“You made a difference in my life, and I am sorry I never told you so.”

I recently had the opportunity to speak with our wonderful middle school students in chapel. My actual speech was perhaps a little different than the way I wrote it. I hope the kids took me up on my challenge!

“You made a difference in my life, and I am sorry I never told you so.”

I heard this recently, and I honestly cannot remember where I was. Maybe I was at a teaching conference, listening to an inspiring educator. Maybe I was right here in chapel, listening to someone reflect on their past. The reason I don’t remember is because it is very common.

It is too common because sometimes, we do not appreciate all that we have, and we very often do not appreciate the things people do for us. In this case, the speaker was telling a story about how a former student came up to him decades later. Something had been gnawing at the student who was now an adult. He finally found the teacher and thanked him for all he did for him many years ago, and he also apologized for not having done it sooner.

“You made a difference in my life, and I am sorry I never told you so.” A simple statement, but a powerful sentiment.

I don’t know if you know this, but my wife is a former teacher. She taught first grade for many years, and she recently received this email.

Hello!  This is an old student of yours (and I mean old)!  You had me for 1st grade in 1993. I’m not sure if you’ll remember me, but I just wanted to let you know that you were by far the most caring and wonderful teacher I’ve ever had, and that to this day I think back to your classroom with a smile.  Just wanted to say thank you for being a wonderful person, and I hope you are doing well these days!

That email probably took her 30 seconds to write, but I will tell you my wife felt great for weeks!

I joined Facebook in January of 2008. I had to look it up. I remember hearing that all of my upper school students were using Facebook, and I wanted to see what it was all about. I assumed it was some silly thing for kids to use to gossip, but I was pleasantly surprised. I joined and people from my past started “friending” me, and it allowed me to catch up with everyone. But the biggest joy for me was when my former students and players I coached reached out and connected. They just wanted to say hello and see what I was up to. They shared their favorite memories of my classroom,  and they thanked me. It made me feel so good to know I made a difference. And the bonus for me was that many of them went on to become teachers.

Recently, a student I taught in 8th grade found me on Facebook and told me that he was constantly ridiculed as a kid because he was very short and because he was, in his words, “different.” He thanked me for always making him feel special and safe in my classroom. I cannot tell you how happy this made me.

An EA teacher just received a note from an alumna, who is about my age. Here is an excerpt of what she wrote about one of our teachers at Episcopal:

She was my physics teacher but she became so much more! She became my advisor and a great friend at EA. We all loved her dedication to making us believe we could do anything, even when it was really challenging…Most of all, though, we loved the love we got from her! She treated us all fairly and with a gentle hand and made us smile even in the midst of challenges. I remember her telling me that I could do anything because it was all possible and that I had talent within, even when high school got a little rough for me….She was a wonderful example of a great teacher, a great friend, and a great mentor.

When teachers hear something like this, it changes their lives.

So when I heard the story about the student finding his teacher many years later to thank him for making a difference but also apologizing for never saying so earlier, I thought of you. I thought of you because you have a special gift. You have the gift of not going through your whole life and regretting you haven’t said thank you. When I heard that story, it made me want to come here and ask you to give thanks to someone.

Find a way…Find a person…Find a reason…Be creative!

What are some creative ways people have said thank you?

If you sit with your friends at lunch today and talk for 5 minutes about this, you will think of a dozen different and creative ways to thank someone. It can be a surprise like the bank commercial, or it could be something very simple. Think of a teacher or someone here at school whom you want to thank and find a way to tell them.

Do it together…Do it by yourself…Make it anonymous if you would like

The point is, it does not matter how you do it. It matters that you do it.

If you want, you could let me know what you came up with. I’d love to hear from you. Share with me what you did and why you did it. I promise you it will make you feel good.

All teachers have a few examples of these because we are very lucky to be rewarded each day with the gift of working with young people. And sometimes, someone will go out of his or her way just to say thank you. And when they do, I can tell you it means the world to us.

Mesmerizing Dance: Arts on the Move was moving

DSC_0730I am continually impressed by the quality of the Arts program at Episcopal. Thursday night I attended “Arts on the Move,” and once again, I was blown away. I was prepped for the evening with a wonderful early morning chapel that focused on music and the spirituality of it. The jazz band and string ensemble played, and Mr. Erwin courageously took to his acoustic guitar and eventually got us all singing “We Shall Overcome” hand in hand. What I love about the evening event was the blending of the arts. There was instrumental music (both with group and individual performances), dance, visual art, and theater. Student and teacher passion, collaboration, and dedication were all on display.

I may have to convert this to several posts, but let me begin with Dance. It seems our dance program just keeps growing and improving. From Brian Sean’s solo masterpiece to the power of the ensemble pieces, I was touched by the athleticism, teamwork, and true artistic sense of the group. Leah Marchant opened the evening tapping along with the Jazz band, and over the course of the next 45 minutes, I was treated to a stylistic and funny number with “Clue,” an amazing ensemble piece with “Underground,” and a truly powerful interpretation of Maya Angelou’s “Touched By an Angel.” The use of light and music heightened the emotional impact for me.

I often sit and wonder about the educational aspects of the student experience, but I must confess, our dancers had me lost in the moment. I can only now reflect on all that they must have been taught, all they thought about, and all the hours they put in to make this amazing. I reflect on it now because last night I was simply mesmerized. They demonstrated what we heard earlier in the day- the arts have an inspirational power to touch our spirit. Bravo!

Mission Driven (Part II): Inspiration is the key!

Last week I wrote that I referenced our mission statement in my opening address to the faculty:

Challenging and nurturing Mind, Body, and Spirit, we inspire boys and girls to lead lives of purpose, faith, and integrity.

But in addition to the fact that I feel my own personal philosophy is closely aligned with EA’s mission, I wanted to share another insight about the power of our mission.

I think the most important part of the mission statement might just be the word “inspire.” I believe when we are at our best, we are inspiring our students and each other.

As I get to know our faculty better, I thought it was important for me to share with them some of my beliefs about education.

Content Knowledge is important.

Pedagogy is important.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge is important.

Good teaching can be learned (I believe in the growth mindset)

And…

I believe in the art of teaching.

When you see a great teacher teach, there is an inspirational magic to it. The beauty that only artists can attain flows through the classroom.

I then asked each teacher to share with me at some point in the year a moment of true inspiration. I look forward to sharing those magical moments with you. Have a great year!

Mission Driven (Part I): Personal Alignment

In my opening speech to faculty this year I referenced our mission statement:

Challenging and nurturing Mind, Body, and Spirit, we inspire boys and girls to lead lives of purpose, faith, and integrity.

When I applied for the position of Head of School, I was required to submit a statement of my educational philosophy. In this opening excerpt, I notice the close connection to the EA mission:

It is our responsibility as educators to vigorously challenge and support each and every student, and it is this dual focus that creates a synergy to empower all learners to stretch toward their potential.

I go on to explain a bit more about what I mean:

Schools must emphasize high cognitive demand, engaging tasks, and lofty expectations so that students are able to reach new academic heights. We must however, pay equal attention to creating supportive environments that allow students to take risks, make connections with others, and feel, in every sense of the word, “safe.”

From my very first day here, I felt that EA was a good fit for me as a leader. I see countless examples each day of challenging and nurturing. It is what we believe in, and I am proud that I witness not only a pursuit of academic excellence but also a rigorous commitment to community.

Every time I talk with someone who has been here a while, I hear powerful anecdotes about the strength of the community. It seems everyone has an “EA was there for me” story.

The beginning of the year is a great time to remember why we are here, confirm our beliefs and mission, and acknowledge our gratitude for all we have.

Why is online learning important?

I do not feel the need to pit online learning against “bricks and mortar” learning. And for us at EA, it does need to be an either/or situation. It is my hope that all of our courses are academically rigorous, interesting, and inspiring-no matter the format. It does seem to me the field of online learning is becoming increasingly relevant and that we have a responsibility to gain some experience.

Consider these three statistics from the Sloan Consortium study.

  • Over 7.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2012 term, an increase of 411,000 students over the previous year.
  • Thirty-three percent of higher education students now take at least one course online.
  • Ninety percent of academic leaders believe that it is likely or very likely that a majority of all higher education students will be taking at least one online course in five year’s time.

If our students have not already experienced online learning, it seems obvious they will soon. As a part of our college preparatory mentality, we need to be helping students develop the skills needed to succeed and thrive in this learning environment. Taking an online course is not easy. It takes persistence and diligence. I like the idea that EA will be there to help challenge and nurture our students side by side, as they enter this new world.

Our involvement with GOA also reflects our belief in diversity and our belief in the value of a global education. I cannot imagine how exciting the conversations are in the course, “9/11 in a Global Context.” This course looks interesting even if it was just filled with students from the Main Line, but imagine taking this class with kids from Jordan, China, and Indonesia. Here is the course description:

September 11, 2001 was a tragic day that changed the world in profound ways. In this course students will explore the causes of 9/11, the events of the day itself, and its aftermath locally, nationally, and around the world. In place of a standard chronological framework, students instead will view these events through a series of separate lenses. Each lens will represent a different way to view the attacks and will allow students to understand 9/11 as an event with complex and interrelated causes and outcomes. Using a variety of technologies and activities, students will work individually and with peers to evaluate each lens. They will then explore the post-9/11 world and conclude the course by planning their own 9/11 memorial.

We are simply not going to abandon that which makes us strong. You will always see the power of a first class liberal arts education at Episcopal. We will always be a school that fosters meaningful relationships and critical thinking with inspiring teachers. Our world continues to change quickly, and we want our students to be prepared to lead.

Why are you here?

Here is an excerpt from my opening address to our middle and upper school students:

In my opening talk to our teachers, I asked them why they choose to be here at EA when they certainly could have pursued other careers or other places to work. I want to share with you some of their responses because I think it is important for you to know just how much your teachers care about their work, their students, and their school.

You will be glad to hear one of the most resonant themes in their answers was all about you, the students:

So, why do you choose to work at EA?

I get to work with some of the most motivated, mature, and charismatic kids I have ever worked with.

Another teacher noted,

I am truly energized by the students and athletes I encounter each day and want to make sure that my very best is given each moment I step on campus.  I love my job and the work I get to do each day here at EA!

In fact you can just hear the joy and excitement come through their words…

Above all…we LAUGH a lot! These students are pretty awesome…motivated, organized, hard working, curious, willing to THINK…

The next quotation was powerful for me because it addresses our theme for the year and connects the value of what we do each day to the mission of the school:

Kids are so full of positive energy, and the more you give of yourself, the more you receive in return. In order to connect with our student-athletes, we must be willing to genuinely care about them and be willing to let them see who we truly are. Kids know when we are not genuine. We must learn to be ourselves and be comfortable letting them know who we are. Kids and people for that matter will run through a wall for you if they feel connected to you as their teacher, coach, or administrator. We are so lucky to be at a place that cares so much about the spiritual development of its students and faculty.

In fact, other teachers felt that EA’s mission was what separated us from other schools:

…because EA is an Episcopal school—a school where young people (and adults) can wrestle with the foundational questions of life and existence in the classroom as well as in the chapel.  That may sound rather “matter of fact,” but in reality, that is very rare nowadays amongst established independent schools.

That we are able to be Episcopal while also welcoming those from other denominations, faiths, and no faith into our Episcopal school.  That is a rare and precious thing in this world, and marks EA as distinct.

One teacher summed it up:

A lot of schools claim they embrace the Mind, Body, Spirit paradigm- I feel like we truly live it.

And it is through this power of our mission that we come together. The themes of community and family ran through your teachers’ responses:

I am surrounded by colleagues who are passionate about what they do, happily come to work each day, inspire me to work hard, help me whenever I ask, and truly care about my well being AND the well being of my family. I don’t think every school is like that. I am at EA because I know people really believe in me, trust me, and will support me through both my personal and professional career. It is the best feeling to come to work each day with the privilege of having incredible colleagues, fantastic students and a place where my kids can grow up, too.

Another teacher echoed this sentiment…

People here really do want me to be the best that I can be. They lift me up on my bad days and encourage me to go even further on my good days. If I have an idea, I am encouraged to run with it.  This is a happy place, and I look forward to coming to work every day – how many places can you say that about? And bonus: the students are AWESOME!!!

Some of your teachers were once in your shoes. They were EA students, and they found the experience to be so powerful, they wanted to return the favor:

It struck me like a lightning bolt that offering the gift of an independent school education – and all of the support and lifelong inspiration that it implies – was, in fact, my calling and what I had to give back. It wasn’t just any independent school education that I wanted to give to children, it was an Episcopal education that I felt compelled to pass on.

Another alumnus explained…

All my teachers at EA did this with me and my motivation in teaching is to try to give back in the same manner that the gods in my teaching pantheon did with me, to pass the torch and maybe light a few more, if you will. It is my intention to lead my students out, to teach them how to think and thereby learn in a supportive and stimulating environment, and to share their talents generously.

When I first read the final quotation I will share with you today, I was invigorated. I want you to listen carefully to one of your teachers as she describes why, when she could be anywhere, she chooses to be at EA:

I vowed to enter the teaching profession so that I could connect with students, work to gain their respect, find a place in their hearts, stimulate their thinking, and spark their imaginations. I made that vow over three decades ago and continue to believe that is why I love coming to work each day. Episcopal Academy is the school I wish I had attended as a young girl. I am here because I feel a loyalty to the school, and I am grateful for this job because in what other job could I laugh every day, go home at night thinking about new ways to challenge the bright, motivated students who attend EA, and return the next day knowing that I benefit from the rewards of every type of interaction in the classroom and with my colleagues?

A lot of people used the words “lucky” or “fortunate” to describe how they feel about being here at Episcopal. But, the fact is, they aren’t here because of luck. They are here because of hard work, because they have honed their craft, and because they have dedicated their lives to kids. But they do feel that being at EA is a privilege.

I feel the same way. I hope you do too.

Reinventing College: Is change really coming?

“There’s a growing consensus, wrong or right, that higher education is fundamentally broken: ineffective, overpriced, out of touch.”

This quotation from The Chronicle of Higher Education sets the scene for a series of articles aimed at answering the question, “What if college were reinvented?” The buzz continues with the news announced last week that the University of Wisconsin is offering a path toward a degree based on competency rather than seat time. Additionally, there are now several consortia of highly selective universities offering free online courses. Coursera seems to be the biggest player so far with an impressive list of universities. Harvard joined forces with M.I.T. and several others to form edX. And while Coursera and edX are free, Semester Online offers courses online for credit from great schools. This of course comes with a cost.

The ideas are flooding in, and it seems to me that change is inevitable. While I do believe that there will be new ideas that have merit, I think the change will be slower than anticipated. Any radical change in higher education will most likely be met with some skepticism. On the other hand, online options and innovative degree structures from established universities will be welcomed more quickly. I recently referred a colleague to this master’s program at the University of Oregon. This combination of online and global experiences will really benefit educational leaders. And if you don’t follow Yong Zhao on twitter, you should! @YongZhaoUO

We in K-12, independent education are following the conversation closely because many of the sustainability questions are similar. We have nine people taking the online course, “Introduction to Teaching Online” through the Global Online Academy. By investing in professional development, Newman will be well poised to participate competently in the conversations about the future of schools.

In the meantime, spend some times clicking through the links above. I think you will find it all quite fascinating.