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

Losing Propositions

Football is on my mind these days.  It is hard to avoid that topic in this part of the world since the Valley of the Sun will host this year’s Super Bowl and all its ancillary activities.  However, this year football’s “second season” on both the collegiate and professional level has provided insight that transcends football.  As the eagerly anticipated college football playoff unfolded, I discovered that I may not be as immune from the “winning is the only thing” philosophy whose initial articulation has been attributed (apparently incorrectly) to legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.  A similar sentiment was expressed more bluntly by the late Dale Earnhardt: “Second place is just the first loser.”  If true, what does that make the loser of the fill-in-the-blank bowl- or even its winner?  I am not the first to note that the laser-like focus on the college football playoff diminished the interest in and value of all the bowl games not connected to the playoff process.  I readily admit that there are too many bowl games for fans to sustain engagement and frequent changes in corporate sponsorship of games also adds to the confusion and indifference.  Nonetheless certain games with significant and longstanding traditions seemed to have barely penetrated fandom’s awareness this season.  With the exception of a few games in which I had a rooting interest, I remember the results of very few other games except the playoff ones.  So I must confess that I have been captured by the hype.  I am embarrassed as a result because I proclaim healthy and collaborative participation as an ultimately far more important value than the outcome of the games at our school.  Perhaps I have more in common with Vince and Dale than I would like to admit.

As both the college bowl games and NFL playoff games have unfolded, I discovered another unfortunate tendency in myself.  In the games that I watched in which I did not already have a clearly established positive rooting interest, I found myself investing my interest in rooting against one of the teams for one or another reason: perceived ethical lapses, an arrogant or annoying coach, an overbearing fan base, regional biases, etc.  I learned that such negative motivation does not sustain my interest over the long haul.  More importantly the good life lesson reinforced for me is that negativity leads us down an unhappy path in more serious life endeavors.  Rooting against a person or team does not emanate from our better nature.  And, in life’s more serious pursuits and interaction, jealousy and resentment can poison our soul – a losing proposition of utmost significance.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Not The One Thing

At last month’s conference of the National Association of Episcopal Schools there were many wonderful moments and events.  While the biennial gathering is always positive, instructive, and inspiring, this year’s conference had an especially celebratory tone as the association proudly and gratefully celebrates its golden anniversary this academic year.  (All Saints’ Episcopal Day School counts itself as a charter member of the organization.)  While there were many highlights, one of the most lasting for me was the talk delivered by noted author and clinical psychologist, Madeline Levine.  Her book The Price of Privilege has had significant influence on Episcopal and independent schools since most of our school communities can rightly be described as privileged (in many ways).  Dr. Levine is not only wise but also very funny, so her cogent insights land fairly lightly into one’s consciousness.

One of her declarations at her NAES talk was that our schools are preparing our students for ambiguity.  I believe she is absolutely correct – most young people neither expect nor want to have one “thing” that they do for the bulk of their adult lives.  However, I have also been reminded since hearing Dr. Levine that there is something in us that resists that ambiguity.  Teachers and parents are constantly searching for the one thing that children need to succeed.  There has been much recent coverage in the press about the increase in the number of college applications being filed by high school students, especially those enrolled in independent schools.  In a recent New York Times article reasons cited for this trend include the advent of the common application, the need to cast a wide net for the most favorable financial package, and perhaps most fundamentally fear that the one right school might be missed if an applicant’s target schools list is too short.  A mere two weeks later, another article in the same newspaper noted that there are still plenty of fine options for talented, accomplished, and motivated students.  Colleges and universities are apparently in no rush to discourage this wave of increased applications since it makes their acceptance rates look ever more impressive – on the theory that the lower the acceptance percentage, the better the school must be.  Sadly, I believe that the theory is probably correct because of our search for the one school that will perfectly fit each student’s needs and aspirations.

Perhaps the one thing is not so tangible as a particular school or a particular occupation or a particular place in which to live.  In her NAES address Dr. Levine also said that she “is over happy, and is now into meaning.  Maybe meaning (or conviction or passion or values or principle, if one prefers) is the one thing – a “thing” that does not lend itself to reduction or confinement to the “one things” which occupy so much of our energy and attention, especially when we ponder what is most important for our young people.  The one thing may indeed not be the one thing for them.”

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Milestones, Not Millstones

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Dr. Carson and the Advanced Honors Language Arts class celebrate Bow Tie Day with Mr. Dressel.

I have experienced two life events in recent weeks that have had a major positive impact on me.  One was my birthday late last month, my 68th.  That is not usually considered a milestone natal day, but 68 has had significant personal importance for me over the past three decades.  Each of my parents died at age 68 less than one year apart and 30+ years ago.  So for many years birthday 68 has loomed on the horizon as an aspiration and a reminder.  So when I reached that life moment recently, I was grateful for a couple reasons- one for living to see that day and one for having the opportunity to reminisce about my parents that reaching that particular birthday inspired.

Last weekend I attended my 50-year high school reunion in St. Louis, definitely a milestone moment by any measure.  I attended an all-boys Jesuit high school (almost two hundred years old itself, by the way), and there were 212 graduates in my class.  We have been most fortunate in many ways.  Only 14 of our classmates have died over the past 50 years.  Even though many of my confreres served in Vietnam, not one lost his life.  Our alma mater has contact information for 180 surviving members of the Class of 1964, and well more than half of us took part in one or more events on the reunion weekend.  The tone of the gathering was extremely positive since life has been very good for the vast majority of us and also because we have reached the “nothing to prove, but much to celebrate” time in our lives.  Our class is on the leading edge of the baby boom, with almost all of us born in 1946.  For much of our lives my generation has denied our mortality, first by not trusting anyone over 30 (an ancient age in our youth) to deceiving ourselves that 40 is the new 30, 50 the new 40, etc.  I joked with some of my classmates that the best we can claim at this point is that 68 is not as old as it was in our parents’ day.  So 68 is the new 68, but 68 nonetheless.  And for me that is a cause for rejoicing.

These events made me poignantly aware of the mystery of time and the important role our perspective plays in our perception of time.  Years ago one aspect of this mystery was brilliantly illustrated by Joni Mitchell in her song “The Circle Game.”  But in addition to its circularity, there is also a clear linear quality to the passage of time as we are reminded by Five for Fighting in their much more recent pop hit “100 years.”

But in the end, no matter where each of us is in relation to life’s circularity and timeline, what each of us has is today- and only today- to live.  And today is thus the most important milestone of all.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

So I Was Wrong

The Valley of the Sun has been in the national weather news recently for something other than triple-digit temperatures.  The unprecedented deluge on Monday, September 8, resulted in cancellation of school for the day.  Our new middle school head Paulsson Rajarigam took a bit of pleasure in reminding me of a comment I had made to him during our middle school head search last year.  In my attempts to convince him to move from the East Coast across the United States to join our school community, I mentioned to him that in Phoenix I would never ever have to make another weather-related decision regarding school closing.  (I thought this remark was a sound recruitment tactic in light of the fact that the East Coast and much of the rest of the country was enduring a particularly brutal and long winter.)  September 8 proved my statement wrong in no uncertain terms.

So I was wrong.  While the storm did have some damaging effects for some people’s property, including some school families’, there was not much at stake for me personally in having been wrong.  In fact my decision to cancel school received much more support than many of my previous weather-related decisions in other locales.  Nonetheless there is something liberating in being able to admit one’s mistake without gloss, something that has not always (and still not always) been comfortable for me to do.  Even though to be human is to be wrong and to make mistakes at times, something in us resists accepting and admitting those moments in straightforward fashion.

There is also something liberating in admitting mistakes without qualifications.  I have in the past attempted to nuance my acknowledgement with “if” clauses along the lines of “If someone was offended by my actions/remarks” or “If my words did not clearly express what I wanted to say.”  In order to become the people we are called to be, we must move to more clarity and directness in acknowledging moments when we are mistaken.  If we are unable to admit errors without qualification about matters such as our inadequate meteorological forecasting, we certainly will find it very difficult to admit mistakes when our words or actions cause substantial impact such as hurt and other unfortunate consequences for people, especially those about whom we care the most.

Until next time…

My Best,

Leo

One of One, Not One of 50+

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Eighth Grade Lunch with Mr. Taylor’s Advisory

At the beginning of each school year I enjoy hosting lunches for each of our eighth grade advisory groups so that I can connect with our oldest students in a smaller group setting as they embark on their last year in our school.  At these lunches I ask each group if anyone has any questions or suggestions for me.  At today’s lunch one student asked me how long I have taught.  There were looks of disbelief around the table when I mentioned that my first teaching job started in the fall of 1971.  The looks were understandable since that year is three lifetimes ago for our eighth graders.

Coincidentally, I had recently counted how many school years I have enjoyed as student, teacher, or administrator.  It’s well past 50 years and could be even higher were I to count some years when I had oversight responsibilities for a group of Jesuit high schools in a particular region.  I did not do this tally in order to pat myself on the back for my durability and staying power but rather to savor the gratitude I still felt as I began this year at All Saints’.  I am graced to have spent so many years in environments I love and that I find deeply enriching and engaging.

That in turn led me to reflect on something from that first teaching assignment, which took place at a Jesuit high school in Kansas City.  One of my colleagues there was a jovial Jesuit priest who at that point had been teaching Latin at the school for several decades.  Whenever anyone remarked about something that happened at school on a given day, the priest would chuckle and utter the following: “It happens every year!”  I found myself annoyed by that response, and I finally figured out the reason.  The priest, who clearly had admirable qualities of persistence and commitment, apparently did not embrace the newness- in fact the uniqueness- of every year.  From his perspective he had replicated the same year dozens of time, and in that approach is something unsettling and unsatisfactory.

So ultimately it matters less that this is my fiftieth+ school year than that 2014-15 is the one and only year that each of us at All Saints’ have been gifted.  If I do not embrace this year as precious and unique, I shortchange my eighth grade lunch companions and everyone else at our school.  If “it happens every year” is my default response, then I shall have ignored the special possibilities that this year offers.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Advancing by Retreating

By now most people have heard the joke about the three best things about working in schools: June, July, and August.  For years I have been asked some version of a related question: Do you work during the summer?  What exactly do you do all summer?

There is certainly some truth underlying the above sentiments and questions.  There is an indisputable change of pace at school during the summer.  In my case there are far fewer meetings, far fewer events, and indeed far less excitement. 

The key is for one to embrace that change of pace as an opportunity to re-group, re-vision, and re-focus.  A couple of recent experiences in which I have participated since the end of the 2013-14 school year have heightened my awareness of that opportunity.  The day after our last day of school and graduation, I began a Memorial Day weekend retreat at the Franciscan Renewal Center here.  The timing of the retreat was in fact exquisite since the contrast between the peacefulness of the retreat and the end-of-school rush could not have been more dramatic.  The retreat gave me a chance to reflect on what type of person I am at this moment in my life, all within a spiritual and faith-based context.  So the question at the heart of the experience is this: What kind of person have I been during the school year just completed?  What kind of person do I choose to be going forward?  I realize that many (most?) people do not have the ability to spend a weekend on a retreat.  But there is a way for every person to structure a few moments each day in reflecting on questions like the ones cited above.

Earlier this week I attended the June meeting for heads of member schools of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS).  As is the custom with this annual June gathering, the meeting took place at a vacation destination setting- this year in Colorado Springs (no, not the Broadmoor).  The program was of very high quality, but the schedule was more leisurely than at most of our meetings.  The focus shifted from the “being” reflections of the retreat to the “doing” reflections related to my work as a school leader.  The questions that emerged during our meeting were related to practical matters like risk management, donor-centered fundraising, legal issues, and grit and self-control as predictors of success. 

During our afternoon free from any program presentations, I chose to join a group that rode the cog railway to the summit of Pike’s Peak.  There are few things more effective in providing a person a healthy perspective than taking in the panoramic vista from 14,000 feet above sea level- at least in those moments when one is not a bit lightheaded.  My Pike’s Peak experience tied the two experiences together- retreat and meeting- in dramatic fashion.  Being and doing are two important elements in life.  Congruence between who we are and what we do is essential if we are to live lives of integrity and authenticity.  And that mountain peak also reminded me once again not to inflate my role in the grand scheme of things!    

Until next time… 

My best,

Leo

May Energy

Last week Ann Mellow, Associate Director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES), visited Episcopal schools in Arizona- including All Saints’.  As part of her visit to All Saints’, she was able to attend CrossWORLDS.  CrossWORLDS is an annual multicultural celebration at our school.  Her experience of the event- and particularly our art show- inspired her latest blog that I am happy to share with readers of this blog.

I was lucky to visit All Saints’ Episcopal Day School in Phoenix, Arizona this past week while the spring art show was on display. As I entered the art studio, I noticed a simple, hand-painted sign which read, “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.”

This sign really made me stop and think. It did not assume eventual bad behavior (such as the “seven deadly sins of the art room” I once saw posted in a middle school art studio). Nor did it invoke creativity, hard work, focus, or any number of other specific attributes. Instead, it simply asked us be mindful and intentional, recognizing that whatever we bring into a room affects not only ourselves, but others.

May is a crazy time of year in schools. Ironically, just when the year is “winding down” we feel more frazzled than ever. Frustration comes easily, and our quotient of mercy can be all used up. Maybe some students have displayed an appalling lack of judgment in the last weeks of school. Perhaps the overload of school events and field trips has worn us thin. Maybe, like the students, we find ourselves counting the days until school is out.

It’s a time to pay extra attention to the energy we bring into our classrooms, schools, homes, and relationships — and to help our colleagues, students, and parents in those moments when the end-of-year-frazzles threaten to get the better of us.

Ann’s reflections resonate strongly with me, and her reference to “our quotient of mercy” is particularly compelling.  That term also put me in mind of a consistent concern addressed by Pope Francis.  He has spoken regularly about the perniciousness of gossip; the language he uses in speaking of the evils of rumor and gossip is uncompromising.  At various times he has spoken of gossip as poison or social murder and urged people to join him in being “conscientious objectors” to gossip.  One of the reasons for the high esteem with which many people of various traditions regard Pope Francis is that he speaks frankly and regularly about real-life issues.  The Pope’s words about the effect of rumor and gossip in a church apply just as much to a school like this one.  Gossip is a real-life issue for our school community, one more distressing in light of the values articulated in The All Saints’ Way to which our community aspires.  As we seek the energy we need in May, perhaps we can commit together to being conscientious objectors to gossip so that our quotient of mercy will not be sadly depleted in damaging ways.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

The Virtue of Single Tasking

Since so many of us pride ourselves on how much work we can accomplish, myself certainly included, I think it time to make the case for the virtue of single tasking as opposed to the limits of multitasking.  Actually I do not have to make the case since multiple research-based cases have been made that multitasking is not all it has been cracked up to be. 

Of course the negative consequences of multitasking vary wildly in term of the damage done.  The most tragic consequence is chillingly and graphically presented in public service announcements urging people to refrain from texting and driving.  The case could not be more compelling, but this phenomenon has not been eliminated in spite of the dire warnings.  

On the other end of the spectrum are those moments of leisure where the stakes are not very high: reading a newspaper while glancing at the television perhaps with headphones sending music in our ears.  Perhaps in that instance we are not really multitasking; we’re escaping from all tasks through sensory overload.  

My concern is about those middle-range activities, important but not necessarily life-changing in and of themselves.  I include items like reading a book, writing a letter, paying bills, having a conversation, doing homework, watching a performance, or writing a blog. 

One can only conclude that we all think we are better at multitasking than the research evidence indicates.  If doing one thing is good, two is better, and on and on.  But we are definitely in the land of diminishing returns.  In fact we are not saving time, the quality of our task performance is diminished, and mistakes are more plentiful.  Nonetheless we resist these realities, perhaps because the menu of options for each of us grows daily.  There is no little irony that the term multitasking was first used to describe computer capabilities.  Alas, we are people, not computers.  (That’s good news, by the way.) 

For me a great aid to single tasking is list making.  Such lists have proven invaluable to me over the years as I have worked to sharpen my focus.  Lists need to be limited.  Otherwise we are sorely tempted to multitask since that is the only way to address (inadequately) a list that is too long.  Lists also need to be prioritized: first things first.  If on a given day, I have not accomplished one or more tasks on the list, it is most likely for one of two reasons.  My list is too long, or I have deferred a challenging task that ought to have been first on my to-do list- not last.  

Until next time… 

My best,

Leo