Opening Convocation Reflection: Good Neighbors in the SGIS Ecosystem

With the 2016-2017 Prefects as well as John Leach, Rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles (Photograph by Suzie Cowan)
With the 2016-2017 Prefects, as well as John Leach, Rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles (Photograph by Suzie Cowan)

[I gave the following reflection during the St. George’s Independent School Opening Convocation today]

Good Morning! Good FIRST morning of the 2016-2017 school year.

Before sharing a couple of thoughts with you, I want to give a shout-out to the Class of 2017. I couldn’t more excited about the creativity and leadership of this group of seniors. I would also like to offer a round of applause to our prefects who have been hard at work preparing for the year ahead.

On Saturday evening, most of the Class of 2017 joined Mr. Gibson, Mr. Morris, Mr. Gorham, Ms. Hardy, and I at the St. George’s Bunkhouse in order to socialize, to eat Central BBQ, and to see our new space—it is awesome(!). Our time together was a chance to reconnect, or better for our purposes this morning, to remind them that they are interconnected as they prepare for the challenge and excitement of their final year at St. George’s as students.

I have long admired the 20th century thinker and novelist Aldous Huxley. For years I taught his novel Brave New World. In the novel Huxley imagines a society that has had human connectedness and kindness intentionally pulled from its fabric. As a result of prioritizing comfort and stability over everything else, the world we encounter in the novel is devoid of altruism and philanthropy. The notion of family is as alien to the characters in the novel as the absence of the notion of family would be to us. Additionally, many of the challenges we see in our world are absent, but to the reader’s increasing horror so are love, relationships, and caring. In the final work of his career, entitled Island, Huxley offered advice that to my ear seems perfectly timed for us. In the novel he implores: “Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very beginning that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and in the country around it. Rub it in.”

Order of Service from Opening Convocation at St. George's Independent School August 15, 2016
Order of Service from Opening Convocation at St. George’s Independent School August 15, 2016

With Huxley’s thought in mind, I spoke for a couple of minutes to the Seniors on Saturday evening. I talked to them about their role as leaders of the school, and I spoke about the idea that we are each part of the St. George’s ecosystem. As you likely learned or will soon learn in biology class an ecosystem is a complex set of relationships among the living resources and residents of a place or area. St. George’s human ecosystem includes three campuses; it includes faculty, staff; it includes infants who are less than a year old and members of the Class of 2017; it also includes alumni, trustees, and families.  Here is the key idea of my remarks this morning: our job, OUR job, is to make the St. George’s ecosystem as healthy as we possibly can. Indeed, a substantial part of the lives that I wish for each of you after your time at St. George’s is that you make all the ecosystems of which you are a member healthier and more sustainable. I am thinking of your colleges and universities and later, your cities and neighborhoods, for they are ecosystems as well.

I also took some time in my comments to our Seniors to expand our understanding of what it means to be a neighbor. It is easy to limit the definition of neighbor to the people who live next door or across the street from us. In fact, if someone says that someone else is their neighbor, we naturally assume that they live very close to each other. However, I would like us to think of our neighbors far more broadly to include not only our school, but our city, our county, our state, our nation, and our world. I would like for us to include people with whom we disagree under the umbrella of our idea of neighbor, and I would like for us to be among the people who strive to be good neighbors. At St. George’s we are going to name our school’s effort to be a good neighbor SG901, for as much as any school, if not more than any school, we are deeply connected—we are neighbors—to all of our area code.

In the letter I emailed you recently I made an ask for civility within the St. George’s community. For me playing a healthy part in our ecosystem, being a good neighbor, and committing to civility and to civil discourse are all intertwined—in fact, to my way of thinking they are essentially the same thing. Striving to make the parts of the world we touch healthier, kinder, more humane is the same thing as striving to be a good neighbor, and the same thing as striving for civility in our interactions with others.

This is not just my ask, however.  In the Gospel today—a reading from Matthew we call the Beatitudes—Christ identifies “Peacekeepers” as the Children of God. By telling us that the peacekeeper is blessed he is calling us to be Peacekeepers. That should be us; that must be us. Peacekeepers embody the characteristics of a good neighbor, and they make human ecosystems stronger.

Every part of an ecosystem impacts the way the system as a whole functions. What part will you play in St. George’s ecosystem this year?

It is an honor to have you all here. Let’s make it a great year! Amen.

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An Ask for Civility: Opening of New School Year Letter

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[We sent the following letter out to the St. George’s Independent School Community this morning.  While it is relevant specifically to SGIS, I believe it also has some relevance to all schools on this eve of the 2016-2017 school year.]

Dear Families:

We are gearing up for a great year at SGIS. As I write, the new lacrosse wall is going up; teams are sweating it out on the courts, fields, and in the weight room; rewiring is complete to allow for more pottery wheels in the art room at Collierville; and teachers are making preparations for their courses. I am sitting in my Collierville campus office, having recently returned from vacation in the North Carolina mountains, and I am feeling the familiar anticipation of the first day of school. Now with a year at St. George’s under my belt, I believe more powerfully than ever that this is a special place doing important work for all the children who join us.

While this summer for the Peters family has been replete with chances to reconnect with friends and family, and we have enjoyed opportunities to spend some time on familiar ground in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, my enjoyment of the summer has been tempered not only by tragic news in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Nice, but also by our national struggle to remember that we share more in common than that which separates us.

As I think about the troubling momentum of our recent headlines, Psalm 133 seems relevant. Its first verse —“Behold how good and pleasant it is/for God’s people to dwell together in unity”— is particularly evocative for me as its first three words, Ecce Quam Bonum, provide the Latin motto of my undergraduate school, and it has become a habit of many of my Sewanee friends to sign cards and emails to other graduates with the letters EQB. The rest of the Psalm points out that “dwelling together in unity” places us closer to God and is indeed a gift from God.

Placed in relief by the frightening events of this summer, Psalm 133 reveals that we have a rare opportunity in this school, and rather than warn you against the dangers of squandering it, I would like for us to think about how we might strengthen the ties that bind us. I believe we can use that strength to serve and to lead students so that they might become servant leaders in communities that will always have poignant need for them.  I do not know the future, but I do know that, whatever way it tilts and spins in the days, months, and years ahead, the world will need such people as St. George’s strives to graduate (SGIS Portrait of a Graduate).  It will need them not only to meet the world’s gaze but also to engage it with strength, empathy, determination, and integrity. It will need them, not only to recognize the issues that may divide us, but also to know how to engage people who see the way forward differently than we do.

After this long preface I have an ask for all of us – teachers, parents, friends and students: make a commitment to civility and to civil discourse within our school community. Please make this commitment even as we witness its opposite day in and day out in media, in political campaigns, on athletic field sidelines, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat threads. We cannot ask young people to be civil, much less to value civility and civil dialogue if we are not able to meet the standard ourselves.

The most highly charged issues of our time are alive in the conversations our students are having with and without us every day. We know that they are watching us carefully. Interestingly, even when as parents we believe our kids are not listening to us or valuing our opinions, there is no source of insight they trust more than us. They are listening to what we say and how we say it. They are using us to formulate their opinions and to calibrate their character. They are testing boundaries in order to find the lines within which they will operate as adults. In our national dialog we are struggling to post appropriate boundary markers for young people regarding civility, so in our community, the SGIS community, we have an obligation to be counter-cultural.

Preparing students, our children, for the “real world” does not mean emulating its worst characteristics. The best preparation for young people includes setting a far higher bar so that they grow into the very people who are ready to help raise standards above the lowest common denominator. At SGIS, the call to be counter-cultural in this area is not new; however, the immediacy of its relevance has never been more clear. St. George’s has always sought to bring people together, and our three-campus model drawing from over fifty zip codes is a testament to both our faith that we can navigate the spaces that separate us and our determination that we must. I request that all members of our school community deepen our commitment to civility even as the world around us may seem determined to undermine the effort. Civility involves acts of will and thus reflects our character both as individuals and as a group.

So as we begin a new school year, one with such promise for all of us, I will strive to keep Psalm 133’s call in the front of my mind: “Behold how good and pleasant it is for God’s people to dwell together in unity.”

EQB,

Ross Peters, Head of School

Standards of Conduct (according to The National Institute for Civil Discourse):

  1. Be respectful of others in speech and behavior
  2. Take responsibility for personal behavior, attitude, and actions
  3. Promote civility through everyday interactions
  4. Listen fully and attentively to the speaker, seeking to understand them
  5. Practice non-violence, using words to inspire change

Our Mission: St. George’s Independent School is an Episcopal school dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, preparing students for a life of learning and meaningful contribution in an inclusive learning community that nurtures outstanding academic achievement, relationships, leadership and character reinforced by Judeo-Christian values. 

Looking Up and Out: Response Inspired by NAES’s New Heads Conference

View from the interior of the Renaissance Hotel at Seaward, site of the NAES New Heads Conference
View from the interior of the Renaissance Hotel at SeaWorld, site of the NAES New Heads Conference

Over the last three days I participated in the Jonathan T. Glass Institute for New Heads, sponsored by the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES). Led by the Rev. Dan Heischman, Executive Director of NAES, and Ann Mellow, Associate Director of NAES, we spent our time together discussing specific issues relevant to Episcopal School Heads of both parish schools and independent Episcopal Schools. The experience was extraordinarily valuable.

I was particularly interested to learn more about small parish schools. If I had any thought that the complexity of our work as Heads of Schools was proportional to simply the size of our individual school, I abandoned that thought sometime during our sessions on Thursday as I gained insight into school headship positions quite different than my own. Overall, I find myself becoming more aware that what is important is not what one knows in a leadership position, but far more relevant: 1) how one listens carefully enough to understand the people and the culture of the school and 2) how one over time breathes his or her personal knowledge and experience into the life of the school.

At the conference, I garnered more useful insight by hearing about schools not exactly like my own than I would have trying to find one to one correspondences with schools closer to the profile of St. George’s. As I think about the future of schools, St. George’s in particular, I find myself tripping up over and over again on the idea that we should be looking for what is not exactly like us in order to learn what school might need to look like going forward. In the case of the NAES New Heads Conference, that meant learning from schools operating in a context different than my own.

However, in the larger context of heading a school in this moment in history, I believe leadership will have to develop a far keener ear for listening to what is happening beyond our school and even our schools generally. Our questions need to become smarter and more expansive. For example:

  • What is happening in our cities, businesses, churches, museums, and community centers that might inform the work ahead for our schools?
  • What is happening in higher education that might serve as a barometer for what might be coming in independent secondary schools?
  • What small liberal arts colleges have faced challenges that might lie in wait for our schools?
  • What colleges have been handling a quickly evolving financial and admissions landscape well?
  • How can our school become part of the good story of our community?

The most sustainable schools will be the ones able to align with the best ambition of the communities in which they sit. We will not be able to afford to navel gaze within our own very tiny community of schools in order to find the best way forward—we must be explicitly about something greater than ourselves. Thus the central existential question grows out of “How can we be sustainable?” and into “Why should we be sustainable?” 

In thinking about my own start as head of a school within the Episcopal tradition, I find comfort in knowing that Episcopal schools are situated to look beyond our individual institutions as we strive to teach our students to see beyond themselves so that they might live lives of service, leadership, and meaning. This belief grows from a recognition of the focus in Episcopal schools on what NAES calls “the spiritual dimension of learning that values both faith and reason.” Such a focus should pull our eyes not simply to look up for help and comfort, but to look out into the world that calls for us to be the help and the comfort.

Luncheon Speech to The Germantown Chamber, August 20, 2015

Brian White and Janie Day of the Germantown Chamber of Commerce and the author
Brian White and Janie Day of the Germantown Chamber of Commerce join the author after the speech.

(The text here is edited in minor ways from the speech I gave last Thursday to the Germantown Chamber of Commerce.)

Thank you for the invitation to be here today. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to speak to this group because a good school and a successful Chamber have important characteristics in common. A good chamber of commerce and a school worth its salt are forever looking to the future and not simply wishing for it to be better but working to make it better. Additionally, a chamber, like a great school, is forever looking to make connections, to tie things together, to bring together disparate visions of what is next for a community under one wide umbrella. Our shared work, the work of a school and the work of a chamber of commerce is to help imagine, design, and build the world to come. Both a chamber and a school are invested in their communities—their futures are comingled with the future of the communities they serve. The tag line of this Chamber—“Community, Partnership, and Growth”—is one that our school aspires to. St. George’s Independent School’s tag-line also hits powerful notes for me: “active learning/agile teaching to build disciplined minds, adventurous spirits and brave hearts.”

St. George’s, now a vibrant day school of well-over 1100 students on three campuses, has its axis, and original campus here in Germantown on Poplar Road. Its history begins here, and it continues after almost sixty-years to have a deep taproot on the Germantown campus. I was on the Germantown Campus Monday for our Opening Day. Teachers, Administrators, and a Jazz trio greeted parents and students back before gathering in the Chapel for our Opening Convocation where we not only sang and prayed together, but we also heard two fifth graders give their fifth grade speeches—a rite of passage for all of the oldest students there. They were remarkable speeches made more impressive because this young man and woman standing behind the podium were speaking on the first day of school to a full congregation. They were funny and confident; they were prepared and poised. They expressed gratitude; they were optimistic. It became easy, while listening to them speak, to imagine them becoming the sorts of adults we want serving and leading in their community someday. When they finished, the applause was warm and celebratory.

I chose to leave a school I continue to believe in deeply because I found the distinctive mission of St. George’s wonderfully compelling, and I was attracted to this school in large part because its ambition is uniquely tied to the best ambition of its city and surrounding area. At my core, I believe that a key, perhaps THE key, to the sustainability of our schools is the extent to which we are aligned with the best ambition of the communities in which we exist. In short, we have a responsibility to be focused on something greater than ourselves, and in living out this responsibility we also ensure our own relevance and legacy. Much of my career as a teacher and an administrator represents this belief, particularly the last two schools where I have worked—Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio and The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Both institutions strive to be good neighbors—institutions that strive to act in a way that parallels the highest expectations we have for our students. At Hawken, this meant creating an urban campus designed to be a center for experiential and service learning. At Westminster, it meant educating young people about the principles and practice of philanthropy, while promoting the value of service learning throughout the school’s curriculum.

While the work of these two schools is remarkable and I am proud to have been a leader within each, St. George’s offers a uniquely powerful vision for what the future of partnership can look like. Founded in 1959, St. George’s is both an old and a new school, and its model represents a powerful manifestation of its Episcopal roots and its vision for the contribution the school can make to each community where it has a campus—Germantown, Memphis, and Collierville—and beyond. The school’s three campuses: the original campus here in Germantown, another lower school in Memphis, and a middle/upper school just over the line from Germantown in Collierville are bound together by a shared mission and philosophy. The Germantown arm of the school is old—it served elementary students in grades PK-6 for nearly forty years before the other two campuses existed. St. George’s is also new—in the mid-1990s the school launched a capital campaign to expand to the middle/high school grades by building on donated land in Collierville.

Here is where the story gets really interesting: as fundraising began for the Collierville Campus, a group of anonymous donors approached the school about funding a second elementary campus in the city of Memphis to serve families who valued education but didn’t have the means to afford or access a high quality independent school education. The anonymous donor group gave an initial $6 million gift, and the development of a positive partnership with Holy Trinity Episcopal Church allowed the school to open the Memphis campus in 2001. Importantly, this year marks an exciting and historic moment for the school because this year our Senior Class, the Class of 2016, includes the first group of students who started on the Memphis Campus. Their graduation reminds us that this school is just now coming fully into its skin.

Each campus represents a necessary strand of our DNA with the Germantown Campus representing the original strand. Long before I arrived at the beginning of July this year, the school created concise language for the value of the model: “We believe the St. George’s model gives all students meaningful experiences in diversity, enriches the learning experience for all students, and prepares students to be successful adults. We also believe that this model sows the seeds for a better Memphis.”

Underpinning all this is the belief that our students will be better equipped to navigate a complex world if they learn to navigate complexity now. Our belief is that standing shoulder to shoulder with others with a wide range of backgrounds helps young people grow into become adults better prepared to engage an increasingly dynamic and quickly changing world. Learning to live into this complexity helps young people develop the requisite skills. I am certain that the world needs the people St. George’s strives to graduate.

We know that St. George’s fits into a much larger tapestry of educational opportunities in Germantown. Two examples of institutions doing vitally important work are Bodine School and The Madonna Learning Center. With its 43rd anniversary approaching next month, Bodine School provides an invaluable service to students with dyslexia and reading differences. The Madonna Learning Center, with its recently completed new facility, meets the needs, both educational and social, of young and adult students with special needs. And there are, of course, more…from the Bowie Reading and Learning Center to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and from the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf to the Municipal School District, which on its own serves over 5400 students, Germantown has a wide-range of educational options.

I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate our desire to be a good partner and neighbor. Our Campuses are constantly in use by camps, churches, and athletic teams. I am looking forward to our widely known annual Arts Alliance Show in particular. Always a community favorite, it will be happening at the Collierville Campus from November 5th through the 7th, and it will showcase a wide range of the best artists in the Memphis area. I hope you will join us.

A colleague of mine recently described a cartoon she had seen that may have some relevance to the issues a school and a chamber of commerce try to overcome. In the cartoon there is a small boat on the water and four people in it. Two of the people are on the low end of the boat, bailing as fast as they can because the gunnel is slipping below the waterline. The two other folks on the boat are on the high side, and dry. One of those two looks at the other and says, “thank goodness that is not us.” Of course, they fail to recognize we are all in the boat together. We are connected, and thus we owe it to our students to teach them to make meaning from that connection, to value it and to deepen it, for in doing so they can become the generation best suited to face the opportunities and challenges that inevitably lie ahead.

Thank you so much for this chance to join you today. It my hope that we can use today as a catalyst for becoming even more connected and even better neighbors. I also hope you take the chance to learn more about our school.