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.

 

Approaching School Days as Architecture: An Idea Revisited


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/74943290″>Asheville School Project Connect Ross Peters 2013</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/sobriquetstudio”>Sobriquet Studio</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

In 2013 I had the privilege of speaking at Asheville School’s Project Connect.  For me, returning to this remarkable small boarding school was a homecoming as I taught at Asheville School for ten years and was the founding Chair of its integrated, interdisciplinary Humanities Department. There are some great folks on the faculty there helping to lead the way in discussions about how to think about interdisciplinary work.  In 2011, Asheville School launched “Project Connect”, a biannual summer institute for interdisciplinary studies. The Asheville School webpage identifies it this way: “Through a partnership with the E.E. Ford Foundation, Project Connect seeks to help teachers and schools start, sustain, and strengthen interdisciplinary initiatives in order to equip students with the higher order skills (critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, and written communication) they will need to succeed in college and in life.” The next Project Connect will occur this June. I look forward to returning.

I didn’t realize it (or perhaps remember it) until this morning, but my comments were filmed and subsequently posted on Vimeo. My topic was “Approaching School Days as Architecture: Building Academic Schedules to Unlock Interdisciplinary Potential”, and it has some relevance to the work underway at my current school, St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN where I inherited a conversation about the academic daily schedule, which had been put on hold last Winter. The faculty committee studying our use of time and leading the way forward for St. George’s has deftly moved us to a place where we are likely to be ready to move forward with a new daily schedule for the Fall of 2016.

While some of what I shared in 2013 lacks relevance to St. George’s, much of it is clearly pertinent. One thing I continue to believe is that simple tweaking of a schedule does not produce results worthy of the effort necessary to make the change. At Hawken School and at The Westminster Schools where we thoroughly reinvented our use of time, we were able to take steps that have significantly and positively transformed the learning environment of each school. I want nothing less for St. George’s.

Much water has gone under the bridge since 2013 when I spoke at Project Connect. One fascinating experience was being invited to consult with North Shore Country Day School as they thoughtfully engaged a process to reimagine their academic daily schedule. To be able to step outside of my particular school and see another group face the complex calculus of school change was a gift. As I understand it NSCDS has moved into a new schedule for the 2015-2016 school year.

Virtually everything that has happened over the last two and half years reinforces my belief that we can create smarter, more balanced, and more strategic academic daily schedules in our schools. To get there, however, we a need a smart, balanced, and strategic process to create the right individual answer for any school.

I have written more about academic schedules:

Revisiting a Guiding Idea: Creating a Progress Culture in a School

and

School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture 

Big Success, Small Scale: Westminster’s JanTerm Internship Pilot

Westminster’s first experience with JanTerm was not an end unto itself. It was always part of something larger. As the final part of a two-year rollout of a new daily schedule and school calendar, the JanTerm represents the single biggest curricular step forward in the Upper School since its founding–45 new challenging and varied electives, offered over the first three weeks of January for the entire 820 student Upper School at The Westminster SchoolsThe new schedule, in addition to adding a JanTerm, includes a later start, longer classes that meet less often, and more time for teachers to work in teams. The schedule falls from the school’s Strategic Planand it is a creation of a group we called the Time Task Force, an outstanding group of six faculty members. Over the course of a Spring, Summer and Fall, the Time Task Force did deep research, listened carefully to all the school’s constituents–faculty, students, and parents–and then crafted a remarkable proposal, which both aligned beautifully with the school’s vision and challenged us deeply.

In planning for JanTerm, we recognized that there would demand for internships, but we didn’t have the staff to support it, nor did we have an immediate vision for what this program, adjunct to the courses of JanTerm, might look like. So we did not commit to creating opportunities for interships until the registration process for the JanTerm courses was complete. And when we did decide to take this step, we thought of it as a pilot, as something we might try out and buy or as something we might have to put back on the rack.

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of blog entries about how schools should pilot ideas more often before making long term commitments to any single idea. In essence the heart of the idea is that schools have often built significant curricular/extracurricular programs without the “D” of “R and D”. They have leaned into Research, but tried to skip Development. When schools make this mistake, they inadvertently raise the stakes of the bet, they increase the pain of failure, they miss an opportunity to test drive a program, and they fail to build the momentum of support a good idea needs from a school community. Links to those blogs can be found here:

In the late Fall of 2014 when a couple of our planned JanTerm courses did not have adequate signups to support them going forward (in registration talk..they “didn’t make”), we decided to try to pilot a small number of JanTerm Internships and Independent Studies for a small number of seniors who had particularly well-formed and thoughtful ideas. We could take this step only because of the fact that a couple of courses didn’t make, thus leaving us the staff to lead this pilot of an Internship Program. Also working to our advantage we knew we were likely to have just a few seniors whose ideas for what they might like to do were advanced enough to work in January. Not being overwhelmed with demand was an advantage.

The application process was fairly rigorous, and the time window for sign-up was short. This was mostly a result of deciding to take a stab at this pilot program late in the game (November for a January rollout), but it was also fortuitous as only students who already had a passion were prepared to submit an application. As a result, the applications were for the most part excellent, and in the end six students were approved to move ahead. Each had a mentor, and one faculty member was assigned the task of observing them and organizing their final presentations and assessments Their execution of those plans was even better.

I will likely write again in this blog about more of the specifics of our nascent JanTerm Internship Pilot, but sufficed to say, it was a big success on a small scale–just what we wanted. Each of the six students had a powerful experience, developed a quality relationship with his or her mentor, and represented the school well in the community. By ensuring our ability to do well whatever we set out to do in this pilot, we preserved the ability to grow the program in a steady thoughtful manner in the years ahead. We generated the momentum for the program it will need to continue on a positive growth trajectory going forward. By keeping the scale small, we did not become overcommitted to a program that has yet to define its long term placement in our JanTerm program. I am excited to see how the school moves forward in this area.

 

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

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 11.22.54 AM

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.