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/.

The Mystery of Endings

Being MortalThis week, I began reading Being Mortal by physician-author Atul Gawande. Gawande’s thesis is that our culture and our medical system do not do a very good job helping people as they near the end of life. He illustrates that thesis through individual stories, including those of his ancestors, extended family members, and patients. He, of course, accepts the inevitability and finality of death, but as the subtitle of his book suggests we could do a much better job of focusing on “what matters at the end.”  Some deaths add unambiguous tragedy to their finality. Still etched in my heart and in my prayers is the death of a young man who died earlier this week, a victim of a freak and random accident while standing at a bus stop. I did not know the young man, but the accident occurred at an intersection that I pass through to and from school each day. The day of his death I had passed through that intersection a matter of minutes before the tragic accident. As I learned more about the quality of his character, my sadness only deepened. There was no chance to attend to “what matters in the end” for him.

Although far less dramatic than death, endings are also part of school life. These endings are also more ambiguous in8th grade class photo many cases. While there is comfort and order in the clear beginnings and endings of school years, there is also some wistfulness in such endings.  After next Thursday, we shall never count the same cast of characters in our school community as we have this year. Teachers and students move and depart, and of course some students graduate. Some of this year’s graduates will have spent 10 years at our school, a duration made all the more remarkable in that it represents about 70% of their young lives. They shall never have a school home for that long again (except perhaps in the case of very complicated graduate programs years down the line 🙂 ). So I suspect that there will be mixed feelings in their hearts on graduation day, as will be the case for many of their classmates. There will, of course, be many laughs and smiles that day but also (I suspect) some tears.

So we soon bid farewell to another school year soon, very grateful and likely a bit wistful, firm in the hope that a new beginning will bring in a few short months.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

The Interior Life

There were many intriguing and intellectually challenging presentations at the recent annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).  Design thinking was the centerpiece theme of the gathering, an idea that stretched my perspective in exciting ways.  However, the session about which I have reflected the most since the conference is the conversation conducted by a panel of four current and past university presidents and facilitated by John Chubb, President of NAIS.  The expectation for every student in our school- and in almost every independent school- is that every one of our graduates will continue his or her formal education long after leaving us.  Although our oldest students are in eighth grade, we think of ourselves as a college prep school.  The structure of the conversation among university presidents focused on what pre-secondary independent schools ought to be doing to make their graduates as ready as possible for university life.

While we are a college prep school, we also claim in our mission statement that we are a life prep school (“… preparing students to lead fruitful lives”).  I was reminded of that when one of the panelists mentioned changes she has noticed in today’s collegians from those who have gone before.  While she certainly urged all of us to continue to help students develop language and quantitative skills (imperiled skills at that), she also lamented the fact that today’s college students have an inadequately developed sense of interiority (her word).  There is no doubt in my mind that external stimuli have overwhelmed the interior life for many of us- to our detriment as the panelist pointed out.  She further noted how many students on her campus are plagued by anxiety and depression.   While I have no clinical standing to make such a connection, I have wondered whether a healthy interiority might make us less susceptible to those maladies.

Student Chapel Presentation

One of the All Saints’ eighth grade students was the guest preacher in chapel on March 10, 2015.

On a brighter note I am consoled that at All Saints’ we consciously and intentionally make the effort to develop the interior life of our students in age-appropriate ways.  Chapel is an obvious means for promoting such development.  When all of us on occasion are asked by the celebrant to be still and reflect quietly, the result is extremely powerful.  The student presentations at chapel provide other invitations for us to be reflective – exquisitely demonstrated by our eighth grade preacher at this morning’s chapel.  We are committed to our weekly chapel services because they are uniquely powerful moments of community and contemplation, wonderful examples of educating our students head to soul.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

On Not Peaking Too Early

Students recognized at Honors Chapel.

Students recognized at Honors Chapel.

This past week we conducted our second quarter Honors Chapel for our middle school.  In many ways these chapels are always positive and consoling occasions.  But, I also find in myself a bit of tension about each such event, especially as I ponder the remarks I would like to make for the occasion.  The tension derives from a number of sources.  Does honoring students with grade point averages of a certain level contribute to excessive focus on grades vs. learning?  Does this honors chapel ritual contribute to students’ regarding their sense of identity and worth as measured by what they do rather than what they value?  Does this occasion contribute in some small way to the increasing obsession with resume-building that seems to be imposed on our students at an ever younger age?  I don’t want to overstate the level of tension, but I do believe strongly that there is benefit in pondering that tension.  It impels me and my colleagues to consider regularly how best to recognize, affirm, challenge, motivate- and yes, honor- our students.  (At this week’s chapel our middle school head did a masterful job of transcending that tension by including every student in his words of encouragement.)

We do not want our students to get ahead of themselves and to start thinking that they need to have everything figured out and are able to reach every measurable benchmark when they are so young.  We lament that our children are being forced to grow up too fast in our contemporary culture, but we sometimes contribute to that acceleration in our school culture. I have reminded parents on more than one occasion that no one ought to peak at the age of 14 (or 18 in the case of high school seniors).  How sad that would be! I owe my deceased mom thanks for that nugget of insight and wisdom.  Quite a few years ago I was appointed principal of my high school alma mater, a Jesuit school in St. Louis, a matter of months after completion of my training.  When my mom heard the news of my appointment, she posed this question to me: “Don’t you think you’re peaking too early?”  That query stung a bit at the time, but in retrospect she was absolutely correct.  I was getting ahead of myself- for a number of reasons I shall not belabor in this reflection.

Even at this stage of my life, I consider myself a work in progress.  How much truer is that reality for the young people in our charge?

Until next time…

My best,

Leo