Speech to Parents: Parents Visiting Day 2014

Adapted from a speech delivered by Head of School Nancy Starmer during Parents Visiting Day 2014.

Welcome, it’s wonderful to see you all here today and thanks for taking the time to come to hear me; I know the day is busy!

The school year is off to an excellent start.  I hope the same is true from your perspective! The opening of our new fitness and athletics center was an early highlight.  We were thrilled that it opened on time and under budget, with none of the all-too-typical delays and punch-list problems that new buildings often exhibit.

Our students have been using the Center constantly, in their free time for pick-up games or lap swimming or to work out in the fitness center; the volleyball team is of course thrilled to have this new space; PE classes have taken over the movement studio and the pool and gyms; and teams are using the spaces in inventive ways as well (field hockey practiced in the multipurpose gym before their first game on the turf field, for example, to get a feel for the faster ball, and several teams have scheduled times to do strength training in the mornings before school.) We’ve had pool parties almost every weekend, open either to all students or scheduled as dorm events, and two weekends ago George School hosted a Health Fair in the new building, where community businesses and health services came to advertise and raise people’s consciousness about everything from stress to back problems to heart-healthy menus.

Our primary aim in investing in new fitness and athletics facilities was to serve our students well, and as I said, already it’s clear that this is happening.  But we wanted it to do more: to help us attract some of the wonderful young people who weren’t looking at George School because poor facilities indicated that we didn’t care about fitness and athletics, and to provide us with sources of revenue in the summer months and when our students aren’t using the facility.  Our new AD, Paul Weiss, and Bob Kupperman, our aquatics director, got busy very quickly this summer and we already have a George School Aquatics Club that uses the facility every evening. Paul is currently looking into ways to use the building in the summer as well.  All of this is very exciting and of course just what the Board hoped would happen when they approved this significant investment.

Again, the primary purpose of the new building is to serve our students, your sons and daughters, who once again are an impressive group.  In terms of diversity statistics, which as you know I love to report, this year our students come from twenty-two states and (the remarkable number of) fifty-four countries, a significant gain from last year’s forty-eight; 28 percent are domestic students of color (we report students of color this way because many schools include international students in that count); and over half qualify for some amount of financial aid, which of course is what brings us our socioeconomic diversity.

We also have an impressive amount of diversity in our faculty this year, along with a larger number of new teachers than in any year since I started at George School fifteen years ago.  The new teachers represent a shift in faculty demographics at George School that we’ve anticipated for a number of years and that is now actually beginning to emerge.  As you all know, George School is a fabulous place to teach, a wonderful community where teachers tend to stay.  Of the four teachers who retired last year, the one with the longest tenure had been at George School for forty-three years, and the shortest tenured in the group had finished her twenty-second year.

The thought of large numbers of long-tenured colleagues retiring is scary for many in the community.  These are iconic teachers who’ve made a huge impact on George School and helped to shape the community that we are. Their retirements come at a time of change both at George School and in the broader field of education.  In terms of changes here, we’ve hired new directors for our college guidance, athletics, and learning support programs, bringing in people who have experience in colleges and public schools and non-profit organizations that we think can inform our programs in important ways.  Our science, math, and art departments are beginning to explore new courses and collaborations, our IB program continues to grow, our two faculty committees that explore new pedagogies have been presenting neuro-scientific advances related to the brain and learning, our students are pushing us to think more deeply about issues related to climate change and what we’re doing as a school to ensure that the planet is here for them and their children, and they continue to engage their coaches and teachers in opportunities to grow.  At the request of his IB HL math students this fall, for example, our math department head Kevin Moon is sponsoring them in an on-line competition run by the Mathematics Association of America that has engaged teams from hundreds of high schools across the country.  After this past week’s round, I’m proud to say that George School was ranked twenty-first in the country!

These kinds of changes, of course, are very exciting, and would feel manageable if they weren’t happening with a backdrop of broader and less predictable changes in our profession.  These broader changes are grounded in economic realities, in advances in technology, and most importantly (I think) in advances in neuroscience.  Though scientists still know a fraction of what there is to know about how the brain learns, we are light years ahead of where we were just ten years ago, and already I am convinced that the evidence is going to radically transform the way teachers teach and schools are structured.

We’re working hard to keep up with these changes, through various faculty committees and through a project that I launched this fall that we’re calling the Adaptability Project, whose aim is to broaden faculty understanding of institutional change and to give teachers a chance to experiment and innovate.  We’re also inviting voices from outside the school into this conversation. Thanks to the hard work of Ralph Lelii, I’m thrilled to say that in June we will be hosting the first of what we hope will be a long line of TEDx conferences here at George School.  Our first invited speaker, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and renowned musician and conductor, has just agreed to be a presenter.

The theme of the conference that we shared with Dr. Botstein and will share with other speakers we’re planning to invite is this: “In a world where the amount of knowledge doubles every twelve months, we are challenged to think carefully about the nature and content of the curricula we construct for our students. During TEDxGeorgeSchool, we look to explore a range of ideas about what should be taught to students who must adapt to a world that is undergoing an unprecedented rate of cultural and intellectual change.”

As a student of history, I have always found times of change intriguing, and for that reason and to prepare for the Adaptabilty Project I mentioned, I’ve spent the last several months myself reading on the topic of what makes individuals and organizations accepting of and able to adapt to change. As part of that quest I went back to a book that I read probably twenty-five years ago now by Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of renowned anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.  The book is called Composing a Life, and in it Bateson followed the lives of five highly successful women. Understanding that the professional lives of women were often interrupted—typically by the needs of children, spouses, aging parents—Bateson wanted to see how these women were able to adapt to such interruptions and if their professional success followed a pattern that could be instructive.

What she found is that the women were successful in navigating disruption because each of them possessed a strong central core—a moral compass, so to speak—that had often developed in childhood but that grounded them and gave them the hope and self-confidence as adults that enabled them to meet challenges with assurance, enabling them to “improvise,” she said; to “attend and respond” creatively as new challenges and opportunities arose in their lives.

I’m often drawn to her metaphor of improvisation and the notion of a moral compass when I think about George School as an institution and about the education that your children are receiving here.  Living in a Friends school community does provide a moral compass, and it’s one that does make us hopeful and confident about meeting new challenges. It helps us to listen carefully and openly to the sources of new ideas both within our community and in the world around us and to “attend and respond” creatively.

I see this every day at George School but most vividly in meeting for worship, where students and faculty members regularly reflect on their lives and challenges.  I wanted to finish up today by sharing some of what I experience in MFW with all of you, both to illustrate my point and because I often find myself wishing that parents could hear our students’ messages.  Those messages are almost always focused on issues related to family, work, relationships, and identity, the sources of one’s self-confidence. They are also often quite insightful and almost always hopeful.

This past Thursday, for example, there were a number of messages that demonstrated growing self-awareness and self-confidence.  Almost all were related to grades (students received their mid-term reports just as you did this week).  Most of the speakers started by admitting that they put a lot of pressure on themselves. One girl told the group that her brother had dropped out of college recently because of anxiety, which was causing her to reflect on the pressure she puts on herself.  A boy told a story about trying to reassure a friend that she was, in fact, intelligent and beautiful.  All of the speakers ended their messages by encouraging themselves and their peers to remember that they are more than a grade, that they have choices in life, and that what’s important is to work hard, do your best, and love and respect yourself.

At our first MFW of the year a senior delivered a message that I think demonstrates the ability to listen openly and respond creatively to a challenge.  She talked first about how frustrating her summer was.  She was frustrated with her job, her family, and all of the work she had to do in preparation for the college admission process. Not wanting to continue to feel that way, she signed up for a yoga class, where the instructor suggested a practice that involved picturing her frustration in the form of an object or individual and then concentrating on seeing that object not as a source of frustration but as an opportunity for learning patience.  “It worked,” she said, “and I learned that I have the ability to choose how I feel.  I recommend it highly.”

Here’s another that demonstrates the presence of a moral compass:  On September 11 this year there were a number of messages related to the World Trade Center (WTC) attacks, and one of our Muslim students stood to tell about how, growing up, she always hated this day, because when her family went to the grocery store or walked in the neighborhood they’d be heckled and called names.  Then, she said, when she got to be older, her mother shared with her that her father was working right across the street from the WTC on 9/11, and for hours she didn’t know if he was dead or alive.  “Hearing that made me so frightened,” she said, “and suddenly I realized that the reason those people are calling us names is because they, too, were scared.  So I’ve been trying hard ever since to have empathy for them.”

Students, as I said, frequently talk about their families.  Last week one of our seniors who comes from the Philippines told about learning the night before that the mother of her childhood best friend had died.  Visibly shaken by the news, she talked about being so far away from her parents, and her fear that something might happen to them when she wasn’t there.  Then she said “but as I was sitting here today thinking about this, I realized that I love my parents and I miss them, and I can’t imagine life without them, but we can’t live our lives in fear. If we let ourselves do that, we’d be wasting all of the opportunities we have before us.” And she encouraged others to remember this as well.

Finally, there was a very short message from a new student from China who realized that in the fog of starting at a new school she’d forgotten that the previous day was her mother’s birthday and she hadn’t sent her a present.  When she called to apologize, her mother said “please don’t worry, having you as a daughter is all the present I need.”  After telling this story the student reflected that growing up she was always all about presents, can you get me this or that, but now she knows that just having loving parents is enough of a gift for her.  And again, she encouraged her peers to be grateful.

In addition to being insightful and generous, as you can see each of these messages was hopeful. I think in fifteen years at George School I’ve only heard a couple of messages that I could define as cynical or hopeless, and most of those were tempered after reflection. Last spring, for example, a boy spoke cynically about the college process, reflecting that everyone says that admission into an Ivy League school isn’t important, but this isn’t true.  A couple of weeks later he stood again to say that one of his dorm teachers had taken him aside after that meeting to tell him that she attended a community college before going on to a state university, because her parents couldn’t afford a private university. She said that she was now married with a wonderful husband and child, that she had a job she loved, and that she feels that her life is successful and fulfilled. Others had pointed out similar things to him, he said, raising questions about his definition of success in life and making him realize that he was caught up in the college arms race and had lost touch with what is really important.

I won’t keep going on the topic of messages in meeting but I do want to point out how many of the messages I just related were directly informed by the presence of diverse perspectives.

My broader point, though, is that what happens in meeting for worship each week at George School shapes this community and the individuals in it in significant ways, ways that I am confident will provide the moral compass and the habits of mind that will allow our students to adapt to the changes that are coming their way—and George School to adapt to the changes that are coming our way.

It’s an exciting time to be part of this community, and I hope you all are feeling the same.

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Filed under Faculty and Staff, Head of School Address

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