I Recommend This Neighborhood

In what was a surprise to me, the cinematic highlight of my summer was viewing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”—a biographical film about Fred Rogers, the revered host of the long-running public television show Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

Since I was born too soon to be a childhood viewer of the show (think Howdy Doody instead), the film provided me an introduction to the show and to the person who created it. I knew more about Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood, the satirical take-off created by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live. Probably because of that admittedly funny but certainly misleading effort by Mr. Murphy, I did not expect much of the film.

The film proved to be one of the most moving I have ever seen, particularly so since I have spent years in school settings surrounded by school children close to my heart. Mister Rogers is one of the most effective teachers I have ever had an opportunity to observe and appreciate. He moved me to tears several times during the film.

The intentional low production value of the show was not only charming; it was also consistent with Mister Rogers’ belief in simply profound core values. The power of those values did not require fancy visual and technological enhancements.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not a nostalgic piece of hagiography. Mister Rogers is certainly depicted lovingly but also very honestly. The film makes clear that Mister Rogers was not only keenly attuned to the feelings and vulnerabilities of children; he was acutely aware of his own humanity and his own weaknesses. This awareness clearly contributed to the effectiveness of his teaching and connection with young people. Similarly, this combination enabled him to help children better understand troubling and tragic events in our society without terrifying them.

While the gentle humor of Mister Rogers was a key to his effectiveness, I think that the most significant factor in his success was that he took children seriously. He understood the importance of social-emotional learning before that term became widely known.

As another school year begins, I recommend a visit to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to inspire educators and parents.

Until next time,

The Long Haul

Today is graduation day at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. Below is the letter I wrote to our 2018 graduates that is published in this year’s yearbook.


Dear Members of the Class of 2018,

I am happy to have this annual opportunity to share a message with our graduates as they leave our school for their next educational destination. As is the case with every school year, this one has passed incredibly quickly for me. But from your much more youthful perspective, your experience at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School—be it for one year or ten—may seem like it has been a long haul.

I write to extol the virtues of the long haul, whether it be in school or in life. There is something very important and valuable in the “daily-ness” of life. Growth ordinarily comes in very small increments, almost invisibly on any given day, but much more apparent over a longer period of time. In fact, significant success and achievement really only occurs over the long haul.

Our world is impatient with the long haul. I think of this as the “breaking news” phenomenon. I suspect not many of you are patrons of the cable news networks. If you were, you would understand quite well what I mean regarding breaking news. While the term suggests something of utmost urgency and rare occurrence, viewers of these networks know that “breaking news” is commonplace. Very few hours go by without an announcement of such news. This reflects our culture’s infatuation with the right now, the exciting, the immediately important—none of which are characteristic of the long haul.

In my own life, there have been “Aha” moments, but those have occurred very infrequently. Most of what I have learned and how I have grown as a person has happened over the long haul. While “breaking news” is at first glance much more exciting, for most of us most of the time the “long haul” provides the most important and substantive growth in our lives.

While your graduation is a wonderful occasion, it is not breaking news. Rather I see is as an important moment in the long haul of your lives. May that long haul eventually lead each of you to become the wonderful and fully developed person you are meant to be.

With great affection and appreciation,

Leo P. Dressel

Head of School

Facing Retirement, Still Embracing Purpose

Last month I announced to my school community that I would retire at the end of the 2018-19 academic year. Articulating this long-anticipated intention in public fashion elicited a range of responses. Gratitude was at the forefront, but other responses also welled up in me. I was certainly pleased to have the word out in the public forum at last. I started my full-time teaching career in 1971, and my first school administrative assignment began in 1978. Believe me, dear reader, that those dates sound far longer ago to you than they feel to me. I thus had to face the befuddlement many others before me have experienced when confronting some version of this question: How on earth did this happen so swiftly? There was also the companion wistfulness that comes with the approaching cessation of work that I have loved for so many years. Mixed in was a bit of the inevitable anxiety that comes with the unknown elements of my post-retirement life.

Finally, there was relief and encouragement when I remembered the simple truth that one does not have to have a job to have a purpose. Purpose has primacy over occupation. That having been said, I do not discount the challenges in finding the new shape and path of my purposeful life after having had the privilege of serving for so many years in places and positions with awesome purpose built in. Keeping a passion for purpose is the key to a fruitful life no matter one’s circumstances. We must endeavor to find our purpose and not wait for purpose to find us. In schools we are blessed to be immersed in a place and an enterprise saturated by purpose of the noblest kind. I shall miss that blessing when I retire. I know that I don’t want to enter retirement waiting for purpose to find me, but there are many details yet to be determined. Nonetheless, I have one clear commitment no matter what: I shall live a life of purpose until the day that my time on earth ends.

Until next time,


Simply Abide

It has been many months since I have posted a blog entry, something about which I am a bit embarrassed. Over that time I have regularly excused myself from this task by buying into the cult of “busyness” in our culture. Being busy is a badge of honor in our society, and I’ve been wearing my badge for many months now. Being engaged in life is certainly a good thing, but I reference the excessive commotion we sometimes embrace. It does damage to our relationships and our sense of self.

I had a conversation with a colleague today about changes I have observed during my decades in education. While there is considerable truth to the adage that kids are kids no matter the time and place, but one change I would suggest is that young people today are much more adept at interactive technologies, but not as highly developed regarding interpersonal and introspective schools. And, among other things, the busyness cult is responsible for some of that. Adults bear considerable responsibility for this phenomenon.


The above has been very much on my mind because of something that I read this past weekend: a piece in the Forward Day by Day daily meditation and prayer guide. Saturday’s entry focused on a passage from the Book of Haggai, the work of a so-called minor prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures. The reflection focused on a single old-fashioned and quaint word, abide, and its connotation of stillness and lack of movement. In our abiding, we find the Spirit of God. I am reminded of the inscription that Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung had carved above his door:

Busyness will always find us—and overwhelm us at times. We must consciously choose abiding. In this busy holiday season, I encourage readers to give themselves the gift of abiding and discover the Spirit that abides in that stillness. Or as the late Jesuit poet and activist Daniel Berrigan once put it: Don’t just do something—stand there.

Until next time,


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,

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


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,

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,


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…


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.