Head's Corner, January 29, 2013

January 29, 2013

I trust that you had a fabulous weekend.  Hopefully you were able to stay warm amidst the frigid temperatures and sub-zero wind chill factor.  Despite glacial conditions this weekend, faculty, staff, current and prospective families came to CMS on Saturday to find warmth as they enrolled in Montessori 101, a class designed to give the CMS community a basic overview of Montessori principles.  The class, offered by Toddler and Primary Program Director Katelyn Ryan, has been offered twice this year and will meet next Saturday afternoon.  Additional CMS faculty members will offer subsequent classes for the duration of the year.  Immediately following Montessori 101, families also enjoyed learning more about our Passport Summer Program during their first Open House.  Passport Program Director Sara MacMillan and her staff set up shop in the gym and entertained students with various play stations (not the videogame) and a cheerful artist who transformed balloons into animals, cars, airplanes, characters and other lively objects.  My heart warms every time I think about the commitment that we are continually making to engage our entire community.  It is what makes us so special.

Yesterday, I sat with a group of 20 Heads of Schools from all over New England at the Association of Independent Schools of New England (AISNE) Board meeting that was held at Milton Academy.  I always marvel at the discussions that Heads of Schools have.  I often think of it as a posturing session.  In spite of the Association’s opposition to participating in Boston Magazine’s Annual List of the Top Independent Schools, our meetings can sometimes turn into a “who’s who” among the 180 AISNE member schools.  Prior to delving deeply into our agenda for the day, we engaged in friendly chatter that often includes conversations about endowments, secondary school and college placements, new endeavors, professional development opportunities, and the list goes on.  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would become a part of a group that could be perceived as a bunch of stuffy, bow-tie-wearing, tweed-suit-having, New-York-Times-reading, Ivy League, wannabe liberals even though their appearance screams Brooks Brothers.  

When I was growing up, my perception of private schools and those that were employed by them was everything and more than I just mentioned.  Yet, when I am in the presence of my counterparts, I suddenly transform into some mere figure of my three-decade old perception of the independent school administrator. Some might psychoanalyze me and say that I’m assimilating, or that I am not comfortable with myself so I must become something that I am not.  I promise you that is not the case.  Ah, file that under "never"!  I’ve been known for a lot of things; however suffering from a low self-esteem and struggling with identity issues are certainly not characteristics that I have been associated with.

Any who, our agenda for the day was to review the survey results that we administered to all of our member schools in an effort to prepare us for AISNE’s Strategic Plan.  As we mined the qualitative data, it became increasingly clear to me that schools throughout our region are grappling with the same things that school heads from all across the country discussed at the retreat I attended last week.  And, most importantly, the same issues that we grapple with here at CMS.  The top five concerns are fundraising, marketing, long term sustainability, technology, and safety.  Developing 21st century skills is a no-brainer.  

I quickly thought about the lessons learned from none other than my loving, quick wit, no-filter-having dear mom.  She’s the reason that I don’t suffer from a low self-esteem or struggle with identity issues.  She had a very creative way of normalizing everyone.  I remember her response to my desire to have Gloria Vanderbilt and Sergio Valenti jeans (yes I’m dating myself).  She said, “Honey, I wish I would spend our hard earned money on making Gloria and Sergio any richer than they already are.  I’ll tell you what, I’ll sew your name on a pair of jeans and everyone will know who you are.”  It didn’t stop there.  Whenever my siblings and I would rave about some pop or movie star, she would gently remind us that they eat, drink and use the restroom (that’s not exactly how she put it) just like everybody else, and furthermore their blood and tears were the same as ours.  Well alrighty then!

What in God’s name do these lessons have to do with my early perception of private schools and my desire to compete with the best and brightest every chance I get?  Simply everything, my dear Watson!  Simply everything.  As I listened to my colleagues pour their hearts out about the same issues that keep me up at nights, I began to see them beyond their outer appearance and could completely empathize with them.  I also understand that in 2013, independent schools have many external competitors:  other independent schools, public schools, charter schools, on-line education, savvy consumers and affordability, just to name a few.  There is a great deal of uncertainty and we are all quite vulnerable.  

According to Jim Collins, author of From Good to Great and Great By Choice, leaders are faced with a tremendous amount of uncertainty and those leaders who thrive in uncertainty have certain behaviors that set them apart from the rest of the pack.  Collins said that these leaders are fanatically disciplined; display extreme consistency of action, consistent with values, goals, performance standards and methods; they are utterly relentless, monomaniacal, unbending in their focus on their quests.  They are empirically creative when faced with uncertainty.  They don’t look primarily to other people, conventional wisdom, authority figures or peers for direction; they look primarily to empirical evidence.  They rely upon direct observation, practical experimentation and direct engagement with tangible evidence.  They make their bold, creative moves from a sound empirical base.  Collins said they also have productive paranoia.  They stay highly attuned to threats and changes in their environment even when things are going well.  They assume conditions will turn against them, at perhaps the worst possible moment.  They channel their fear and worry into action, preparing and developing contingency plans, building buffers and maintaining large margins of safety (36 & 37, Collins).

My perception of my independent school counterparts were all wrong, well with the exception of the tweed suits, bow-ties, reading the New York Times, and being stuffy at times.  I, too, have been known to wear a tweed suit or two.  I proudly read the Times, and if chose to wear a tie, it would probably be a bow tie.  We can all be stuffy at times, depending on our moods.  Stuffy is just an invisible wall that we put up to shield our vulnerabilities.  I guess what I’m saying is that I completely understand the need for School Heads to posture and market their schools by any means necessary.  Why should we sit back and quietly applaud the work that we do on a daily basis.  After discussing social trends in education, consultant Heather Dowdy, asked us what do we do well in spite of recent trends.  She also challenged us to think about how we will thrive in uncertainty.  

As I slipped off into a comatose state of thought, I realized that CMS has a great team and game plan in place for many years to come.  If you’d like to hear the details, please join us this evening at the State of Our School in the gym at 6PM.  You will see and hear many reasons to celebrate all that we have accomplished in the past year and all that we will accomplish in years to come!  I look forward to seeing you there!

Warm Regards,

Dr. Ingrid Tucker

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