Community Conversations and Hillside Chats are two new programs in the Upper School that were created by both our student government and our Upper School team. Both provide opportunities for our students to engage in respectful dialogue on topics and issues of interest; often the topics are related to what is happening in the real world, as was the case this week. Our teachers and trained facilitators ensured that students were able to discuss the topic of healthy relationships in small group settings.
With all that is happening on the national stage, it is easy for students, and even for us as adults, to slip into a mindset that assumes the purpose of a conversation about healthy relationships is to change someone else’s mind, or is ultimately about politics. Schools do not take political positions, and educators do not go into teaching to advance their political viewpoints. Our teachers are well skilled in helping our students to listen, question and share with integrity and respect. All top academic schools include a robust character education program within the scope of the school’s curriculum. Tower Hill is no different, as we know that these opportunities help train our students to develop their voices, to share their opinions and to become engaged and compassionate critical thinkers.
As we guide our students in making sense of the world around them, it is important to ensure that they have hope and develop the tools for optimism. We want our children to understand and grapple with the world’s problems, and we also want to expose them to examples of people and events that have brought goodness to our world. There are surely situations and events that can trouble us or make us anxious, so it is especially important that schools create age-appropriate spaces for conversation that result in hope and optimism. Colleen Wilcox, superintendent of the public school system in Santa Clara, California, is known for the statement, “Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.” With that, I think of our teachers as caretakers of hope. Hope is at some level a character strength; Martin Seligman’s recent book, The Hope Circuit, provides a fascinating window into the power of positive psychology, learned optimism and the methodology of resilience.
The Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education offers the following parent tips for instilling optimism in children:
Promote an optimistic, explanatory style in responding to both your children’s and your own disappointments, framing adversity as temporary.
Limit exposure to negativity and cynicism. Shift your family’s focus way from relentless situations of dire situations that may enhance a sense of helplessness.
Monitor how much cynicism creeps into family conversation, and be ready to interject hopeful, positive counter examples.
Teach and model gratitude for the opportunities that exist within each new challenge.
As our week concludes with continued coverage of the Supreme Court nomination, investigation and selection, I share the piece below written by a former English teacher colleague of mine, Peter Baily, who spoke at my installation four years ago, is a former head of school, a fellow ADVIS trustee and currently executive director of The Association of Independent Maryland and D.C. Schools. His message is especially important as we consider our responsibility to ensure optimism and hope as independent school communities.
Message shared with ADVIS (Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools) from Peter Baily, executive director of AIMS (Association of Maryland and D.C. Independent Schools):
These recent days have not been a comfortable time for independent schools, and particularly for our AIMS schools in Maryland and Washington, D.C. The allegations regarding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have brought forth sad and deeply troubling questions about the culture of our school communities. I suspect that many of us listened to at least a portion of the Judiciary Committee hearings last Thursday, and that we have been absorbing new developments and commentary since then. We are in the midst of a time of tumultuous socio-political dynamics.
Many of us may be experiencing sadness, regret, anger, and uncertainty. I know that I am. Two alumni of AIMS schools – Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford – have both participated in extraordinarily public and painful hearings in which the most intimate experiences and recollections from their high school days were called into question. These two people have become figures of national importance, caught in the intense turmoil of our collective effort to understand, and grow beyond, the toxic habits of mind and behavior that result in sexual harassment, assault, and injury. And they are also individual human beings who were students in our schools, as were many of their friends. The gatherings and activities they described in their testimony took place in our schools, among students and families like those with whom we work today. Thus, they have become proxies in a deeply felt national conversation, and in a very particular conversation about our individual school communities, here in Maryland and DC.
Each of our AIMS schools was founded with a distinct and aspirational mission, a mission that has been nurtured, strengthened, refined and re-affirmed over time. Each school has been upheld by trustees, leaders, teachers, students, families, and alumni for decades, or in some cases for centuries. Our schools have helped to shape and to transform the lives of students for generations, and those students have in turn helped to shape and to transform the world in which we live. But in times of intense challenge like this, we are reminded forcefully that our schools, like our students and faculties, must continue to question themselves, to look both inward and outward, to learn from what is painful about the past (and the present) and to create a future that is increasingly safe, equitable, respectful, and inclusive for all.
Some of you have shared with me the conversations that you have had with students, colleagues, and families about the events and commentaries that have appeared in the media. Some of you have shared personal experiences in your own schools. Some of you have shared letters written by school leaders, recognizing ways that we may have fallen short, and describing programs and strategies that support both students and adults in our efforts to better understand the layered dynamics of equity, privilege, power, and gender relations. What these stories and conversations and commitments have in common is that they engage each school’s mission, the honored principles by which each school aspires to do its best work.
In difficult times, in heartfelt conversations, in the turbulence, our missions are essential resources and guides. As professionals, our most noble and powerful work may be called forth in times of great strain and complexity. I believe that the time we are living in right now can be a time of enormous growth for ourselves, our students, and our schools, and I know that is our shared hope as a community of AIMS schools.