FROM 2012: Creating a Pilot Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time
Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.
I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and in a couple of conversations recently my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots:
[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 CityCurrentand Samaritan’s Feet to provide new shoes for children in need in Memphis. It was a remarkable event held at the St. George’s Bunkhousethat 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.”
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:
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.
The Head’s Letter is a monthly newsletter largely for heads of independent schools. Published by Educational Directions Incorporated, it focuses on topics of particular importance to school leaders. They were nice enough to ask me to write the piece I copied below as the cover of their December edition.
The topic I discuss in The Head’s Letter should be no surprise to people with whom I have worked or who regularly read the blog: I have been writing about Progress Culture for years now, and I have been highlighting the need to learn from and create partnerships with entities beyond our schools for almost as long. As we look to move our schools’ ability to deepen learning for our students forward, it is imperative that we lean into the learning we can do beyond the confines of our respective campuses and curriculum.
Over the weekend the SGBunkhouse, located in the Historic Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood, served as a great location from which to go cheer on runners in the St. Jude Marathon. SGIS’s relationship with the work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is profoundly close due to two SGIS students–Carson Head, Class of 2024, who passed away in the summer of 2015 as a result of childhood cancer and Adam Cruthirds, Class of 2016 who continues his cancer fight now as a freshman at Rhodes College. (You can read a talk Adam gave exactly one year ago in an Upper School Chapel Service HERE). Supported by faculty and Upper School student volunteers, around sixty members of the SGIS Lower School community, families and students from both our Memphis and Germantown campuses, spent the night in the newly renovated SGBunkhouse space. On Friday night they made posters to cheer on the runners, and they played games, ate pizza, and watched movies. On Saturday morning they ate pancakes before heading out to cheer the runners. Many more members of our school community–students from each campus and division, alumni, parents, and faculty–participated on Saturday as runners, walkers, and cheerers. It is an example of a kind of community engagement we would like to see growing through the SGBunkhouse: an opportunity to connect with each other AND with the community where we live.
The SGIS Board of Trustees met in the well-designed and appointed break-out room for their meeting late yesterday afternoon before joining well-over 125 guests who were there to celebrate the ribbon-cutting, eat some fantastic Gus’s Fried Chicken and tour the space. As that gathering ended around 8:00 p.m., members of SGIS’s Class of 2017 began arriving to enjoy a sleepover in the Bunkhouse. The event was fantastic–it is great to reach this point and turn to the exciting work to begin to make great use of the space. Below I have included the introductory video, my remarks, as well as Alton Stovall’s remarks from the ceremony. Alton is a member of the Class of 2017 who has played a vital role in helping us get to this point. Alton’s words brought the house down.
Good evening and welcome! The ending of the video is where I will begin—with a thanks to David and Beth Skudder for starting the ball rolling that made this all happen. Not only did David bring Justin Miller from City Leadership and me together in September 2015 to begin to dream about what we might make happen together, but the Skudder’s also created the substantial funding that underpinned the recreation of the Bunkhouse space. The St. George’s Bunkhouse represents both their love for St. George’s and their earnest commitment to Memphis and Shelby County. PLEASE JOIN ME IN A ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR DAVID AND BETH…
Just yesterday afternoon David, Justin and I met to reflect on the remarkable year that has led to this moment. What David had to say was wonderfully helpful and offers clear perspective on what we are trying to accomplish here. Here are a few of the things he said to us:
“If you want to be part of the community you have to step in, you have to be a presence.”
“Through St. George’s I’ve seen all the good that comes from kids learning to be helpful, learning to leave it better than you found it.”
“In order to make things better you have to get involved—one brick at a time, one good deed at a time.”
The St. George’s Bunkhouse gives our school largely unprecedented way to live toward the ideals David described. Imagine just a sliver of some of the possibilities for our students on each of our three other campuses:
Class gatherings like the one the Class of ’17 will have tonight and tomorrow morning here.
“Amplify Memphis”, a summer course studying the cultural richness and key issues of Memphis residing here during all or part of its three-week session next June.
Groups of students and faculty members using the space as a hub for service learning opportunities and for cultural experiences.
The number of great ideas for how to use the Bunkhouse will outpace our ability to follow-through on all of them. The conversation we have as a community about how to best use the space will be generative and rich.
Education is a gift that is not simply for the recipient alone. Our education as individuals exists only as we make meaning from it and as we are moved to action in the world as a result of it. With that in mind, the questions I have for all of us who have had the privilege of an education such as the one at St. George’s Independent School—the questions I believe are particularly apt on this day when we open the St. George’s Bunkhouse are these–
What will we make happen as a result of our access to the St. George’s Bunkhouse?
How can we use our footprint here to impact the world around us?
How can we continue to learn from people who have different backgrounds, different opinions?
How can what we already know lead us to want to learn more, understand more, impact more?
How can we make our education not simply about us? How can we use the St. George’s Bunkhouse in ways that help us better understand what it means to be a good neighbor?
And, importantly as well…how can the St. George’s Community use the Bunkhouse in ways that bring our own community closer together.
It is easy to limit the definition of neighbor to the people who live next door or across the street from us. However, the bold vision of St. George’s Independent School, and the St. George’s Bunkhouse, calls 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. As an independent school drawing from well-over fifty zip codes, we include people who might live far away from us as neighbors, and we include people with whom we might often disagree under the umbrella of our idea of neighbor. At St. George’s, we name our school’s effort to be a good neighbor, SG901. And the physical representation of that effort is the St. George’s Bunkhouse, which will serve as a hub for our community engagement.
Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another. The St. George’s Bunkhouse, created in partnership with City Leadership and Serve901 is a powerful manifestation of that belief within our school.
I am particularly grateful for the roles each of the next speakers has played. Alton Stovall, member of the Class of 2017, who you will hear from next has been the key student leader in the process that has led us to today. Following Alton, John Carroll and Jeff Riddle will speak. Our school could not be more fortunate in its partners in this endeavor. I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.
Alton Stovall’s remarks:
Before a handsome butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it must first spend its days as a not-so appealing caterpillar. When I first stepped foot on this site, what I saw was a basement. A basement cluttered with boxes, worn-out equipment, and objects that made you question how they were useful before they were put into storage. Indeed it was a rough space, but it was a space with potential. And what was done with that potential and how that potential was maximized to the fullest extent is something I find truly amazing. This is not to say that getting there was not a long journey, because it certainly was. Nevertheless, I personally had my fair share of fun along the way. From choosing a perfect name, to timidly speaking to reporters about my experiences, to even picking a paint color for the walls…(by the way I will truly never understand how there can be so many options for one single color. I mean there’s white, but then there’s eggshell white and satin white and high gloss pearly porcelain white and anyway)… All of that is to say this- what we have the privilege of experiencing here tonight is a butterfly getting ready to spread its wings and fly away. Where it goes is up to us… and that’s the beauty of it all.
The possibilities of what we can accomplish with this space are endless from class retreats, to service projects, to simply a fun night in Memphis. God only knows the full extent of what we can do here, but I thank Him for what was already done here. I am thankful for having been involved in this project from the start, I am thankful for all of the amazing people I met along this journey, and, most importantly, I am thankful that this is not the end of the road. In fact it is just the beginning… the beginning of a movement against the grain of society. Where the world seems to be moving apart, tonight we are moving one step closer together. And just as this space now joins many other campuses to form one campus. We are on the road to joining many communities to make one community. The full extent to which we do that is up to not one of us, not some of us, but all us. In order to do that to the best of our abilities, we must too undergo our own transformations. So as we move forward, I ask of you, I plead of you, I charge you to get ready, spread your wings, and let’s fly.