senior year what I did on one of the very first days of Pre-K for another group when I arrived in 2015—I read you a children’s story. There is so much that is intricate and complex in our world—it is not going to get simpler. That said, it is often the simple things, the things we first heard from the lips of our parents or learned from gentle nudges from our first teachers or even heard in a story read to us as we drifted to sleep at bedtime that offer us the guidance to navigate the world. Those stories tell us to: listen, cooperate, share, forgive, be kind, and love.

We live within a culture defined to a large degree by the priority of “getting what’s mine”, as in “I am determined to get what’s mine.” The class of 2017 does not need to learn but rather they need to remember Dr. King’s counter-point to that potentially corrosive cultural characteristic. I discussed this topic in our MLK Chapel early this year. He said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” I said in January and echo today that, “this question should remain before us like a gentle and divine push on our backs directing us where to go.” Seniors, you felt this push shaking hands, you felt it as you developed your sense of community. It is in the end a push toward something really simple, but not at all easy. It is the challenge of our lives.

Godspeed Class of 2017! Thank you.

Above: the 2016-2017 St. George’s Independent School Prefects

Above: new graduates celebrating in front of the SGIS Agape Chapel

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.

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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Soft Skills: The Wrong Name for Things So Vital

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The Soft Skills are, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Calling them “soft” makes them sound so wimpy though, doesn’t it? And yet without them our ability to interview successfully for a job, greet a stranger to ask for directions, make someone just arriving feel comfortable, work well with others, choose the hard right over the easy wrong, and contribute to a group that is greater than the sum of its parts disappears. Think of the potential squandered in our nation and in the world because we fail to pass along these essential skills to young people. The risks of our neglect in this area has a price for which the addition of one more battery of standardized tests or one more piece of educational legislation can never make up. To be clear, without a determined, humane, and systemic approach to teaching these “soft skills,” not only do the children who come through our schools suffer but our economy and our overall cultural cohesiveness suffer as well. It is not OK.

Recently, a principal of a nearby high school of several thousand students announced, after regaling the audience with the school’s programs, that the greatest deficit of the students in the school related to the significant lack of “soft skills.” He suggested that they might add a course for seniors to mitigate the gap in this area. In my mind this is far too late.

Last Thursday we had a guest on campus representing a prominent foundation to which St. George’s has applied for a grant. As part of his schedule he met with a number of students. Here is the point: not for one moment was I worried that these kids would do anything but impress him with their engagement, passion, kindness, honesty, courtesy, civility, and clarity of thought. I couldn’t wait for him to meet them. There were no other adults in the room when he met with them–they only could have gotten in the way. I had no doubt that his time with them would likely be the highlight of his visit. They did not learn these skills in a course–in addition to what they learned at home, they learned them by going to school for years within a community, the SGIS community, that prioritizes “soft skills”, names them, celebrates them. They are a vital part of each student’s learning, and our sacred hope is that its value lasts for their lifetime and even beyond it in the lives they will touch.

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Recently, Lori Williamson, our Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment, wrote a letter to our community addressing “soft skills.” I have included it below.

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February 16, 2017

Dear St. George’s Families:

One of the things I love about St. George’s is our dedication to the whole child. In my role as Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment, I am privileged to see firsthand the active learning that happens across all grade levels and campuses. I see St. George’s students sharing their insightful thinking whether they’re reading Hamlet or preparing for their rain forest presentation. I see them assuming the responsibilities of citizenship as they plan service projects. I see them advancing as problem-solving scholars as they collaborate with peers on multi-disciplinary projects. I see the expertise of our teachers as they create academic experiences which teach skills and promote awareness, collaboration, and relationships.

Of course, student performance data is an important measurement tool and is a critical aspect of my role at St. George’s. This is one reason I recently attended the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) conference in Chicago, Illinois. However, while there were plenty of expected sessions on data analysis, what stood out to me at this conference, was the counter-balance of sessions dedicated to the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL). Interestingly, researchers at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) have identified five core SEL skills that enhance one’s ability to tackle daily tasks and challenges: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

What you should know as a St. George’s parent is that these types of so-called “soft skills” are directly linked to academic achievement. In fact, an article in the Journal of Child Development noted a meta-analysis of 213 studies involving over 270,000 kindergarten through twelfth grade students that found students who participated in explicit SEL programs increased their academic achievement by 11 percentile-points.

Not surprisingly, some employers have identified workforce gaps related to these same skills. For example, some of the competencies often ranked as “very important” by employers include: the ability to analyze and problem solve with people from different backgrounds; the ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources; oral and written communication skills; and ethical judgement and decision-making.

I was pleased to reflect upon the caliber of our practice at St. George’s while at the ERB conference. My conference experience underscored the benefit we see in pairing high academic achievement with the all-important “soft skills” required by future employers. I am thankful to see positive relationship, empathy, and ethics working together in our school and serving as a basis for social/emotional learning alongside academic growth. I am thankful to be part of a community that supports the whole child in gaining skills that directly link not only to current achievement but also future success.

Your division director and I welcome your thoughts and comments about the social/emotional learning and academic achievement and assessment of your child. I am always available to join in conversation, along with your division director, regarding your child’s growth.

Sincerely,

Lori Williamson
Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment

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