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

Soft Skills: The Wrong Name for Things So Vital


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.


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


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.


Lori Williamson
Director of Academic Achievement and Assessment


Student-Athlete Signing Day Talk

[Below the photographs I am reposting a Signing Day talk from a couple of years ago and from my tenure at a different school because I find on the Friday after National Signing Day that it is relevant to St. George’s Independent School and its student-athletes as well. We have a large and impressive group of college bound student-athletes this year, and we have celebrated them individually in signing ceremonies throughout the year. This week I looked on from within a big crowd to applaud and to witness the signing ceremony of four fantastic young football players–Chase Hayden (Arkansas), Cory Jones (Murray State), Ben Glass (Naval Academy), and Noah Pope (Yale)–who have contributed much to our community and leave a legacy of both individual and team success. Our other signings this year are: Avery Whitehead (Furman University-Lacrosse),  Abbigayle Roberts (Fresno State University-Lacrosse), Sarah Thompson (University of Missouri-Swimming), Marshall Shanks (Fisk University-Track and Field), John Carter Hawkins (Rhodes College-Lacrosse)]




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Avery Whitehead
Abbigayle Roberts



John Carter Hawkins

From February 2014…


There are certain truths that athletic competition is brutally willing to reveal to us. Such competition at some point reveals our weaknesses, our doubts, and our hesitations. It points out to us, no matter how our teachers and parents and friends might try to shelter us from the news, that we have a long way to go and that there is work yet to be done.

In order to reach the point we celebrate today, our signees today have not only confronted the honesty of competition but they have risen above it. When they received news that improvement was needed, they realized hard work was necessary.

I love this moment for our signees. I love it when there is a tangible result for hard work and deep, sustained commitment. This is a moment when competition in its honesty shows its other side—the side that reveals what we are capable of, what we can achieve, and what is possible.

All over the country today there are high school athletes busy in ceremonies such as this one, signing their names in order to commit to the college or university of their choice.  They are putting on new hats and jerseys. They are accepting the congratulations of coaches, teachers, peers, family, and friends.

I worry at times about how prepared this national group is for the pressures, challenges, and temptations that lie ahead. I worry about the cultural priorities we have attached to college athletics and how this generation of student-athletes will rise to its challenges or be buried beneath them. I wonder how this group will maintain their values and their sense of what is really important. I know these challenges are often far more difficult than the ones athletes face on the mat, or field, or court, or river, or pool, or track.

Importantly, for this group signing today, I worry less about you.  I am confident in not only what you do as a student athlete but also who you are when you do it. My confidence and faith in you is born of my knowledge of where you have been. You have had the coaches I would wish for my own child. These people are not simply present today—they are sharing this moment with you.

You also have families who have driven endlessly to get you to games, camps, and coaches. These same families have picked you up when you have fallen. By the way the origins of the sports odyssey that lands you here today may seem long ago to you, but it likely feels like yesterday to them. They have loved you and sacrificed for you. Thank them—in fact let us thank all of the coaches and family members here today with applause.

Before I finish and hand off to Coach Drake, I would like share a wish I have for you…

My daughter and I throw the lacrosse ball a lot. She is in fourth grade, and she could tell you  every name on the Varsity Girls Roster. She loves the game. There is joy in her play. She would sleep with her stick and cleats if we let her.  She comes to mind for me today perhaps because of this truth: you don’t get to take everything you have now with you to college—your friends don’t all go with you, your coaches and parents don’t go with you.  One thing that does get to go with you is that joy of playing the sport you love.  Keep that safe.  Maintain it. Take care of it.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak and congratulations to each of you…

Ross All Over the Map

(I spoke at the Student AthleteSigning Day event on Wednesday at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta where 20 students or roughly ten percent of our Senior class signed on to participate in college athletics. I drifted a bit from the words I had written down in advance, but what I include here is for the most part faithful to what I said.)


There are certain truths that athletic competition is brutally willing to reveal to us. Such competition at some point reveals our weaknesses, our doubts, and our hesitations. It points out to us, no matter how our teachers and parents and friends might try to shelter us from the news, that we have a long way to go and that there is work yet to be done.

In order to reach the point we celebrate today, our signees today have not only confronted the honesty of competition but…

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An SGIS Faculty Meeting: Engaging, Listening, and Choosing the School


[In today’s post I am sharing some highlights from of a faculty meeting we had at St. George’s Independent School in November of 2016. I led the meeting twice–once for our Collierville campus faculty and staff and once for our Memphis and Germantown campuses faculty and staff. It was an important meeting. Perhaps most significant, in addition to the discussion of how to create deep student engagement, was the section for faculty members at the end called, “Choosing the School.”]

Key Notes from the SGIS Faculty Meeting November 2016


ENGAGEMENT begins with teachers building trusting relationships with students. In order for students to lean into the discomfort of great learning, there must be faith in the adult creating the context and driving assessment–both formative and summative.

  • Students will not be ENGAGED in the intended learning if the teacher is not.
  • Deep ENGAGEMENT is not comfortable. It is the result of the moment when curiosity and a need to know more outweighs the desire to stay comfortable in pre-existing knowledge or belief.
  • ENGAGEMENT is a gateway to vital components such as collaboration and critical thinking. Once a student feels a need to know and to understand, the necessity of reaching out to others becomes natural. Efforts to create collaborative environments where critical thinking is central hinges on student ENGAGEMENT.
  • Without ENGAGEMENT, academic experiences are only that–academic. Without ENGAGEMENT, classroom experiences are empty calories, a virtual skimming across the surface of learning. Most dangerously, such experiences can become cynical exercises in jumping through hoops for academic rewards.

 The importance of listening to students to create ENGAGEMENT:

  • In education, we have emphasized the importance of students listening to teachers, but we have often missed a key correlation between teachers listening to students and the students’ ENGAGEMENT in and ownership of their learning.
  • Additionally, we have often minimized the correlation between students listening to other students in creating a culture of ENGAGEMENT in our classrooms.
  • As teachers, we can get so caught up in what we need to say that we miss opportunities to hear our students and create ample moments for them to hear each other and collaborate.

Definition of Value = Satisfaction and Perceived Benefits/Actual and Psychological Costs

Centering Our Work:

Whenever we greet them, laugh with them, connect with them, are kind to them, we are affirming their place in the SGIS community. The value of this part of our work cannot be overestimated.

 We must:

  • Deserve the support we seek
  • Have faith in students before they have it in themselves

 Choosing the School:

  • We will be the right school for teachers who strive to put the needs of each student dead center, every day, every class, every interaction.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who want to challenge their own practice whenever there is an opportunity to serve students better.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who, though their participation in departments, grade levels, divisions, etc., model the characteristics of great collaborators and colleagues.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who are ready to be the reason that a student and family should choose our school.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who are deeply aligned with our strategic plan and are earnestly committed to moving it forward.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who reach out not only to the students who make it easy on them, but also to all those who don’t.
  • We will be the right school for teachers who pitch in when they can, however they can.
  • Finally, we will be the right school for teachers who strive to be the sort of people we describe in the Portrait of a Graduate.