One Body, Many Parts: An Opening Convocation Reflection

[I gave the following homily at the Opening Convocation of St. George’s Independent School on its Collierville Campus two days after the violent and tragic white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.]

Good morning!

Good first morning of the 2017-2018 school year. A particular welcome to our sixth graders just joining us for the first time on this campus, as well as to the remarkable and impressive Class of 2018.

Hear the last part of today’s scripture from Romans again: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

These lines got me thinking about our differences and our interconnectedness. It also made me think about our individual bodies and how when one part is not working well, all the other parts are affected. This played out in my life when I faced significant hearing loss.

For the first time in 2002 in my left ear and later in 2015 in my right, I had a condition called Otoschlerosis. When one has Otoschlerosis, the stapes bone—a tiny bone—the smallest in the human body—stops vibrating. That means that there is nothing to communicate sound vibrations to the ear drum. As a result, over the course of about six months, I went deaf in the affected ear. Hearing aids reduced the problem to an extent; however, hearing aids seemed to eliminate a lot of sounds and voices in order to allow me to hear the voices closest to me. In order to do what they do, they simplify the world of sound.

During these two periods of hearing loss, it was stunningly disconcerting to find myself in a world that felt constricted, too small, oversimplified. I was missing so much. I felt out of balance, and in fact, I would lose my balance sometimes.

The condition left me discouraged and exhausted because I knew what better hearing sounded like. I remembered what it was like to hear clearly and make meaning from the many voices around me. I knew I was missing what I considered to be a necessary variety of voices that surrounded me.

Fortunately, there is a surgery that largely solves the problem called a stapedectomy. It is an amazing surgery in which the stapes bone is removed and replaced with an artificial stapes bone made of platinum and Teflon. Today my hearing is close to normal. Going to our scripture today, I have never been more aware of the value and interrelatedness of all of our different body parts and systems than when the bandages were unwrapped a couple of weeks after surgery and immediately I could hear again. I felt whole again.

I was so overwhelmed with the amount of sound I could now hear after these bandages were removed that I had to sit down for a while before driving. The world had opened back up, and I was overwhelmed and elated for an hour or so, a dangerously distracted man. For the first time in many months, I could hear people speaking around the corner, and I could understand people without having to look at them while they spoke.

The sort of deafness I experienced is not the only kind of deafness. Deafness can also affect a group of people who cease to hear voices not their own.

Here is my worry: in our country and in the world there is a risk of becoming deaf to each other because we forget the importance of hearing different voices. Rather than losing our hearing to a medical condition, we could simply forget to use our ears. St. George’s stands against that kind of deafness. Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.


Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.


Over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, evidence of deafness to those of different backgrounds revealed itself in the hateful, bigoted statements voiced by white supremacists, and their actions led to dreadful acts of violence.

Following this violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, issued a statement that said in part:

“Violence and extremism in the guise of racial identity or racial pride are as sinful and twisted as violence and extremism committed in the name of God. The tragic events in Charlottesville today, and the hatred that fueled them, grieve the heart of God. All of us need to repent of the racism that still flourishes in our nation.

Together, we join with all people of conscience and goodwill to pray, in the words of our Prayer Book, that God would “take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth.”

Reverend Hollerith continues, “We will pray for the victims of this tragedy; for God to soften the hearts of those blinded by racial hatred; and for all Americans to find the courage and strength to do the hard work of repairing the racial divisions among us.”

The work of our school, and any great school, is to create an environment where we do hear each other, care about each other, and recognize our shared humanity. This effort has never been more important. There is so much wonderful work and fun and shared purpose ahead for us this year at St. George’s—it is in our hands to make something valuable out of this school year, but I want to challenge each of us to fend off the deafness wrought by arrogance and narrow-mindedness. I want you to listen to the experiences of those different than yours, listen to those who go to different houses of worship than you do, listen to those that come from a different zip code than you come, listen to those who look different than you look. Becoming educated involves learning more about others and challenging our assumptions. To do this, we have to listen carefully.

In the school year to come, let’s remember the gift we have been given that allows us to come together in this school, and help us to hear and learn from the remarkable variety of voices around us. I am excited about the year to come at St. George’s—I can’t wait to get it all started.

Thank you.

Some pictures from the first day of school at St. George’s…

 

 

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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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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