A talk with parents on the Opening of School
Head of School Tad Roach delivered this talk to parents during our 2017 Opening of School weekend.
On behalf of the faculty and Class of 2018, we are proud to welcome you to St. Andrew's Opening Day.
You and your families have brought such excitement, energy, hope, and expectation to our community today, and we understand these emotions also collide with a bit of anxiety and a lot of love for your sons and daughters. We have tried to meet all these powerful emotions with a radical expression of hospitality, generosity, and goodness.
This ritual of welcome is a literal and metaphorical expression of the values of our school, our community, our culture. It is just the beginning of our exploration and cultivation of what Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry recalls as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of "the beloved community." It is just the beginning of our cultivation of a community that is thoughtful, judicious, responsible, generous, patient, inclusive, and kind. It is just the beginning of our redefinition of the purpose and spirit of the American boarding school. It is just the beginning of our response to a country and a world that has fallen into staggering and destructive polarities. It is just a beginning of our desire to cultivate honor, integrity, and truth in our personal and civic lives. And yes, this is just a beginning for St. Andrew's response to the KKK, Neo-Nazi groups, and white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, three weeks ago.
As you know, beginnings are important -- the first days, weeks, and months of a school year open up opportunities for such deep and significant change, growth, development, intention, and focus, particularly for those who are new.
The opening days of a year gives a school the opportunity to introduce our new students and new parents to the voice, the narrative style, the promise of St. Andrew's. We have cultivated all kinds of words and phrases to signal that this school's mission cannot be confined within the narrow, individualistic bounds of the American independent school: we have, we say, an ethos, a spirit, and a soul: we are a countercultural community, we are a private school with a public purpose, we are a school of opportunity, we are a school open to all regardless of means, we are a school that establishes its identity and reputation not on the ancient past of prep school prestige, but rather on the vitality, creativity, and energy of its students, faculty, and alumni. We are the boarding school that inspires a new generation of teachers. We are a family; we are a community that excels in the art of rescue, we practice radical hospitality, radical listening, and radical empathy. We are a school that does not force our students to wait and postpone their engagement with the problems and dilemmas facing our world. We are a school that rejects and denounces racism, intolerance, bigotry, hate, and violence. We honor our diversity of race, ethnicity, politics, worldviews, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, and ability. We honor argument, dialogue. We find common ground, common good, friendship, grace as we come together and assert calmly and patiently what the nation and world might look like.
In Student Life, we have replaced senior class power, authority, and hierarchy with senior class responsibility, stewardship, and support. At a time when many seniors across America begin their year with an obsessive focus on self, on individual promotion, achievement, and application, on the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs, St. Andrew's seniors open their hearts and mind to the cultivation of community and the care and stewardship of new students. They honor their own seniors who guided and mentored them in preceding years, and they also seek to put into action all their own aspirations for goodness, for inclusivity, for community. They promise to be role models; they promise to listen, to be proactive, responsive, empathetic, and patient. They do this work because the cultivation of community, the expression and human understanding and care is the highest exhibition of what they have learned in the school.
I spent a lot of time listening to our seniors last week as they analyzed their own one, two, and three year journeys towards their senior year. They are ready to be tremendous leaders and mentors for your sons and daughters. They want to excel in the art of creating moments of understanding, support, and appreciation that make all the difference in a new student's transition. They are interested in developing the discipline and habit of heart of kindness. Here is how senior Emma Tapscott described their hopes and commitments:
I think it just comes down to being altruistically and unconditionally kind. Because in those moments no one is going to hold you accountable for not going out of your way to make someone feel included. No one is going to hold you accountable in that moment, so I think you have to hold yourself accountable, because you've been there too, and because it's the right thing to do. At my middle school we had this motto: be kinder than necessary. I think that's what we just need to do: be kinder than necessary, kinder than people expect you to be, and kinder than you might want to be in that moment, even though absolutely nobody is going to notice if you aren't.
Of course, the narrative of a year at St. Andrew's emerges most powerfully through the work of the faculty. A number of years ago, Louis Menand wrote the following words about the teaching profession:
The only way to develop curiosity, sympathy, principle of independence of mind is to practice being curious, sympathetic, principled, and independent. For those of us who are teachers, it isn't what we teach that instills virtue -- it's how we teach. We are the books our students read most closely.
Menand suggests that the way to understand the brilliance and commitment of a teacher is to witness how she models in the classroom the virtues and habits of mind and heart she expects in her students. At St. Andrew's, we teach to empower students, to build their confidence, their voice, their skills of collaboration and teamwork. We seek to cultivate independence, agility, and creativity of thought, to explore questions and concerns in judicious ways, to separate fact from fiction, truth from distortion, to tie education to a public purpose. We teach, honoring Ted Sizer's suggestion, that we adopt a culture of "unanxious expectation." We teach to unleash student passion, creativity, and commitment.
Therefore, you will see in our faculty a portrait of the very qualities of scholarship we hope to cultivate in the coming years. You will witness their passion for their work and for their disciplines; you will hear how they honor the art of teaching in every class; you will realize that rather than teaching ideology of instruction, your child will experience a broad and flexible array of teaching practices. You will understand that the teaching life keeps us curious, alert, creative, and passionate. And as the world seems to swing erratically from crisis to crisis, you will find coherence, stability, courage, and hope here.
Over the last several weeks, members of the faculty have shared their views on teaching by writing their own versions of what Jonathan Kozol entitled Letters to a Young Teacher. Here are excerpts:
"Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, being passionate about your subject is the surest way to convince students that this is a journey worth having."
"Try to be kind and generous at all times. Students want to be visible and need your encouragement and support. They all want to be pushed and challenged. These two elements -- love and rigor -- are not in opposition. They need to go hand in hand."
"This work cannot be done without trust. If each student feels that you are making an effort to get to know him exactly where he is, he will be more open to the learning process and more committed to the larger group."
"Teaching is primarily a career which requires a love of people, the human condition, and most importantly a love of working with teenagers.
"'Go for broke,' James Baldwin starts there and that's where to start. You need to have a sense of urgency in everything you do as a teacher -- every moment of class preparation, of class discussion, of casual interaction with a student in the hall matters. They all have a weight and meaning for our students far beyond what we ourselves ever realize."
"The notion that some people are just born to teach and just have to show up is a myth. Most of the best teachers will tell you that great teaching all starts with preparation. If I leave you with one piece of advice today, I want you to know this -- you must prepare, and then prepare some more."
"Get to know your students: their passions, interests, strengths and weaknesses... listen attentively to them, inspire, and guide them so they discover new ideas, new possibilities. Challenge them so you can measure their growth; ask them to think, rework, accept, or reject their assumptions about the world and the way in which they engage in it."
"It is crucial that your students know how much you care about them, believe in them, and are committed to their success. This means you need to get to know them, you need to be consistent, and you need to be fair...you are already a teacher I wish every child could be blessed to have. The teaching profession just gained a star. Your job is to make sure you shine as bright as you can."
"If my explanations or passion did not produce understanding and interest in the students, then, they were insufficient. When I would answer an interpretive question or immediately share my perspective, it would not give the students a chance to form their own."
"Make sure you are teaching things that excite you, that make you laugh and cry every day."
"As a math teacher, you want to create an atmosphere where students feel totally comfortable sharing thoughts and strategies, even if they might make a mistake or take a wrong turn somewhere. You will learn that students feel that being wrong is bad and mistakes are bad -- until they enter your class, that is. In your class, they will learn that mistakes lead to growth, success, achievement."
"Some of the best teaching happens in those beautiful moments when something unexpected happens, and the direction of the class suddenly shifts. You have to be ready and willing to go when that moment arises."
"Educators need to be mentally prepared to give their heart and soul when teaching, especially if the plan is to make a change in a student's life."
"A key component of living a robust and rewarding life in teaching is to balance the need to nurture one's own creative self-expression while remaining alert to, and giving thoughtful consideration to the adoption of outside ideas."
"It is time for you to listen. Part of being an adult now is that your story is secondary to theirs. When I started teaching, I thought that my role, even after listening, was to give an answer, a direction, a nugget of insight. But I really believe our role is to keep listening, keep the student speaking, keep the student reflecting. I don't believe in removing myself from the discussion, but I think teachers can be better listeners."
"The art of listening is a radical act. It can change the direction of an institution."
We as a faculty understand that at St. Andrew's we have both the responsibility and the opportunity not only to model what a life of scholarship looks like: we have the opportunity to guide and model leadership, integrity, empathy, and grace in our lives. As teachers we are well aware of our potential collective impact and influence on our incredible students. We seek to model an adult professional life that is joyous, balanced, resilient, and disciplined. We seek to cultivate independence, autonomy, and creativity in your sons and daughters.
A great senior class: a caring, brilliant, human, and vibrant faculty -- a mission that never fails to bring us to our full attention, commitment, and effort -- and now you, your child, your family joining with students and parents from all across the nation and the world to create a school of hope, promise, and expectation. We are going to take this school to new heights over the next four years. We are going to be part of a national, global movement towards enlightenment and illumination. We are going to be a part of a movement that seeks understanding, reconciliation, and peace.
We hope you as adults always feel the energy and goodness and grace of the St. Andrew's community lift your spirits, your energy, your intention to fight for and witness a culture of human rights and respect in the world. We will do our best to share the messages our faculty students and staff create over the coming months.
You in turn can deepen the conversation and energy of the school whenever you visit, whenever you meet with our students as guests in your homes and communities. You can help spread the word about a school that values character, leadership, engagement, and kindness as an essential condition of exemplary teaching and learning. You can explain that St. Andrew's financial aid program opens doors of opportunity to nearly 50 percent of our students. You can connect us to leaders who will inspire our students and faculty the way Bryan Stevenson did last year.
Of course, in these early weeks of transition, we will be carefully constructing an intricate web of support for each new student: advisor, dorm parents, classroom teachers, coaches, directors will connect with and communicate with our new students, all the while sending the unmistakable message that your son or daughter is welcome here, will flourish here, will contribute here, will serve here. We will contact you if we have any concerns with your child's transition, and of course, we welcome your calls or emails at any time that you are concerned, anxious. We recommend that you not visit campus in the first two weeks of school, but of course, that is just a recommendation, not a prohibition. The same goes true both for texting and other forms of instant communication. Especially in these early weeks, and yes, most of the time, less instant communication is better. Letters and good long phone calls are good!
You may have heard about United States Defense Secretary James Mattis' talk with American soldiers in Jordan last week. It is featured in Peggy Noonan's essay in The Wall Street Journal. Here is part of what he said to the young men and women in our country seated in front of him:
You're a great example of our country right now. It's got some problems -- you know it and I know it. It's got problems that we don't have in the military, And you just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it, of being friendly to one another. That's what Americans owe to one another.
It is a great speech and a good phrase: hold the line; stay strong, disciplined, and courageous until reinforcements arrive.
And maybe that's part of what we are all about as a school, as a community, as a nation, as a world. Hold the line on human rights, on justice, on mercy, on understanding, on empathy, on generosity -- against the forces threatening humanity and the natural world. And then, having held the line, move forward with a spirit of love, expectation, and faith in our capacity to create and fulfill a new world of peace and understanding.