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

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

IMG_3593

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