Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Learning Community

            In reflecting on a recent experience I was reminded that learning, in good schools, should be ever-present and inspirational, not just for the students, but for all of the members of the community.
          For example, I have always wanted to play an instrument, but have never had the confidence to try until two years ago.  I was watching a student rock band performance during Spring Arts Day and noticed an 8th grader playing the electric bass not only incredibly well, but with an amazing amount of enthusiasm and unfettered joy.  I learned after the concert that he had only been playing for about a year.  Then and there I decided that it was time to take a step.
            Inspired by this experience I decided on the bass as my weapon of choice, but then I later reconsidered, thinking, you can’t really just play the bass solo, or around the campfire.  The guitar?  Too intimidating.  Piano?  Don’t have one.  The ukulele?  Perfect!  Inexpensive.  Only four strings.  Easy to carry around.
            I went to our local, incredibly unthreatening, music store and chose an inexpensive ukulele and beginner song book.  Through the use of the book and online sources, by the end of the first day I had a pretty solid grasp of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and a good start on a few others.  
            Noted child psychologist Ned Hallowell, in The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, cites a cycle of experience that he believes leads to adult happiness.  It is introduce, play, practice, mastery and then recognition.  Using the example of learning to play a new instrument, introduce is the stage when one is just starting, play is when a person lightly begins to use the instrument,  practice is the intentional, sometimes mundane act of practicing to improve, mastery is that first song learned to completion and recognition is playing at a concert or in front of others and being noted for the effort put in.  It is this constant cycle, around many different activities, and interests, according to Hallowell’s research that leads to people becoming happy adults.
            Needless to say, I was at the practice stage.  I resolved to set aside thirty minutes per day, which I did, for a little over a year.  Eventually I became pretty proficient, and even joined in with some others including the Nashville Ukulele Society, in addition to playing with a group of Harding parents and our music teacher, who play guitar together every Wednesday night.  Our music teacher was incredibly supportive and helpful, and it was kind of him to include me.  We were actually getting pretty good and decided to take the show on the road, as it were.  We had five songs down pretty well and decided to play at the social at the opening of school.
            Though I was incredibly nervous, we played well, reaching the recognition stage that Hallowell describes.  It went so well, in fact, that we have played publicly a couple of times and continue to meet every week for a couple of hours, expanding the set list.  Bolstered by my new found music enjoyment, I picked up the guitar – all because of the inspiration of an 8th grader.   
            I readily agree with Hallowell’s cycle that he believes leads to happiness, but I think in a school community there are other factors at work as well:  
           One source of wisdom can even come in the form of technology.  When I had questions about posture or the proper notes I readily found the accurate answers with the right internet search.  I am on ultimate-guitar.com regularly printing out music, rather than running for the music store and can even watch lessons, virtually, and with the ability to pause and go back again and again.
          Additionally, only in an accepting and inviting school community will people try new things, as there is no fear of reprisal or embarrassment.  It has to be within an environment where community members are not pigeon-holed as solely athletes, actors or mathematicians, for example.  There has to be public displays of potential inspiration such as concerts, plays, musicals or even athletic contests.  Additionally, there has to be other individuals such as our music teacher, Mr. Taylor, or our ukulele-playing math teacher, Mr. Gorham, who readily share their gifts with others, that others can have a positive experience. 
          The adults, too, have to show that they are life-long learners and provide an example for students.  Who knows, they might even provide the inspiration for a youngster who is debating taking a musical instrument.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Hiring and Admissions

In the ever-increasing focus in independent schools on bricks and mortar and building and improving facilities - from a new gymnasium to a new academic building, I frequently quote my father when he said, “Hiring and admissions are the two most important things you will do in a school.”  Don’t get me wrong, facilities are incredibly important (look no further than our new 24, 000 square foot middle school, fine arts addition and after school space) in order to support the programs and to remain competitive.
It is the people, however, who make up a great school.  When an alum returns to campus, I don’t think their focus is place, rather it’s people - the teachers, coaches and administrators who influenced his or her life at an important time in their development.  It is the community of learners who, together, shape the culture and the success of the school.
As a result, we work diligently on attracting and retaining the best people - students and teachers alike.  A school made up of bright, caring and enthusiastic children who have dedicated and invested parents, coupled with educators who are well-educated and passionate about their craft, is surely going to be successful.
To engage in a national search with at least two independent firms each time we have a faculty opening, or visiting every single kindergarten applicant in their preschool to ensure that we are getting the fullest picture of that child is a tremendous amount of time and effort, but is absolutely time well-spent when one sees the connection that occurs between great teachers and capable students.