November 11th, 2008
October is unlike any other month – at least, it is in my life as a school principal. October, that month when leaves fill our horizons with the hues of day-long sunsets, and when peaches and watermelons give way to apples and pumpkins; October is, for me, a month of dressing up. Every October, I spend an evening as the Master of Ceremonies at our annual staff and parent Cabaret. For a week in advance I slough off my serious principal’s skin. I busily prepare ridiculous lyrics – doggerel, to be sure – to accompany an old, but familiar tune with which I open the evening. One year, I donned a toga in honour of our school’s pending production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, and sang “A Cabaret Tonight”. But no sooner has the Cabaret become a faded smile, when I am asked by the student council to appear, once again, as the referee in the annual York Wrestling Federation, an event to raise money for our local United Way, in which teachers take on hilarious personalities and fight in the ring before a gym full of screaming children. On occasion, I too become an unsuspecting combatant in the feigned fights, and have to defend myself against such perilous weapons as “Silly String”. And then, as I help the students and other staff members to tear down the ring, I realize that October isn’t over until the 31st.
And so, once again, I dress up – this year as my version of my worst-dressed students, last year as a cross-dressing pirate – and at about 2:30, join with other long-time staff members to perform the annual humourous rendering of a classic fairy tale on stage for the Lower School children. (Yes, that’s me in the pink wig!)
Some might ask what all of this has to do with running a school, to which I would respond, everything. For a school is not a factory – a school is a community. And only in a community would I dare to reveal the self that stretches far beyond my job description.
If school were a factory, I could probably get through each month with one gray suit, and one inoffensive tie. I could focus on teaching and learning, poking my head into classrooms to make sure teachers are teaching and children are learning, disciplining errant children so that they can remain in the classroom, chairing teacher meetings to keep everyone focused on getting students through the system and out the other end, dealing with parents who threaten to get in the way of production. Thus would be the sum of my job, were school but a factory.
But schools are not factories – or at least, they shouldn’t be. Children are not widgets, and graduates are not products – churned out with the same cut, styling, colour scheme, or standard features. And yet, we are often lulled into believing that schools are factories. “Schools should get our children into university”, we are told. “Schools should prepare our children to join the workforce of the 21st century,” others will claim. All worthy goals, but in themselves, not sufficient to claim the entirety of over 17,000 hours of time we spend with each child. For were a school to aspire merely to get children into university, it would, on the one hand, be at the mercy of the university’s definition of all that is valuable, and, on the other, would deny its children their full potential. There is more to life than either university or the workplace can offer.
To nurture a child, a school must see itself first as a community, and must act on the promise that every community holds. For it is so often the case that children learn best the lessons that we have not written down on paper and linked to a government curriculum document. When you ask adults what they remember of school, it is startling how little they speak of the classroom. And when they do, it is often a teacher whose personality captured their imagination, not a lesson, or concept learned. We most frequently recollect the life outside the classroom – the school trips, winning a basketball championship, playing euchre in the cafeteria, or being sent to the principal’s office (!). If we focus upon our schools as communities, we begin to imagine the myriad ways in which we can touch and influence our children, and how we can do so for the better. For if we embrace our children as members of a community, we care about the personal goals they hold, relationships they have with us and with others, and their future lives as spouses, parents, creative agents, productive team members, citizens, and humans in search of meaning.
But to say we will build schools into communities begs the question, “what sort of community shall we build?” A community may be defined as a group of people united by a shared purpose and shared values. Some of the early “community-like schools” fit well under this definition. Take, for example, the monasteries of Europe, in which monks set about the task of dedicating themselves to learning and living out the dictates of the Christian religion. The purpose and values were, for those who entered the monastic centres, crystal clear. In contrast, the 21st century Western non-denominational independent school must articulate a purpose and set of values that have deep meaning, without the guidance of a 1000 year-old tradition. Given the multicultural, post-modern, relativistic temperament of the times, this is a serious challenge. At the same time, we have all read stories of old, largely English, boarding schools where traditions and values have served to preserve outdated values of discipline, authority, and social outlook. Here, purpose and value become narrow, stifling, and out of touch. The other difficulty, then, is how to create a set of enduring practices, rituals and traditions to carry forward the agreed upon values without forming a closed society – a box or fortress, if you will. For in “shared purpose and shared values” there is the danger of mindless obedience replacing critical reflection, loyalty trumping openness and kindness, and the general closing of ranks.
Walking the thin line that keeps a community a centre of meaningful endeavour, without creating a rigid relic of the past, is a balancing act, but I have come to find some guiding principles in seeing the task through, and it isn’t without its benefits.
In being part of the building of one independent school community, and having observed others, I have come to value, in no particular order, the following: critical self-examination, open discussion with all stakeholders, keeping your eye on the mission, not the market, and continually working to infuse your mission with enduring and global meanings. I’m sure most people couldn’t begin to imagine the number of hours that have been spent in our school discussing the vision and direction of the school. From Strategic Plans and their many attendant committees to administrative retreats, from email debates to long, drawn-out meetings with parents and teachers, I have found that our school benefits most when hard questions are asked, every voice is listened to, and where we keep coming back to what we have agreed is deeply important, inspiring, and worth so much of our daily life. I have also recently found it helpful to read and reflect as a means of more clearly perceiving the wider implications of our conversations and decisions, and raising new and important questions.
So, what kind of community emerges from such critical, open, forward-thinking, meaningful discussions? My sense is that we are in the process of becoming a community in which the four principles that have driven our development are found in abundance. Teachers and students have come to value critical thought, are more open to different ideas and different peoples, are increasingly hopeful and constructive in considering the future, and are becoming more engaged in their learning, whether in or outside the classroom. In such a community, students will feel free to bring all they have to the table – their questions and ideas, their passions and playfulness, their hopes and dreams – and find that they are fed on a diet of more questions, greater passions, and global aspirations. In such a community, it is our hope that students will come to know themselves most fully and be prepared to take on the responsibility of acting on all the potential that they have found within.
Who knows, they might even find the courage to sport a costume once in a while!