Civil Religion?

Naturalization CeremonyLast week, for the fifth straight year, we hosted a naturalization ceremony at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School, welcoming 30 new US citizens representing 28 different countries of origin.  My heart is still filled with joy because of that experience, which I believe epitomized the best of our human- and American- values.  That, in turn, put me in the mind of the term civil religion, first coined by the French philosopher Rousseau.  I became familiar with the more recent use of that language studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley in the 1970s at a time when sociologist Robert Bellah of the University of California had developed a compelling theory of civil religion’s role in American society.  His thesis was that there is a unifying non-denominational set of core values that epitomize the essence of the American character.  (He further asserted that every society has its own brand of civil religion).  Bellah also cautioned against the tendency of some to equate this notion of civil religion too closely with a specific explicit religious tradition.

I have reflected on Bellah’s work and the naturalization ceremony within the context of contemporary society.  Many have (rightfully) lamented the decline of civility in our society.  And one could also assert some activities presented in the name of religion are neither civil nor religious.  One of the reasons that this year’s naturalization ceremony was so inspiring and consoling is that it was both Civil and civil- a specific civic commitment conducted within an atmosphere of civility, hospitality, and acceptance.  Similarly, the ceremony was both Religious and religious- hosted by an Episcopal school with multiple references to an inclusive God.  As such it served as antidote and encouragement as we in the United States struggle to find a path back to the lofty notion of civil religion so eloquently articulated by Robert Bellah 50 or so years ago.

We prayed for our US citizens that morning that their embrace of the American Dream will strengthen our country in the ways that immigrants who preceded them have done for so many years.  May all of us who are US citizens embrace that Dream with renewed commitment and conviction.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

An Honor Roll for Each of Us

Integrity Last month we celebrated the first Honors Chapel of our school year.  Over the years reactions to such events have become more diverse and complex, with various questions raised: In the case of recognition for good conduct, why do we honor students for things we expect of them as a matter of course?  Do we adults hold ourselves to the same standards for our behavior?  Regarding academic honors, why do we use grades as the sole criteria for recognition?  Does that not leave out some of our grittiest students whose persistence and achievement might not be fully recognized by the numbers?  Good questions indeed, and they usually inspire me to focus on inclusion in my remarks at these chapels.  At last month’s Honors Chapel I noted an “honor roll” available to everyone.  Dictionary.com’s first definition of “honor” reads as follows: honesty, fairness, and integrity in one’s beliefs and actions.

Living a life with honor is attainable for each of us, no matter our “grades.”  However, it is not necessarily an easy thing to do.  In fact, at least in my case, it has been a lifelong journey to live more honorably over time.  What has helped me immensely has been my spiritual practice to thank God each day for the gift of that day and to express my desire to live that day with honor.  At the end of the day, I spend a brief time reflecting prayerfully on whether I have truly lived it with honor.  I have days when my reflection is tinged with regret when I recognize the moments when I could have acted more honorably.  In those moments I pray that I may have the gift of another day on which I can once again commit to living it with honor.

I thought of those remarks again this month when I read the news that Dictionary.com had selected “xenophobia” as its Word of the Year: fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.  How sad that this is so, but it also serves as added inspiration to aspire to find a place on the one honor roll that really matters.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Birthdays That End in Zero

Mr. Dressel's Birthday

Last week I celebrated my 70th birthday, a number I once could not have imagined.  I am on the “cutting edge” of the baby boom generation since those of us born in 1946 are considered the first (or oldest, if you prefer) baby boomers.  We clung to the notion not to trust anyone over 30 until we reached that age.  I suspect that baby boomers like myself are responsible for the entire 40 is the new 30, 50 the new 40, etc., phenomenon.  I actually saw a suggestion in a magazine that 70 is now the new 50!  That nugget arrived on my radar just in time for my 70th birthday.  I don’t believe it, but I do welcome the notion that attitude and engagement with life makes a huge difference regarding how we choose to live each day.

Some birthdays resonate more than others, and those that end in zero are among them.  Actually, I was provided some helpful perspective years ago by my now-deceased mother.  She sent me a happy 30th birthday card on my 29th birthday (see comment above about not trusting everyone over 30 and the presumed traumatic effect of turning that age for baby boomers).  I had to conclude that it could not be that big a deal if my own mother lost count.  Last year this lesson was reinforced when a friend sent me a happy 70th birthday card a year early.

Nonetheless, there is something when both digits in a person’s age change.  Completion of another decade of life feels like a bit of an accomplishment.  And to me, it feels even more like a blessing.  My birthday was made especially memorable since I was able to spend it in the midst of our students, faculty, and staff.  How many people are lucky enough to be serenaded on one’s birthday by well over 500 people, the vast majority of whom are age 14 and under?  I am still feeling incredibly blessed today, a good reminder that each day can be blessed if we embrace it as the gift it is.  Today is after all in a very real sense the only one we have to embrace.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

P.S. An observation: We first baby boomers seem to love the spotlight and have difficulty leaving the stage.  Two people with whom I share the same birth year have already served as US Presidents, and another is a candidate this year.  That said, I feel supremely grateful that I have the privilege to do the work I do in the community in which I do it!

Letter From Mr. Dressel

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
-Mary Oliver

Dear Members of the Class of 2016,

The words above from award-winning American poet Mary Oliver have served as a particular guidepost for me this year.  Students and educators alike need to add a bit of renewed inspiration and energy every year to make certain that our passion matches the possibilities that await us in school – and in life.

Graduations are traditional moments when graduates can expect (and perhaps dread) advice from their elders.  The words above from the poet follow that structure, and I suggest that her advice can be embraced.  Mary Oliver’s world view is that nature and the ordinary in life provide pathways to profundity, meaning and inspiration.  Implied in her words is her recognition of our tendency to overcomplicate life and to miss the blessings in the everyday.

So I urge you to keep it simple as you move to the next stage of your lives and your education.  Holding fast to those seven unadorned words can work wonders for you.

Pay attention.
Mary Oliver’s words carry much different significance and intent than an identical admonition from a teacher.  Consciously open your senses to the world in which you wake each day, and each day will bring blessing, consolation and opportunity to you.

Be astonished.
Resist the temptation to become jaded, guarded, and – even worse- cynical.  Find joy in the routine, the familiar, the ordinary, the unassuming.  Every day will bring much to savor if we are prepared to be amazed.

Tell about it.
Share your blessings so others can be blessed.  Embrace the world with gratitude and share that gratitude with others.   Don’t be shy about sharing your joy of living with family, friends, and strangers alike.

Keeping things simple can make an amazing positive difference in your life.  Hall of Fame Yankee catcher and accidental philosopher Yogi Berra died early in your eighth grade year.  He was not eloquent in the manner of Mary Oliver, but his nuggets of wisdom echo some of her own.  As Yogi reminded us: You can observe a lot by just watching.

With great affection and appreciation,

Leo P. Dressel
Head of School

Group

All Saints’ Class of 2016

The Wisdom of Bruce Springsteen

Earlier this month I attended the “The River” tour Bruce Springsteen concert date here in Phoenix.  The first Springsteen concert I ever attended was 40+ years ago (yikes): Halloween night, 1975, Paramount Theater, Oakland, California.  I have been a staunch fan ever since.  The 1975 tour followed the release of “Born to Run,” the album that made the Boss a superstar.  He landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek, an amazing achievement in the years long before the Internet when those two magazines had major cultural impact.  Even with this breakthrough, Springsteen still was playing modest-sized venues like the Paramount (capacity 3000 or so).

BruceMuch has changed for the Boss on that score, and much has changed for me on many levels over these 40 years.  In 1975 I was a second-year student at Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley preparing for ordination to the priesthood.  For the 2016 concert our delegation represented three generations, which I found most consoling.  Our granddaughters have little knowledge of Springsteen’s career so I was excited to experience their introduction to his music with them.  I was also proud since—as a self-described Springsteen disciple—I take a bit of credit for encouraging and supporting their father’s allegiance to the Boss.

“The River” was released 35 years ago, and Springsteen has released a new boxed set to celebrate that milestone.  The current tour has the same playlist for most of each concert.  Springsteen plays every song on “The River” in the order each appeared on the album.  Among those songs is one of my all-time favorites, “Hungry Heart.”  The song is so familiar to Springsteen fans that Bruce has the custom of having his audience sing the first verse without him before he circles back to begin again.  The song is quite typical of an approach Springsteen employs: revelation of an important life lesson presented by a narrator who fails to take the lesson to heart.  In “Hungry Heart” the narrator states very clearly that each person has a need, a hunger, for meaning—especially in relationship(s).  That core message is most clearly articulated (in spite of the badly fractured grammar) in the third verse:

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone

In the previous two verses the song’s narrator vividly illustrates how not to satisfy that hunger.  In that he is not alone.  Most of us have spent some time searching on the wrong path(s) at times in our quest to satisfy our hungers; for some that wrong path can have catastrophic impact.  For others, the hunger is so ravenous that it is never satisfied.  For many of us, the path to the right destination is circuitous and complex.  For me, just such a complicated path has led me to a marvelous place for which I am very grateful.  As the Boss and the E Street Band played for 3+ hours, I listened rejoicing in the reality that I have a place to rest, I have a home, and I am loved and far from alone.

Thanks again for the reminder, Bruce.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Mind Games

Last month I had a delightful lunch date with three boys in our third grade, a “Hangin’ with the Head” opportunity offered as an auction item at our parent association fundraiser.  I thoroughly enjoyed observing their interaction and conversation—and the insights it provided me about the world of contemporary third graders.  Gaming was the most frequent topic of conversation, with Minecraft taking center stage.  The most memorable quotation that emerged from the gaming conversation was this: “Minecraft is just too complicated for adults.”  I think there is definitely truth in that statement, especially for this adult.  There is no doubt that every one of our ten grandchildren is more adept at manipulating electronic devices than I.  They are digital natives one and all.  I am clearly a digital dinosaur in terms of chronology, evidence of which is that I was a mid-
20s adult when the game Pong was introduced.  No first grader in our school can read better than I or solve math problems better than I, etc.  However, I am quite certain that most—if not all of them—could easily eclipse me in iPad manipulation skill.  That represents a huge paradigm shift for educators.  The tables (tablets?) have been turned.
Hand of Asian girl playing Tablet.This development can be good news for children and adults, but there is an ever growing number of cautionary tales.  Not a week goes by that I do not see an article in professional literature about the perils of excessive screen time for young people.  This is of particular concern for me as head of a school with a 1-to-1 iPad program in our middle school and a commitment to the incorporation of other new technologies into our PK-8 educational program.  One of the harmful side effects of excessive screen time is the deleterious effect if has on the development of social-emotional skills in students (and all of us, for that matter).  This has risen to the level of a public health issue as demonstrated by the guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  This is particularly worrisome for me as head of an Episcopal school that puts a high value on development of such social-emotional skills in our students.

This is not intended as a diatribe against new technologies.  These ever-changing and ever-advancing tools can provide many benefits, and they are not going away.  Minecraft provides a brilliant array of options for learning and problem-solving.  I myself have been exhilarated by the ways in which I have grown as a learner through contemporary technology.  We adults need to help our young people to manage their use of technology; they can figure out the manipulation piece on their own.  To provide that assistance, we need to model what we desire.  We need to get off our devices more often and model genuine healthy personal interaction at home and at school.

I sincerely believe that children’s brains are changing in new ways because of new technology.  My hope is that this will be an evolutionary moment in human development- not a devolutionary one.  I also firmly believe that we adults can be very influential in influencing that outcome.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Counting the Days

 

Sometimes counting the days is the proper thing to do.  For example, my administrative colleagues and I have been doing just that as we map out the calendar for the 2016-17 academic year.  We have a target range of student contact days for the year, a goal to make each of the four quarters as close in length to each other as possible, and the need to measure the impact of the timing of various holidays on each year’s schedule.  So it makes good sense that we count the days carefully.

Christmas day

Conversely, I am also especially aware at this time of year how counting the days can be counterproductive even though it is an irresistible temptation for many of us.  How many of us are counting the days until Christmas (or actually Christmas break!).  I confess to doing just that more often than I would like.  For those of us who are Christians, this runs counter to the wisdom and beauty of the Advent season.  This is a time for living in the moment, a time of watchful waiting, a time for living in serene anticipation rather than impatient calendar-watching.

As the days of December become increasingly frantic, we need to return to the beauty of living in the here and now.  After all, no matter how and whether we count the days, each of us has only one day that matters: today.  Many years ago (before we even knew each other) my wife Jan co-founded a support group in St. Louis for people living with cancer.  The name of the group was Make Today Count.  That is a helpful and hopeful mantra for each of us no matter our circumstances.  We need less counting the days and more making each day count.

Until next time…

Peace,

Leo

Justice and/or Mercy?

Pope Francis

I have been reflecting a great deal on the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States and also on the range of responses to his presence in our country’s midst.  Certainly the predominant response was one of exuberant admiration, but this unpredictable pontiff has a knack for keeping most of us on our toes.  In most cases he left people both inspired and challenged.  I am enthralled by the Pope’s continual attention to the delicate interplay between justice and mercy.  During his recent visit this was perhaps most obvious and stirring (and for some controversial) in Pope Francis’s remarks about the death penalty and his urging that it be abandoned while calling for alternative measures that distribute mercy and justice more evenly.

In his statements and writings about his vision for the church-and by extension for the world-Pope Francis clearly advocates for a stronger measure of mercy (perhaps most notably and directly in his book The Church of Mercy).  Pope Francis suggests that we need a world that honors both justice and mercy, not one in which people choose between justice or mercy.  This tension between justice and mercy is present in all settings and all situations in which judgments and decisions that affect people’s lives are made, including in schools. This is an important consideration as we strive to create and enhance a “nurturing community” in our school as our mission statement states.  How do we balance accountability with support?  What does justice look like for a Kindergartener or mercy for a middle schooler?  Developmental and contextual considerations obviously come into play.  Do mercy and justice look different in an Episcopal school than in many other school settings?  And in what way?  The questions are many, and the need for discernment in every situation essential.

As I reflect on justice and mercy within the context of my years in school leadership, I can identify instances when I erred in both directions- too harsh in some instances and too lenient in others.  At the same time I am grateful for those moments when a decision has proven to be both just and merciful, at least in the long term.  I would hope that I have become more adept at finding the right balance more and more over the years.  It is important to me to consider decisions I make within the context of justice and mercy because it speaks to the sacredness of the tasks I share with my colleagues in helping our students become the people God calls them to be.

I admire Pope Francis for his acknowledgment that ambiguity is deeply embedded in our lives and that there are no simple answers.  Nonetheless we must continue to ask the difficult questions with both justice and mercy in mind.  That is no easy task.  Last month at a faculty meeting our division heads led an exercise centered on an article written by the now-former President of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Pat Bassett entitled, “Twenty-Five Factors Great Schools Have in Common.”  One such factor cited by the author is this: (Great schools) know their priorities when making difficult decisions, ranking first “what’s best for the school,” then “what’s best for the student,” then “what’s best for all other interests.”  Some of our teachers suggested that the first two priorities ought to have been reversed.  What’s best for the school?  What’s best for the student?  The best decisions are those when one can answer “yes” to each of those questions.

Until next time…

Peace,
Leo

A Beginner’s Mind

At last Wednesday’s opening faculty-staff meeting, I shared with my colleagues an insight that I had recently discovered in a daily meditation book:  Buddhists talk a lot about having a beginner’s mind.  Having a beginner’s mind means doing things as if you were doing them for the first time.  So when you eat, eat as if you were eating for the first time; when you pray, pray as if you were praying for the first time…And I would add “teach as if you were teaching for the first time, lead as if you were leading for the first time, learn as if you were learning for the first time, serve as if you were serving for the first time…”

Today marks the return of our students for the first day of the 2015-16 academic year.  I am always excited for this day each year, but I begin this year with the renewed perspective of a beginner’s mind.  Recently I re-read a statement of educational philosophy that I composed decades ago.  I was consoled that the statement has stood the test of time for me even as I read it again with a beginner’s mind.  As the school year begins, I am happy to share this statement of ideals and principles with readers of this blog:

My attraction to education is one to a vocation rather than a career.  My more specific calling is educational leadership through private school administration.  My particular approach to leadership is greatly influenced and shaped by a number of sources, including the servant leadership model of Robert Greenleaf and the philosophy of Ignatius Loyola which regards our talents and skills as gifts to be cherished, nurtured and shared.

More specifically, I believe the task of the school leader is to articulate a mission for the educational community that is positive and dynamic, rooted in moral values and vision, and oriented toward the betterment of individuals, society and the world.  While the mission must be specific, it should be capable of diverse embodiments.

My commitment to education as vocation is rooted in my passionate belief in youth as our most precious resources and the mirrors of that which is best in humanity. The two most pernicious attitudes of adults toward youth are indifference and contempt.  As a result I am firmly committed to creation of a school climate in which every person – and most especially every student – is seen and heard, is respected and valued.  Then teachers and administrators can rightly aspire to be role models. Our most effective teaching depends ultimately on the congruence between our rhetoric and our actions.

The best schools are those in which the standards are high. In turn these standards are primarily rooted not in external measures but in internal markers such as integrity and conscience.  When I lead a school, I aim high.  Yet my goal is not to create the perfect school, but rather one in which as many persons as possible are inspired and empowered to be the best they can be.  I want schools to be places in which young people are free to learn from successes and failures, places marked simultaneously by challenge and security. The best schools are those characterized by intellectual rigor but not pedantry, pride but not arrogance, critical thinking but not cynicism, comfort but not complacency.

Making Private School Education More Accessible

The following op-ed was featured in the Central Phoenix and Northeast Phoenix Arizona Republics on Saturday, August 8, 2015. 

Head of School, All Saints' Episcopal Day School

Leo P. Dressel, Head of School, All Saints’ Episcopal Day School

Making Private School Education More Accessible 

The landscape within private school education has changed dramatically and rapidly. Two contextual factors have played a major role in some of the most recent changes in that landscape. The lengthy recession has had long-term financial impact on schools, requiring the need to devote more tuition assistance to more families — including some who could previously pay the full tuition at a school. The “new normal” makes determination of annual tuition levels a more painstaking process, which in fact requires careful stewardship.

A second factor that has had significant influence is the growth of charter schools, a particularly impactful reality in Arizona. As school options have increased, private schools now have to demonstrate and communicate more effectively their educational and developmental value – and not just their cost.

There always will be a role for private education in our country, but in order for those schools to thrive they will have to be flexible, nimble and creative. I strongly believe that the best private schools have a clear community purpose and that purpose can be embodied in a variety of ways.

One way a private school can achieve its public purpose is by a commitment to easier access of education to traditionally underserved segments of our community, especially during the crucial early learning years. This commitment of inclusion is deeply rooted in the All Saints’ Episcopal Day School educational philosophy and school culture.

We recognize paying for an independent school education can be a challenge for many families, and it is our goal that economic standing should not be the only determining factor when weighing educational options. Therefore, we have adopted the Indexed Tuition model because we want to provide our offerings to as many deserving children as possible by working with each individual family’s situation.

Diversity on every level enriches the educational opportunity for all students, and participation of a wide range of families is critical to a healthy thriving school and overall student experience. Indexed Tuition allows us to further enrich the community, fosters inclusion, and enhances the educational and social-emotional experience for both children and their parents.

At a school like ours, which is pre-secondary in scope, we are acutely aware our mission is to prepare our graduates for extensive continued high-quality education and personal development long after they leave us. Our mission statement captures that sentiment quite well in its closing words: “preparing students to lead fruitful lives and to serve a world in need.” At the core of our mission is a commitment to enable all students to lead lives not only of success but more importantly of meaning and purpose.

Globalization is a reality that cannot be ignored by schools. While there remains essential value in a school being a safe haven, no longer can we be places of insularity and exclusivity. We must prepare our students for the world in which they will live their adult lives, and so we must open the world to them in developmentally appropriate ways while they are with us.

We have the luxury of offering a rich palette of enrichment experiences for our students on an intimate scale that ensures that no student falls through the cracks. We can set our expectations high without apology and with the support of the school community. One way in which we describe this dimension of our school is as a place of “maximum challenge and maximum support.”

The Episcopal identity of our school is also a wonderful asset since we have a clear religious identity, one core feature of which is a commitment to inclusion. We encourage every child and adult to respect his or her own religious and cultural traditions, and also the traditions of others. We are able to speak and act clearly regarding the non-cognitive dimensions of a quality education of children “in the light of God-mind, body, soul.”

While my life’s work has been in the sector of independent private education, most of it in faith-based schools, I am a strong supporter of public education. As states have felt the negative effects of the recession and its lingering aftermath, support for public education seems to have taken a disproportionate share of the brunt of budgetary constriction. This is certainly true in Arizona.

Accountability is important and necessary for all schools, but the budgetary approach taken in many states seems quite shortsighted. Both the educational and business communities seem to recognize this, but the political sector seems to be on a different page. I happen to believe that a community is strongest when the traditional public school, charter public school, and private school sectors are all healthy. That is not the case in most parts of the country, and we are the poorer for it- now and in the years to come.

Leo P. Dressel is head of school at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School.

For more information about the Indexed Tuition program offered at All Saints’, please call 602.274.4866 or visit http://www.aseds.org/.