At a recent strategic planning workshop, a board member asked: “What are the key themes affecting independent schools nationwide?” One is the underlying tone of polarization that has worsened as even friends and families are openly disagreeing about gender, race, culture, and politics resulting in loss of trust in boards, school leaders, teachers and even each other. While there is no easy solution to this challenge, its existence along with mental health stresses on students should prompt us to examine school climate and culture overall starting with the faculty and staff and then extending to the students and then possibly the parents.
While schools are constantly pressing for healing words and a focus on health and wellness, some adults in the room are finding it difficult to set examples of listening to the other side, compromise and acknowledgment that change is necessary. However, the wrong pace and method of change, or lack of buy in can exacerbate underlying latent tensions,
This Consultant often asks clients to name the issues of disgruntlement that are latent below the surface of school cultures, but if triggered by some incident, could develop into a crisis. The most common answer is “culture wars” but they often do not define them further for fear of causing more division and stress.
Recently I visited the Sidwell Friends website and a link to their strategic plan on their website: “Lead in the Light”. The name comes from the ethical framework, “Let the Light shine from all”, that the Founder, Thomas Sidwell, established.
That reminded me of my own high school experience at Baltimore Friends School, where I was sent because my father wanted me to have a school experience different from the public schools from which I had come but also different from my own church experience as an Episcopalian.
I went to Quaker meeting every week, and no one ever stood up and spoke. I wondered if anyone would at some point. Finally, midway through the year a Quaker classmate whom I did not know well, stood up and said, “I believe God’s light shines brightly or dimly in us each day and is reflected in our eyes, our expressions, our words and our deeds.” This message did not resonate with me right away.
The Back Story
As a young Head of School, I noticed a new 8th grade boy who came from out of state and joined us midyear. I was watching him in a JV football game one day and noted several members of my custodial staff watching as well. They said they had come to see this new boy (let us call him Bob), play, because Bob asked all his team members to take off their muddy cleats when crossing the gym floor to the locker room, so the custodians did not have to clean that floor. The team had agreed.
When Bob was a junior, I saw a 9th grade boy drop a piece of gum on some new carpet and step on it. Before I could call this boy out on his behavior, I heard Bob down the hall say, “You need to get that gum out of the carpet.” The boy said, “The maintenance staff will do it”. Bob said, “No, let’s start to get that gum out of the carpet now.” Bob had that degree of influence over his peers.
One of Bob’s 8th Grade classmates, (let us call him “Jack”) was a wonderful young boy who was well loved and had an aura of kindness and innocence about him. Jack was kind, generous, thoughtful, and cheerful every day.
The Power of One
Jack tragically died in a bicycling accident which devasted the school community. After his memorial service we did not see his family for several years as they had no other children in the school but in the spring of what would have been Jack’s senior year, they came to my office unannounced. They wanted to know if at the graduation ceremony that year, there could be an empty seat where Jack would have been seated. I agreed. Then they read a note describing the wonderful qualities that Jack had exhibited during his short life and asked if the faculty might choose a senior who most reflected these same qualities. The parents wanted to honor that student at graduation.
On graduation day, I explained the empty seat to those in attendance and Jack’s parents talked about their son and announced Bob as the senior whom the faculty had voted as most embodying Jack’s character and generosity of spirit.
Jack’s parents had learned through the college counseling office that Bob wished to attend an Episcopalian-related college but had received only a partial scholarship that still made the college unaffordable for Bob’s family. In front of all those in attendance, they offered to pay for Bob’s tuition at this college as well as his graduate studies if he chose graduate work. They wanted to be thought of as “Bob’s second parents.”
The response from the audience was thunderous and very emotional.
Bob become an Episcopal priest working with underserved communities in the greater Philadelphia area.
Many years later, I was consulting to a School in Australia and told this story to demonstrate how just one person can make a powerful difference in a school culture. The Board Chair said, “There is a book in our library that reminds me of Bob.” The book, “The Power of One” tells a story of learning that the power of one person to influence others is great and that that when many act as one, they have an even greater collective power.
We can all call on that “light” to which the Sidwell theme refers, the better half of ourselves and heal fractured communities, including schools. What I witnessed at that graduation showed me the influence of one boy, who in his actions, small and large, made a difference to an entire community.
Heads can find student standouts like Bob or Jack in their school and let them be role models for behavior. Even more important, heads can also find faculty and staff members who are standard bearers of their unique school culture and mission. Heads should seek out those individuals, celebrate them as role models, ask for their counsel and let them lead by their example. Along with the head, they can make positive change happen.