Category Archives: Education

Five Skills Needed for Independence in the 21st Century

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I see educators focusing on 21st century skills so their students can make it in the real world. Just as prevalent are twenty- and thirty-somethings still living with their parents, unable to make ends meet.

The systemic challenges we millennials face in adulthood are real and widely covered. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find purpose and change our communities for good. Take Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Afghanistan war veteran and two-term mayor of South Bend, Ind., who continues gaining traction in the 2020 presidential race. “I think when you run at this age, your face is your message in a lot of ways,” Buttigieg told CNN. “And part of what we are looking at is the idea that it’s time for a new generation in American leadership.”

While he may on the right track, clearer guideposts after school ends would help others take a road to success.

Being steeped in the education field, I see the way paved by five skills: learning, communication, care, relationship building, and self-advocacy. Some call these soft skills, but in my experience, they are the hardest to master.

A Call for More Inclusive, Empathetic Leadership

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Today’s independent school leaders are grappling with a number of daunting developments: more competition on the educational landscape, expanding demographic diversity, divisive politics, the rise of Millennial parents and workers, the retirement of Baby Boomers, the question of college’s value, the excitement of social media, and the hopes and fears of artificial intelligence.

The confluence of these global trends has spurred an urgency to redefine independent school leadership to espouse greater inclusion and empathy. To begin to achieve that, NAIS convened a group of independent school educators, academics, and thought leaders for a leadership summit at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore on October 2021, 2016. (See list of attendees.)

Limited Diversity of Leaders Nationally

The lack of diversity and inclusion in leadership was on full display as attendees addressed the limited number of women and people of color in leadership posts. Across industries, women continue to hold positions with less prestige, less power, and less pay, said Catherine Hill, vice president for research at the American Association of University Women. She cited the following statistics:
  • In public schools, women make up 76 percent of teachers and 20 percent of superintendents.
  • In the nonprofit sector, 75 percent of nonprofit professionals are women, and just 43 percent are nonprofit chief executives.
  • In the private sector, white men hold 63 percent of top leadership posts, white women hold 24 percent, black women occupy 2 percent, and Hispanic women account for 1 percent.
  • In government, U.S. state legislators are 75 percent men and 25 percent women, including 5 percent women of color.
Hill noted that several factors explain the leadership gender gap: caregiving demands and women’s choices, the gender pay gap, the lack of networks and mentors for women, and implicit and explicit bias and discrimination against women in the workplace.

Challenges in Independent Schools

The independent school sector mirrors these national trends. The percent of female heads at NAIS schools has hovered around one-third for the past 16 years. The percent of heads of color has ticked up from 3 percent in 2000-2001 to 7 percent in 20152016.
NAIS conducted a study to understand the dynamics of the recruiting process that aid or hinder the hiring of women and people of color for headship positions, said NAIS vice presidents Amada Torres and Caroline Blackwell in their presentation to the group. The study included women and people of color who were potential headship candidates as well as search firms and search committees.
A confidence gap between men and women was evident. Sixty-six percent of men of color said they are highly confident in their ability to become head of school compared with 43 percent of women of color and 43 percent of white women who said the same.
In the headship hiring process, there’s a noticeable disconnect between the qualities that search firms and committees seek and what professional women and people of color believe they’re seeking. For example, candidates said they thought experience at a similar school was the least important qualification; search firms valued this highly. Similarly, candidates believed that prior experience as head does not rank as high as search firms and search committees place this work history. Furthermore, the leadership experiences of business officers, admission officers, and diversity practitioners are undervalued. Many of these positions are occupied by women and people of color.

Ideas for an Inclusive Pool

Attendees discussed more expansive models of leadership to turn the tide to parity. Women and people of color say mentors, sponsors, and professional development can make a difference in their advancement. In particular, NAIS survey respondents said they wish for PD opportunities that improve their leadership skills.
It’s crucial to approach leadership development with an eye toward equity and racial justice, said Joe-Joe McManus, executive director of Rootstrong, a nonprofit that focuses on multicultural leadership education and development based on four global principles: human rights, social justice, diversity, and integrity.
He advocated the CUNY Star leadership education model, known for its cultural relevance and responsiveness. Competencies include professional excellence, self-knowledge, identity development, cultural competency, contextual literacy, civic engagement, work-life balance, community building, critical engagement, applied ethics, and dynamic balance. He noted that the aspects of these competencies can shift depending on location, and cited self-knowledge as an example because it is so individual.
While instituting a multicultural model, we must also navigate the existence of privileged fragility, McManus said. This applies to people who are advantaged members of racial and other systems of privilege/oppression. Such fragility is triggered by any loss of privilege or feeling of any stress related to one’s privileged status, and can manifest as anger, disengagement, fear, guilt, and white tears.
These challenges notwithstanding, cultivating a wider range of leaders was a running topic at the summit. The Center of Creative Leadership (CCL) aims to develop leaders at all levels and positively impact communities, said CCL Senior Faculty and Faculty Development Director Marin Burton. To do this, CCL employs the framework of leading self, leading with others, and changing your world. “Leadership is an inside-out process that begins with knowing yourself,” Burton said. The framework takes different forms in different grades. Kindergarteners learn to keep their hands to themselves. Middle schoolers practice working through conflicts. High schoolers learn to be intentional when choosing an internship. (Listen to a podcast between NAIS and CCL.)
In an example of CCL’s joint work with Ravenscroft School (North Carolina), Colleen Ramsden, assistant head of school for academic affairs, shared how the school’s Lead From Here program has transformed its young students into leaders. She relayed a story of a group of fifth-grade boys who befriended a new student, but were concerned that their new friend didn’t understand friendship skills. He lacked self-awareness, empathy, and accountability, all key components of the program. One boy explained to the school counselor that the group was helping their new friend learn the Lead From Here competencies. The counselor’s jaw dropped in response; that was the work she was poised to do, Ramsden said. (Read a blog about Lead From Here, and listen to a podcast with Ramsden and leaders of the program.)
In addition to spreading leadership throughout an organization’s hierarchy, attendees discussed that people of different temperaments ought to be represented in leadership. Heidi Kasevich, director of Quiet Education associated with Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, urged schools to give voice to the introverts among us. Introverts are characterized by preferences for quiet stimulation over excitement and deliberate thinking over quick thinking.
Kasevich noted that 50 percent of workers self-identify as introverts, while 96 percent of leaders and managers self-identify as extroverts. Sixty-four percent of people believe their organizations are not harnessing the power of introverted employees, she said. To be sure, a group mixed with introverts and extroverts achieves a more creative outcome, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s research.
Kasevich gave tips to promote quiet leaders’ success:
  • use energy strategically,
  • schedule solitary time,
  • show enthusiasm,
  • schedule a time to walk the halls,
  • let extroverts know you care,
  • talk to introverts one-on-one, and
  • use solitude to make good decisions.

Leading with More Feeling

Attendees discussed the move toward expressing emotional intelligence in leadership. Since Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence in 1995, social and emotional intelligence has become a cornerstone of leaders’ development in schools and corporations, Janet Patti, a facilitator at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, said in a videotaped address to the group.
The results are clear: Managers and leaders with higher emotional quotients have greater sensitivity and empathy, are rated as more effective, receive higher performance ratings, develop high-performing effective teams, and create a healthier school culture.
The modern view of emotion encompasses attention, memory, learning, decision-making, relationship quality, physical and mental health, and everyday effectiveness, she said. To evaluate emotional intelligence, the Yale Center uses the RULER Approach:
  • Recognize emotions in self and others,
  • Understand the cause and consequences of emotions,
  • Label emotions accurately,
  • Express emotions appropriately, and
  • Regulate emotions effectively.
Patti concluded by underscoring the role emotional intelligence plays in building more creative, healthy, effective, and compassionate schools. “There is a growing understanding that we cannot change the behavior of schools until we change the behaviors of the people who work in them. We believe that intensive change in schools and in student learning will happen when school leaders develop their own social, emotional, and cognitive skills, and build professional capital through the transformation of the adults responsible for the teaching and learning of our children.”

The Unintended Leader

Tech entrepreneur Donald Golini also touched on the need to display emotional intelligence as he rose in his career. When he founded QED Technologies in 1996, he never dreamed his business would grow to more than 70 employees and generate $18 million in revenue. He developed and sold high-tech products for the precision optics market throughout the world, counting Canon and Leica as customers, among others. He began by giving presentations on how material science could solve an important problem for the industry, then wrote a business plan and persuaded others to join him.
After 10 years he sold the company, which was a difficult decision because he hired every single person there. Today, he teaches college student engineers how to write business plans and can spot problems early based on his experience.
Along his success route, Golini learned that surrounding yourself with competent people is a must. That means hiring top talent and establishing an advisory board that works for you, he said.
Also key is a strong company culture. Golini infused his with integrity, a can-do attitude, accountability, mutual respect, and transparency. “If the values statement posted in the lobby is not real…EVERYBODY knows,” he pointed out.
No matter how clear core values are, they can be misinterpreted, Golini discovered. A former employee confused “can do” anything with “can do” everything.  In that case, Golini put on his “chief executive counselor” hat to help. “You have to be willing to coach [employees] in personal and professional tough times,” Golini said. “He could have quit and would have quit if I wasn’t available to him.”
Golini said developing leadership skills was pivotal in his ability to recruit and maintain a great team at QED Technologies.

Your Leadership Stories Matter

Join NAIS as we continue to redefine and explore leadership amid our changing times. We encourage you to discuss ideas using the Twitter hashtag #NAISDeepDive and post in NAIS Connect’s “Idea Exchange” community.

The Creative Power of Pairs in Education

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Author Joshua Wolf Shenk knows something about the significance of creative partnerships from collaborating with his editor to chronicling historic examples — including Lennon and McCartney and the Van Gogh brothers — for his 2014 book Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity. I spoke with Shenk to learn how his findings can benefit educators and students.

Ari Pinkus: In your book, you argue that the pair is the primary creative unit for several reasons: “One, we’re set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group, given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges with caregivers. The dyad is also the most fluid and flexible of relationships, and pairs naturally arouse engagement, intensity… nobody can hide in a pair.” How can all of this apply to education?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: Education seems to focus on two kinds of work experience: purely solitary (test-taking, paper-writing, etc.) and work in groups. But the significance of the pair may be underplayed, as it often is in the culture at large. Most radical creative advance tends to happen in pairs. Work we ascribe to the “lone genius” is usually activated by relationships. These are not necessarily traditional collaborations in which two people are equally responsible for the work; the key term is not collaboration as such but “creative intimacy,” when two people inspire, complement, push each other to something bigger than they could do alone.

The classroom could be a site to apply this lesson and make it work for students and teachers. I know that, in my schooling, I always did my best stuff when I had chemistry with a teacher and with fellow students.

And it’s worth adding that these relationships, while often harmonious, were also sometimes competitive. Having a partner who sets a high bar that you’re trying to clear can be really powerful.

Pinkus: The book is filled with examples of successful pairings in various fields: the Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon; artist Vincent Van Gogh and his art dealer brother, Theo; co-discoverers of DNA’s structure James Watson and Francis Crick; and others. What individual characteristics did they have that made their pairings thrive? What lessons can educators apply from understanding their dynamics?

Shenk: The core quality supporting what we call chemistry or synergy is what I call “complementarity.” Complementarity is this weird coexistence of really deep similarities in two people to the point that it’s uncanny how much they are alike. At the same time, they have surprisingly radical differences, too. Of course, any two people will be alike in some ways and unalike in others. But what I found in these epic duos were these really extreme traits at both ends.

We tend not to think about pairings that way. For example, if a kid is struggling, we think he should be with another kid who’s struggling — and hope they can help each other. But we might think the opposite: Put the kid who’s struggling with the kid who’s high-achieving, and hope that the more advanced kid benefits from explaining and the kid who’s a bit behind benefits from the other’s knowledge. What I’m suggesting is that teachers should think about putting kids together who have something to offer each other because of their differences and their enormous rapport. This is where the magic happens.

To some extent, you can think about it rationally, but teachers also need to trust their intuition —watching for the kids who really click.

One method of finding complementarity is the creative first date. I did this not long ago at a performing arts high school in Houston, and it was a lot of fun. I gave the students a small exercise and had them do it with five people in quick succession, and then I had them reflect on their experience. With whom were they feeling a little slowed down? With whom were feeling a little sharper, smarter? All of us have these different experiences with people constantly, and a lot of what I’m trying to do in the book is help people become aware of them and pay attention to them.

Pinkus: You delve into the concept of dialectics, writing that it “describes the process by which something singular emerges out of an interaction or duality,” and that dialogue forms a significant part of this process. How can educators harness the power of dialectics in and out of the classroom? 

Shenk: When you look at great creative lives — people who have made meaningful work that’s reached its appropriate audience and has been received by the field as important — there is always an important story of relationships underneath.

It’s much easier to tell the story of an individual and present whomever he or she interacts with as supporting players. We like telling the story of the solo success in part because it is dramatically effective. For instance, every state in the country has a Martin Luther King, Jr. street or avenue or road — as a way to honor King’s great work in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. But far fewer people know of Ralph Abernathy who essentially was King’s creative partner in the movement. It was, in fact, the relationship between those two men that created the civil rights movement. Everyone close to them knew it, but no one close to them really understood just how or why. There’s an element of mystery in it. In the end, it proved to be very convenient to just excise Abernathy from the story, no matter the injustice of it.

The story of relational influence is very common. In education, we always hear about teacher-student ratios, the implicit assumption being that exchange between the teacher and the student is the critical one, or the only one of value. But no matter what, you’re going to have a community of peers that is going to way outnumber the teacher. So how do you make that an engine for advancement rather than a hindrance? There really needs to be a consideration about how people work together and activate each other, inspire each other, vex each other, egg each other on.

Relationships are part of the engine of creative growth. And they’re often critical to creative growth. Alongside that are all kinds of challenges. Relationships are not easy. There is conflict; there is misunderstanding.

In pair relationships, you have two individuals and a social reality simultaneously. We need to think about how to support both — encourage individuality and idiosyncrasy and responsibility alongside empathy and awareness and so on.

Pinkus: In your book, you say that when it comes to creativity, “the heroic work, our teachers enjoin us, is to stay with the discomfort.” Why is discomfort necessary for creativity, and how can teachers best enjoin their students to remain there?

Shenk: Things are easy for us when we go down a path that’s already marked off, that is well-trodden. You’re less likely to get lost. We spend our days moving through these paths, hewing to established forms. We’re biologically driven to do that, to follow patterns and models and to not shake things up.

One reason speaking in front of a group can be so terrifying is that we were created in evolutionary time with this physical awareness that being exiled from the group would be like death. When you’re up in front of a group, you’re feeling that ancient fear.

So the natural forces are pushing us toward convention. I don’t say that with distain; I say that with a lot of respect. We have to learn in life how to follow these conventions; how to drive on the right side of the road; do the dishes soon after we eat. But that’s not creative. The creative act is one that involves stepping outside of something that we already know and doing something new and different. “Disruption” is a cliché right now, but creative people often naturally think in unusually different ways. Think about how many creative people were misfits and losers in high school, and who were their teachers’ worst enemy.

Some kind of movement out of the ordinary is essential to creativity. At its essence, the process is uncomfortable because it takes us out of these predicted and prescribed pathways and subjects us to all kinds of new and potentially scary and shameful things.

So letting people know that discomfort is OK, that it’s part of the process is critical. We hear these stories that the creative act follows this mythic structure. You have to charge into the wilderness and get lost in order to find the golden challis that you’ll bring back to a cheering crowd. It’s scary in those woods. If you set off down that path, and say, “Oh my god, it’s scary in there,” and then you race back out, then you’ll never get anything that’s meaningful to you, and you’ll never help the world.

This resistance is core to the creative process. That’s why writers and other creative people have rituals and daily routines. They have all kinds of restrictions they put on themselves. The moment you sit down to write, the first thing you want to do is get up and get coffee or check email or do any of a thousand things. But doing those things will keep you in the small think of everyday life, and keep you from being able to come to that new and scary and delightful place.

Pinkus: Thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been really fascinating. 

Shenk: I hope it’s helpful. Education is near and dear to me because the most important relationships in my life were in school. And I’m a writer in the first place because of a high school English teacher named Cindy Briggs, who I’m still in touch with. She came to Cincinnati when I gave my reading for this book. There’s a college teacher of mine named Pat Hoy, who taught me how to write essays. And I wrote this book in large part because I felt I was learning something that I wish I knew when I was younger.

To read more about the creative genius of pairs, check out the following:

· “The Power of Two” by Joshua Wolf Shenk

· “Creative Pairs, in Their Own Words” by Joshua Wolf Shenk

· “The Genius of Difference” by John Chubb

Ari Pinkus is the digital editor and producer at NAIS.

Reimagining the High School Transcript

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How do we improve teaching and learning? What’s the best way to assess student progress? As educators tackle these questions, a group of schools has joined to develop a new approach to assessment sans grades. Formed at the 2017 NAIS Annual Conference, the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) aims to “change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.”

MTC’s work to reimagine the high school transcript has struck a chord. The group received $2 million from the Edward E. Ford Foundation, garnered copious press, and stirred the independent school community.

John Gulla, E.E. Ford’s executive director, and Rand Harrington, Kent Denver School’s (CO) head of school, shared their contrasting views of MTC in an extended email chat last fall. The two know each other from The Blake School (MN) where Gulla hired Harrington as a science teacher. In this edited exchange, they challenge each other’s thinking—and reveal their vision for education.

Rand Harrington:  John, I saw you posted another MTC article. Although I am open to being convinced otherwise, my current thoughts on MTC are quite dim. I see this as a ruse to avoid the most important questions about great teaching. Last summer, the dean of admission at a highly selective university described MTC as a non-starter—unreliable and unnecessary. I can’t say I disagree.

John Gulla: I don’t have any need to convince you there are great benefits in an approach to assessing student progress without grades as reflected in the goals of MTC. Some quick points:

1. Grades are an inherently limited and greatly flawed practice. Why reduce to a one-dimensional measure something (student progress) that is inherently multidimensional?

2. Are you really quoting a university admission dean in support of your position? How can he know MTC’s approach to be unreliable when it hasn’t even been developed yet? Unnecessary? I could not disagree more. There are more than 150 schools now signed up with MTC. I’ll bet you this university learns how to read and interpret the MTC transcript to assess the students who apply from schools using it.

3. Too many teachers think grades are “objective” measures. They are not. Can they represent something meaningful about a student’s progress? Sure. But they weren’t handed down inscribed on stone tablets to Moses from on high. Do you know where and when and why their use began? (Mount Holyoke College, 1887, standardization). I could go on and on.

4. I’d urge you to consider these questions: Do grades serve your students well? Do they encourage the sort of teaching and learning that you hope to see at KDS? If so, then stay dim on this approach for your school.

Harrington: In my opinion, the key questions are: How will MTC improve classroom teaching? Is the talk of MTC moving along the conversation about what great teaching is, or is it a distraction? Here are my additional two cents:

First, college admission is a process of selection requiring some type of judgment. What remains is the question of what to judge and by what metrics. The way MTC was shared with me indicated categories that were nonuniform, determined by each school, very poorly defined, and more unreliable than what we have now.

Not one of the problems with grades—inaccuracy, no meaning, inflation, measures the wrong thing—can be fixed by changing how we represent grades or even changing the category, from disciplinary to non-cognitive. Every critique I have heard can be traced back to the skill of the teacher. Poorly trained teachers with no expertise who make a mess out of grades will make an even bigger mess out of an alternative transcript where “content” has no value.

Should we be measuring or encouraging a wider variety of skills and attitudes? Certainly. Is the way we represent student achievement to colleges the issue? No, the issue is how we teach and what we value in our classrooms. In the end, students will be judged by both their ability to learn concepts in physics (or history or math or art) and their work ethic and resilience. And, if done right, their grades should reflect both.

As you can sense, I have strong feelings about this. The teacher shortage is coming, and schools are ill-prepared. And MTC will not [in my opinion] solve this problem.

Gulla: I have never thought that there is only one right way to go about this pursuit of organized education.

For schools that want to continue to offer grades—those limited measures that so often become ends in themselves and obscure the real goal, which, in my mind, is to create a desire to know, something that I feel we are born with but that so much of formal education effectively snuffs out over childhood and adolescence—the same way forward is yours to take. Schools that want to continue to create sorting systems that have resulted in epidemic levels of childhood anxiety, depression, unhealthy habits of sleep deprivation, and soulless pursuits of externally determined societally endorsed goals, the path forward is clear. Keep on keeping on.

Harrington: My point is that tossing the foundations is a terrible mistake. The mental health issues you describe are serious, but are not [in my opinion] caused by grades.

Gulla: And my point is that we agree that the foundations are necessary, but we disagree about grading, which is not necessary. I worked for seven years at a school that gave no grades. It is possible to have a very “rigorous” experience without grades.

Harrington: No grades, but certainly the school had assessments. Were these all formative? Likely not, some
must have been summative. Were they narratives? The details are important, because what you call “grading” is pretty narrow (A, B, C scales). I am arguing that summative assessments are necessary, and that how those assessments are labeled is less important. You seem hung up on the labels themselves. Replacing A, B, C with something else does not solve the problems you describe.

Even the pure narrative ends up being scored by whoever is judging the student’s application to their next experience (higher education or a job). That scoring is a judgment that should be the responsibility of the great teacher who knows the student. Shying away from judgment (or  grading) is a cop-out. Improve the skill of the teacher so the judgments are accurate and value the right things.

Gulla: You seem hung up on the “necessity” of some form of one-dimensional ranking. So I find when such an impasse has been reached, a story can help. Back when U.S. News & World Report was still a print magazine and they were trying to expand their pernicious practices of ranking to independent schools, the then-president of NAIS, Peter Relic, urged membership not to cooperate. The U.S. News group got wind of this and sent the project lead to talk with Peter. During the chitchat, Peter asked the guy if he had any children. The man said he had three. Peter asked him to rank them.

Harrington: I agree, that is silly in the same way that we discarded class rankings some years ago. I see class rankings as equivalent to your examples. In other words, one number to judge something that is multivariable. Our grades are associated with the standard disciplines: English, math, science, etc. If a student can only muster a C or a D in English classes, then one would deem that useful information about their ability to read or write (a deficit that would likely impact their potential success in college). We can argue whether we need more categories.

My point is that whatever dimensions you decide are meaningful, there is someone or some institution that will want to know if this student is OK, good, or exceptional in this area. [By the way], the MTC prototype does the exact same thing, but with hard-to-measure categories and colored pie graphs.

Gulla: Yes, outside institutions will want information so that they can sort students. They may even want us to grade the students, but we don’t have to do their work for them.

This is the whole reason Scott Looney didn’t want to go this alone with Hawken [School (OH)]. No college or university is going to decide to simply ignore and fail to consider how to read and understand a mastery transcript when there may be thousands of very talented (not to mention many who are full-pay) students whose applications have this transcript, not the antiquated, Industrial Age, Carnegie unit, seat-time based transcript they’ll be getting from schools that stay the course!

Harrington: Sure, performance-based assessments look amazing on first pass. Unfortunately, we (teachers) end up spending a lot more time on the mechanics of assessment with our noses pressed to the screen tracking students with digital rubrics than we do teaching and planning our learning experiences. I once developed a rich rubric that looked at experimental skills, problem-solving skills, and conceptual understanding. In the end, I had to give them a single grade. But unlike some folks, I didn’t find this too distasteful, given my grades had always been an indication of some weighting of all these things … as it should be.

So, this is perhaps the guts of what we disagree about. You have a very optimistic view that MTC will be the thing that will take us to this elevated place where we know students so well in all their dimensions that colleges will be able to pick and choose based on some other criteria.

But if you think getting a B in U.S. history is ambiguous and without meaning, then try evaluating a student’s “grit” on whatever scale you want (linear or otherwise). I’ve seen no evidence that those promoting MTC have spent much time on how to define good teaching or how to make these more meaningful assessments. If you believe these conversations are happening, then I will be the first to support the effort.

This conversation really deserves a few beers in person. Perhaps sometime this year…

Gulla: Yes!

Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Do you know of—or are you a part of—an exemplary mentor-mentee pair? A great student-teacher duo? We want to hear about it. Send a brief description to and we’ll follow up.

Untangling Teen Wellness Issues: A Conversation with Psychologist Lisa Damour

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How can educators and parents best help teens cope with the challenging issues they face today, whether it’s social media and technology use, alcohol consumption, peer conflicts and bullying, romantic relationships, or academics? For answers, I recently spoke with psychologist Lisa Damour, author of the new book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. Damour is also head of the Laurel Center for Research on Girls at the Laurel School (Ohio).

The Seven Transitions to Adulthood (0:40)
“There are seven distinct developmental tasks that move girls from childhood into adulthood: Parting with Childhood, Joining a New Tribe, Harnessing Emotions, Contending with Adult Authority, Planning for the Future, Entering the Romantic World, and Caring for Themselves.”
“In the course of normal development, most teenagers are working on several of these simultaneously. They don’t necessarily follow in lockstep, and yet… in some ways, you could almost map them [by] the grade levels of sixth through twelve in terms of what becomes a really big deal grade by grade.”
Social Media and Technology (2:39)
“We don’t want [social media and technology] to interfere with sleep, a student’s ability to focus in an academic way, students’ safety, or their social skills.”
“If we don’t want it to interfere with sleep, then what we really know is that teenagers and adults need to turn off their technology at least a half an hour before bed and not have it in their bedrooms.
“[Social media] should be nowhere near teenagers when they’re doing their homework. That’s hard because often they need to do their homework on a computer, and in those moments, helping teenagers to use the applications like anti-social that shut down their access to social media for a limited period of time can be a useful way for them to be efficient in getting their work done.”
Drinking (When 80 Percent of Teenagers Have Tried Alcohol) (4:52)
“I will say to girls ‘Look, you all know you’re not supposed to drink both for legal reasons and for health reasons, but you and I both know that lots of kids get to parties on the weekend and they’re drinking anyway. Can you walk me through why they’re drinking? Can you walk me through what’s really happening there? What gets between what they know and what they do?’
“And it’s not as if we walk out of that conversation with every girl resolving to be sober until she’s 21, but I feel like those are more successful conversations because I get them to examine the gap between what they say they’re going to do and what they’re really going to do, and hopefully recruit some of their better thinking into that.”
Peer Conflict vs. Bullying (7:33)
“Unfortunately, a lot of adults these days mistake conflict for bullying, and I think all of us on the school side get those phone calls from parents, ‘Oh, my daughter is being bullied,’ and we’re thinking yeah, some days she’s being bullied, or some days she’s being given a hard time and other days she’s giving other kids a hard time. So I think that conflict range is actually where it gets gray.
“Conflict gets really complex. We want girls to be able to stand up for themselves. We want them to do it in a way that does not stamp on other people’s rights. I think girls need a huge amount of support around this; assertion is something that we should be teaching girls much more directly than we do.”
Resolving Bullying Incidents (11:32)
“In a true bullying situation, it is very unhelpful to sit the victim and the bully down together. It is usually known to actually expose the victim to further bullying.
“[In my book], I tell an amalgam story of a girl who is truly a victim of bullying. She is being targeted by a group of classmates, both boys and girls. She’s in a coed school. She’s being harassed around her size and her shape, and she’s unable to defend herself and she’s really suffering.
 “The principal did a really beautiful job of handling the situation in that he interviewed bystanders to confirm the victim’s story and then met directly with the bullies, separate from meeting with the victim, and developed a disciplinary approach around their behavior and made it very clear what they needed to do to make reparations within the community and also made it clear what the consequences would be for any further behavior, but he handled that separately from his care of the victim who was not ever forced to confront her bullies or try to come to some negotiation with them on her own.”
Changing the Conversation About Girls’ Sexual Health (14:01)
“By the measures of sexual health that we have, which tend to be unwanted pregnancies, STD transmission, and things that we can easily measure, American girls have the worst sexual health in the industrialized world; Dutch girls have the best sexualized health in the industrialized world. When we look at the Dutch, we see that parents and the education system in that culture talk about physical romance in terms of joy and responsibility. And enjoying it and doing what you want and being allowed to want is central to their understanding of why we get involved physically at all.
“In the US, we paint it in a very different light. What we basically say is the boys are on offense, and the girls are on defense. The boys get to want, and the girls get to try to decide what they will and won’t allow. Girls who are made to think about their physical life in this way don’t take such good care of themselves.
“What we can do is say to girls, ‘Hey, when it comes to your romantic lives and the physical side of your romantic lives, the most important thing you want to think about is what do you want? This should be fun for you. This should be something that you’re able to really enjoy. The next thing you want to figure out is what does your partner want, and does your partner want what you want—and whoever wants less, they win.
“The next thing to figure out is: Are there any risks on the table here? If you both want to have intercourse, well, then you’re going to need to prevent against sexually transmitted diseases. If it’s heterosexual intercourse, you’re going to need to prevent against pregnancy.’ But the risk question, which does need to come up, needs to come up third.”
Test Anxiety (20:52)
“The first thing I always like to do when thinking about anxiety is to not talk about it as if it were a factory setting. I think so often when girls are saying, ‘Hi, I have test anxiety,” it’s as if they’re saying, ‘Hi, I have blue eyes,’ like this is something I have and will always have.
“The other thing that we can do is to start a careful line of questioning about where that anxiety is coming from. The first place to start always is to ask girls and boys: ‘How do you prepare for the test?’ Because a surprising amount of the time what turns out is they actually didn’t prepare.”
“I think the next line of questioning if they said that they prepared a lot is to actually ask how they studied, because we have a great body of research these days that I summarized and untangled about how there are effective and ineffective ways to prepare for tests, and we know a lot about what can be done to make things quite a bit more effective.
“If a student is preparing effectively, and they’re still anxious, clinical interventions [can work] to reduce anxiety. A lot of it is relaxation. A lot of it is reframing.”
Failure and Avoidance (23:14)
“[When it comes to planning for the future], one red flag [to watch for] is students who aren’t learning from their mistakes, and this is where Carol Dweck’s incredible work on growth mindset really should be at the center of any conversation. We have some students, typically those with the fixed mindset, who cannot tolerate making mistakes, will not take risks that involve making mistakes. And if they make mistakes, they can’t even look at the mistake and learn from it.
“The other [red flag comes] when students get into patterns of avoidance. Often when students are under-functioning academically, what’s happening is that they’re avoiding their work, or they’re saying they’ll get it done or they’re missing assignments. The problem with avoidance is that it’s a highly reinforcing behavior, but a student who is anxious about work and then chooses not to do it or manages to leave it at school so they can’t face it at home [experiences] very immediate relief. Often it’s a long time before everybody gets talking and they say, ‘Wait, that student is not doing work in your class or my class or my class,’ and then we realize the student basically hasn’t done anything for three weeks.
“It’s critical for schools to help students manage that avoidance and help students come up with strategies that actually make the avoidance impossible, even if that means having a study buddy, or a supervised study hall, or needing to check in with an adult to prevent the avoidance.
“We sometimes mistake avoidance for laziness or dishonesty. Usually, there’s much more avoidance underneath, and addressing that directly gets things back on track faster.”
Success and Autonomy (25:51)
“The number one thing I would recommend is to promote girls’ autonomy because adolescence for both boys and girls is about autonomy. When adults are anxious about how a teenager is coming along, we sometimes forget about their autonomy and want to take over.
“It’s more helpful to say things to teenagers along the lines of, ‘Hey, you have all the power here, and if you want things to go well at school you can absolutely make that happen. And if you don’t want things to go well at school, you can make that happen, too. You’re the one calling the shots. You let us know how we can be helpful, and we’re going to make that happen.’ I think that’s usually the best way to keep people on track.”

On the Mindsets and Talents of Generations X, Y, and Z: Six Questions for Generational Expert Jane Buckingham

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To learn more about how to unleash the potential of Generations X, Y, and Z, I recently spoke with Jane Buckingham, generational expert and founder and president of the consumer insights firm Trendera. Buckingham will speak at the 2016 NAIS Annual Conference in San Francisco on February 25.


1. Jane, could you start by telling us about the unique characteristics of Generations X, Y, and Z?
Jane Buckingham Headshot.jpg
Jane Buckingham:
 On Generation X, ages 36–50. “Everybody talked about [them] as the slacker generation. And yet we don’t see them as that; we see them as the generation that went through their midlife crisis 20 years too soon.
“And they just sort of feel like they had the rug pulled out from under them, and they’re the ones who sort of emerged from that crisis feeling like, you know what? Things are never going to be the way they were in the past. And they’re going to have to redefine what happiness, success, and the future looks [like going] forward. They’re never going to be able to guarantee that they could rise to the top of the corporate ladder. They could never guarantee that they wouldn’t get divorced when they get married. And so for them it was about rethinking what family, future, career, and all of that would look like.”
On Generation Y, ages 20–35. “For them, it was about everybody thinking that they were entitled, that they wanted everything immediately and they deserved everything. And the reality is that yes, they do want a little bit of that, but in some ways it’s not their fault. They were the generation that got a gold sticker for going to the potty. They got a trophy for just showing up at the soccer game. So it’s no surprise that they want rewards along the way.
“But the good news is they’re a generation that is positive, it’s hopeful, and looks at things differently than other generations have. So we can’t sort of assume that everything about them is bad.”
On Generation Z (or V for viral), ages 5–19. “They’re still developing, so the question is, how are they going to turn out? We haven’t had a rebellious generation in two generations. Generation X and Generation Y were not rebellious generations. Yet probably rebellion for [this generation] will not be protesting and marching the way previous generations have. It will probably be about saying, ‘We’re not doing things the way other generations did’ — whether it’s not going to a traditional work space, whether it’s not having to get married to have children, whether it’s relationships that look like something else, whether it’s really remaking what society looks like.”
2. When hiring members of Generation Y for school roles, what do administrators need to know? (See NAIS Interim President Donna Orem’s recent blog for tips on engaging Generation Y.)
Buckingham: “I think it’s really important to recognize that Generation Y values different things in the workplace. They are going to need more constant feedback, so just giving them a review at the end of the school year isn’t going to work. They may need more time off, so it might mean that looking at different ways of giving them mornings off or afternoons off at different times than Generation X or Boomers are used to…. Recognizing that they learn in different ways and want different training than previous generations have is certainly going to be an important part of their lives. And also, they probably want to work in groups in ways that previous generations haven’t. So the most important thing with this generation is to say, ‘They do things differently, and that isn’t a bad thing.’ “
3. How can Generations X and Y maximize their strengths as they become leaders in schools?
Buckingham: “I think they are very complementary generations to work together if they let themselves. I think they spend so much time resenting each other, and that’s their biggest problem.
“They are very different, and so they spend so much time saying, ‘We’re different from each other’ and ‘You don’t get me,’ and that’s their biggest fault. Generation Y is so good at tech and social media and thinking about problems differently. Generation X, on the other hand, is a great go-between between the Boomers and the Ys, [with] a great way of looking at the more traditional parts of an institution and things that have happened before.
“So rather than saying, ‘You don’t get me, you don’t get me,’ [they should] say, ‘Well, how can we work in a complementary way versus fighting each other all the time?’ ”
4. How can both Generations X and Y minimize their weaknesses?
Buckingham: “By understanding that they’re not going to be all things, all the time. Generation Y does not like to do things in the process-driven way. Generation Y probably does like to have a shorter day. Generation Y probably does like to work remotely. Generation Y does want more feedback. Generation X has to accept that.
“On the other hand, Generation Y probably has to compromise and recognize that, yeah, they probably have to be [at school and work] more than they expect to. Generation Y has to accept that [school and workplace] processes will not allow them to be promoted as quickly as they want to.
“So it’s probably about recognizing that not everything is going to work the way they each want it to, and it doesn’t mean that [a particular] institution is bad, the people are bad, but that they have to recognize that some things can’t change immediately. I think everybody thinks that it’s all about immediate change. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen, typically, in big institutions like school.”
5. How should parents and educators help Generation Z gain the skills to be successful in the new career landscape?
Buckingham: “I think the question is, how do you plan for an unknown future? … You know, everyone is talking about learning to be critical thinkers, learning to plan for the unexpected, learning to not hold onto our old traditions so much that we assume that that’s what’s right….
“I think [the key is] embracing new ways of teaching and learning and not dismissing things because we don’t like them. As an older person of an older generation, we may not like that our kids’ primary way of communicating with us is texting, but that’s the reality. So we can’t fight these things. We just have to think about, how can we best incorporate them into our teaching? How can we best incorporate them into what will make our kids successful in the future?
“I think it is so important to not take our old ways of learning and our judgment and our own baggage and put that on top of new generations, because they will experience things the way they experience it whether we like it or not.”
6. How can educators best communicate with Generation Z?
Buckingham: “On their level. I think that everyone is saying that email is dying, right? And it’s not that email is necessarily dying, but certainly for a younger generation, they don’t use email. And to force them to speak in a language that they don’t use is not going to work.
“So whether it is through setting up a school blog, whether it is through setting up a school text, chances are [different communication is] going to be more effective. So [is] looking for ways to communicate with them more visually…. Do I think that learning should be done though video games? No, not necessarily. But do I think that some of the things that make video games engaging could be incorporated into teaching? Yes, I do. Do we need to memorize all of the things that we’re memorizing now that we have the search capabilities? Maybe not. Do we need to teach our children how to master search? Yes, we do.
“So I think [the solution is] rethinking what is essential now that the world has progressed in the way that it has.”

Leaders at Ravenscroft and Center for Creative Leadership Discuss Partnership Triumphs, Trials, and What Comes Next

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How do key leaders at Ravenscroft School (North Carolina) and the Center for Creative Leadership assess their partnership in the new education model Lead From Here? What do they most like about working together? What’s propelling them forward? I take you behind the scenes of this pioneering partnership in my podcast with Head of School Doreen Kelly, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs Colleen Ramsden, and Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) Project Director Christopher Ward.

The excerpts below have been condensed and edited.

On Success Stories from the Partnership (Clip 1 Excerpts)

Doreen Kelly: “As head of school, one of the key relationships that I hold and trust is my relationship with the board of trustees, the governing body of the school. We recently came off a complete and full-attended board meeting to talk about generative topics. As for what this work has meant to us as an organization, I would say our organizational hygiene is very healthy. We’re equipped with tools throughout the organization to model that collaboration between two nonprofits, and we feel that work is distinctive.
“So having our whole board trained — developing a common language throughout our community, preK to 12, with all the various constituencies — has been key. As educators we’re getting better at taking constructive feedback. For the concept of growth mindset to prevail, we have to be able to do that, to a person, and we’re very excited about that.”
Colleen Ramsden: “As assistant head of school, I can share a little more specific example. I had a dad call me recently and say, ‘I was driving in the car and my second-grade son was in the backseat. And he said to me, ‘Dad, you’re going over the speed limit.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m really just staying with the traffic, so it’s OK.’ And he said, ‘No, Dad, you just need to lead yourself. Don’t worry about what others are doing.’ ” And that’s one of the things we’ve taught students at school — how to lead yourself before you lead others in order to change your world.”

On False Starts and Lessons Learned (Clip 1 Excerpts)

Colleen Ramsden: “One of my main roles has been the entire planning, development, and implementation of Lead From Here. And one of the mantras that we’ve used at Ravenscroft and CCL is that we are making the road by walking. There have been lots of false starts because this is brand-new. It’s not a canned program off a shelf.
“One of the things I wish we had done when we first started was involving students, especially upper school students, into the planning. Their voice is really important, and we would do that differently if we had an opportunity.”
Christopher Ward: “There were times where I felt like we needed to allow faculty room to put some of the ideas we were introducing into play in their classrooms. And yet I wondered about the level of support they needed as they tried out the ideas. Some needed the support; some didn’t.
“So we had to get better at anticipating needs and providing a range of support for a range of needs. And I’ve been proud of this partnership’s ability to learn as it goes.”
CCL and Ravenscroft leaders.jpg
Colleen Ramsden, Christopher Ward, and Doreen Kelly.

On What the Three Like Most About the Partnership (Clip 2 Excerpts)

Colleen Ramsden?: “In my role as the assistant head of school for academic affairs, I love the opportunity we have to learn and grow together as two nonprofits. We at Ravenscroft have always been the experts in the child development area, and the Center for Creative Leadership is the expert in leadership development. But together we have used our skills to develop a unique approach to developing citizen leaders.”
Doreen Kelly: “As head of school, I would say the opportunity to engage in the professional development of employees in our industry, and to provide them with specific skill sets and competencies, is really among the most invigorating work I’ve done in my career.
“And that opportunity doesn’t largely exist in our industry in a deep and meaningful way. How that has transformed our organization is among one of many highlights about this partnership.”
Christopher Ward: “From CCL’s standpoint, this really is a true partnership. That word is used often, but we have brought intentionality to creating our partnership, to collaboration and to interdependence. We are very open and honest. We’re very transparent. We make strong, strong efforts to work together and make decisions together, even to the point of giving each other really good, clear feedback that’s both positive and constructive. It’s been really, really exciting.”

On How the Partnership Came About (Clip 2 Excerpts)

Doreen Kelly: “As head of school, I know that all of us want to live and work in healthy environments where children are allowed to develop to their full potential. I was beginning to think about how well we do that intuitively as an organization, but I wondered what it would mean in a preK to 12 environment to be more intentional about the development of citizen leadership.
“It was during that time I was connected to folks through the Leadership Beyond Boundaries program with the Center of Creative Leadership, who had a very similar question about what it would mean more globally for folks to develop specific skill sets around exercising citizen leadership.
“At that point it appeared almost immediately that we had a shared vision around this work and direction, alignment, and commitment on this concept. So we elected to come together to pursue this question more deeply in preparing young people to become the best citizen leaders they could be.”

On Future Outcomes Driving Ravenscroft Forward (Clip 3 Excerpts)

Colleen Ramsden: “From my role as assistant head of school, our next step in the coming year is around parent education. We know that for something to be really successful, it has to live not only at school but in the home.
“And so we have started offering parent education workshops on the same topics that we’re working on with our students and our faculty and staff.
“For example, a workshop on giving and receiving feedback is happening in January [2016] for our parent body, using the tools that the Center for Creative Leadership has created called SBI, Situation, Behavior, and Impact. We have modified that tool to make it appropriate for parents and children to have feedback conversations. And we’re looking forward to continuing to develop our parent education so that they are supporting what we’re doing at school and we’re supporting what they’re doing at home.”
Doreen Kelly: “From my perspective, our goal is to share the work we’re doing. We think we have a public purpose; the word is getting out about what we’re doing. We’ve had schools from around the country and India and England come to visit us to learn more about Lead From Here. Many folks are presenting nationally and internationally at conferences, and we’re beginning to have a good deal published about this work in various sectors as well. So we’re very, very excited about not being selfish about what we’re learning about ourselves and as a part of this journey.
“It’s quite exciting to have gotten a call today from the president of a national company after he got our materials. He was so moved by the Lead From Here work. His comment was that it was so crushingly beautiful that he wondered, ‘If it could work at a school like Ravenscroft, why couldn’t it work in a company like his?’
“That’s another key question for us to begin to ponder. We face a journey of seeking, having questions, and exploring. It’s the kind of thoughtful development we’d like to see in every member of our community: to start with a key question and to engage in it and wonder about it and seek knowledge around it and grow and improve.
“It’s among the most dynamic work I’ve done in my entire career. And I’m just so honored to be a part of this partnership.”

On Opportunities for Growth with CCL’s Model in Schools (Clip 3 Excerpt)

Christopher Ward: “What’s exciting is that the growth opportunities exist sort of exponentially in the hearts of those who are imagining what education could look like next. We’re a part of a movement that exists in education to develop the whole child for a complex and interdependent world in the future.”

NAIS Chats with Center for Creative Leadership on Redefining Leadership for 21st Century Schools

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Editor’s note: I recently conducted a two-part podcast about the changing nature of leadership and its application in schools with Christopher Ward, a project director at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). In the first clip, Chris describes CCL’s leadership model and how it can be applied in school challenges. In the second clip, he describes CCL’s focus on developing the next generation of leaders.

CCL’s Leadership Model and Work in Schools

  • Chris outlines CCL’s unique model of leadership and its place in the 21st century (at 0:45).
  • He articulates how the model can be used to strengthen school governance (at 4:46).
  • He takes us inside CCL’s work with schools from the conception to the evaluation stages (8:38).

An Emphasis on Cultivating Young Leaders

  • Chris defines the systemic approach CCL believes is needed and underused now (at 0:37).
  • He offers advice to school leaders about nurturing young people as leaders (at 6:18).
Excerpts on CCL’s Model of Direction, Alignment, and Commitment (from Clip 1)
“Our model is a little bit of a twist that moves beyond the idea of leaders and followers … what we see in the 21st century and the new economy and the new world [is] that there’s a climate that really demands an interdependence between a lot of different people to get work done….” 
“Our model is very simple. It is not easy but it is simple. And we find that to be very important so that we actually have a chance of implementing it. So our model is unique because it’s less about the people involved, whether you’re a leader or a follower, and more about the outcomes of good leadership.”
“It identifies three outcomes for effective leadership … direction, alignment, and commitment. And so what we’re proposing is that leadership is really about creating shared direction and what are our goals and are they clear to us; what is our vision, do we all understand that?”
“The second component is alignment; alignment is about roles and responsibilities and based on that vision, those shared goals, do we have clear roles and responsibilities set up for the team, the group, the community that’s trying to move towards those goals?”
“The final outcome … is commitment and that is managed over time, that energy unto those goals, the desire that anyone would have and their ability to invest in the time, their gifts, the resources, needed to really to follow through on that day-to-day, week-to-week, sometimes year-to-year.”
Excerpts on Applying CCL’s Model in Governance Matters (from Clip 1)
“For example, a board coming in, even on-ramping new board members, if you clearly articulated your direction and the alignment that the board has with school leaders, what role the board plays, and what role the school leaders play, and how they interact, and then the commitment, why it’s important, what’s the rational for this, what’s the urgency for this work, … [the model] allows [board] on-ramping to be really much, much easier because it very quickly orients your board members to what you’re trying to accomplish.”
I think additionally then [the model] informs how you recruit board members, how board members are selected, … and it creates really good alignment between why someone would be interested in being a part of the board and the real work that needs to be done.”
“In an ongoing sense, I think [the model] generates the kind of clarity and ongoing fidelity to your goals and collaborative process that can really make a board effective. So, for example, in a capital campaign situation, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish and why? … And how do we create talking points for our board members and others who are going out and really communicating the vision in a way that is the same across stakeholders and to different community members?”
“It’s a very strong coalesced message that’s going out. And then … [the model] creates the kind of alignment in getting the work done between different people that clearly identifies who the chairs of the campaign might be, who is playing different roles….”
“[The model] brings clarity. It mobilizes people nicely. And I think it has the potential to create longitudinal integrity as well, as board members move on and off. If you are tracking your direction, alignment, and commitment well through different seasons, it allows you to kind of keep that line that otherwise you’re purely relying on the institutional memory and the overlap in members.”

Excerpts on CCL’s Work with Schools (from Clip 1)

“We really begin conversation with people … with a mindset that’s most recently been described through design thinking, as we come in very much as partners in the work … we sit down together and go through a discovery phase where we say: What is it that you’re interested in, and why are we at the table together? What is your vision? What are your goals that are really compelling to you that feel really juicy and important? And where is this Venn diagram of our expertise and leadership and our research and experience and training and development and coaching, where does that serve you well?”
“And through that conversation and through data collection and interviews, their focus groups, surveys, we right-size it for the need of each school or community, but through that discovery process, we then are able to truly put our finger on what is it that we are looking for?”
“We bring developmental lessons that span from age 4 to age 18 as well as faculty development, training, and senior leader training, board training. We have a lot to offer but would never assume that any of those solutions are the solution for every school.”
“As we move forward, it’s about building the capacity of a school to accomplish its goals. We aren’t interested in necessarily working in perpetuity with every school. Though we love the ongoing relationships that we create, what we’re really trying to accomplish is to build the capacity of each school to uniquely bring leadership development to their communities and provide whatever support we can to that process.”
“Lastly, I think the important thing to say is that we really do try to evaluate and assess constantly what we’re doing and ask ourselves is what we’re doing working? … Part of what the Center brings to the table is a really robust evaluation team that serves all of our clients from corporate clients to nonprofit clients to our school clients. And so, we build evaluation, plans, and strategies that allow us to follow up the work, be it longitudinal and ongoing, or even just one-off training over a weekend. We follow it up with data and conversation to make sure that learning and development continue.”

Excerpts on CCL’s “Multi-layered, Multi-stakeholder, and Systemic Leadership Solution” to Developing Young Leaders (from Clip 2)

“The idea behind all of us, as schools and those who are invested in the next generation of leaders, is to create an environment where every student who comes to a school has the opportunity to develop as a leader deeply and effectively … they are emerging into a collegiate environment with a robust and clear jump-start on their peers in terms of understanding how to approach getting things done, understanding anything from empathy to collaboration, anything from self-awareness to communication to strategy and vision.”
“It always comes down to how are we developing our young people at a different level and with greater intention? These are things that independent schools have done and done well, many of them for a long, long time. But what we’re finding is that very few [independent schools] have truly tried a systems-approach to impact all students to bring great intentionality to leadership, to development for their young people that matches the same kinds of intentionality and building scopes and sequences of development for curriculum, for mathematics, for English, for politics, for all kinds of things.”
“Then faculty and staff, those delivering, need the training to be able to deliver that in a powerful way, and that’s an area that isn’t usually why they were hired for their position… We need to work with students and then faculty and then … we need to create a culture, a community, a school institution that is characterized by the same values and approaches that we’re trying to teach in terms of leadership. What we’re really trying to do when we’re trying to develop a young person or anyone is create a very consistent environment that supports their learning.”

Excerpts of Chris’s Advice to School Leaders on Developing Students as Leaders (from Clip 2)

“I think one of the most powerful things a school leader can do is really assess the needs of the institution that go beyond the tyranny of the urgent. And that’s always a huge challenge because there’s so many things that we need to be responsive to: the parent that calls with a need today; the very many logistical things, the things that happened with students over the last weekend that need response and care, the fidelity to good scope and sequence and curricular implementation….”
“Usually somebody is not calling on the phone or sending an email saying, ‘I need a response from you on this today about whether or not you’ve developed my young person as a leader today or we’re removing our student from school.’ That’s typically not the urgent need. But it is in the long-term an incredibly urgent need. So I think that one of the most important things school leaders can do is really listen to their communities, keep an eye on that long-game, and be open to asking the questions, to step outside the loops of speed and demand, and have some of these conversations that are so important and commit to nurturing over time.”

On The Power of Meaning: A Conversation With Author Emily Esfahani Smith

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What am I here for? How can I live a meaningful life? People have been wrestling with these existential questions forever, and clear answers seem more elusive today than ever. Amid this uncertainty, author Emily Esfahani Smithhas illuminated a timeless foundation on which to build a meaningful life in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. It hinges on four pillars: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Recently, Emily and I chatted about how we can rely on these pillars and help children and teens lean on them to grow and weather whatever challenges they may face in life.

Listen to our full Q&A, which includes discussion on Emily’s spiritual foundation, the urgent search for meaning today, the topic’s revival in American universities, and the role of mindfulness in transcendence. (36 minutes)

Read edited excerpts from our conversation below.

The Four Pillars of Meaning

“In talking to many different people about what makes their lives meaningful and reading a lot of philosophy and psychology and literature about how to live a meaningful life, I began to see patterns emerge. People tended to talk about four different things.

  1. Belonging is about being in a relationship where you’re valued by others for who you are intrinsically and where you in turn value others. It’s not just any type of relationship; it’s one that’s based on feeling like you matter and treating other people like they matter.
  2. Purpose is about having something worthwhile to do with your time, and psychologists define purpose as having a goal that organizes your life and that involves making a contribution to the world. One person’s purpose might be working on a cure for cancer, and another person’s purpose might be raising their children. It has this other-oriented dimension to it.
  3. Storytelling is about the story you tell yourself about yourself about how you became the person you are today. To lead a meaningful life, we have to develop a coherent narrative about who we are and how we got to be that way. This involves reflecting on the top experiences of our lives, but also the more tragic experiences, and understanding how they shaped us.
  4. Transcendence is about those moments when you are lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life and you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. For a lot of people this might happen in nature, at church, or even in the work they do. As a writer, I can sometimes get so in the zone that I lose all sense of time and space and before I know it, it’s past dinner and I’m still writing. People who have had these transcendent experiences say they rank among the most meaningful of their lives.”


Achieving Belonging in Our Mobile Lives…

“It’s important to recognize that belonging exists in moments among individuals. So even though for most of us, our chief sources of belonging will be our families, friends, and communities, we can cultivate this belonging with anyone.

“Let’s say you are at the grocery store and checking out; you could just conduct the transaction with the person who is checking you out, or you could take a moment to have a short conversation with them, to ask how they’re doing, to treat them like a human being. Research shows that these kinds of small moments, these micro-moments of belonging are powerful sources of meaning for you and for the other person. They lift both of you up.”

…And Helping Children Gain Belonging

“It’s important for children to understand that there is this obligation to be present when they’re with another person and to treat them with dignity and respect, no matter who they are. We know things like bullying are such problems in schools and now in the online world, but adults can help kids realize that developing true friendships and being a good person come by treating others like they matter, and that this lifts both people up.”

Approaching the Problem of Youth Suicide

“I’ll tell you a story that really moved me when I was researching my book. I went to this presentation that high school students from around the country were giving about what’s called a dream project. They each had these different dreams, and were working towards accomplishing them. This one group of girls presented their dream to publish a book of letters written to a friend of theirs who had committed suicide just a few months ago.

“The girls were devastated obviously. Then they thought about a meaningful way to respond to this. They asked everyone in the school’s community to write a letter to this boy named Billy, as if he were still alive, encouraging him to not take his life and reminding him that life is worth living. They compiled these letters together in a book they called Dear Billy, which they wanted to publish so other students like Billy could read the book and find hope and consolation in it, and hopefully decide not to kill themselves.

“In this workshop, the girls asked us to write on a piece of paper a list of everyone in our lives who was dear to us: our parents, friends, families, doctors, neighbors, everyone who ever cared for us. Then they had us write our own names on a separate portion of that paper. Then they had us rip our names off the paper and said that’s what suicide is like: You’re ripping yourself out of the lives of all these people who care about you.

“I thought it was profound. It captured the fact that suicide is a social problem — not just an individual problem — because it’s not just about the person who has killed themselves who has suffered and is suffering. It leads to this wider suffering in the community.

“Helping kids realize that they are integrated in a broader community that cares about them is one step toward preventing suicide. If you can get kids to create a culture of belonging by cultivating small moments of belonging with each other, I think that would protect some of these at-risk kids. Research shows that one of the things that predicts a suicide among boys is a rise of individualism and personal control, which implies that if you nestle them within a community, they’ll be more protected.

“Also, it’s about helping kids understand what is the broader purpose of their lives. If they see they are needed by others, that will also prevent them from committing suicide.”

Taking Steps to Realize Your Purpose

“There’s a wonderful assessment, a scientifically validated test, that you can take for free online called the Via Character Survey. You answer a bunch of questions in about 20 minutes. Then, it tells you what your strengths are. Strengths are things like love, compassion, leadership, curiosity that across ages have been valued by cultures. There’s a real universality to it.

“Also, reflect on yourself. You don’t have to take a test to figure out what your strengths are. You know yourself as well; think about what you’re interested in, what excites you. And use that to reflect on the ways you can use your strengths to give back to society.

“Another thing I recommend is speaking to a mentor. Sometimes, especially when you’re young, you don’t know yourself as well as the older people around you know you. I know when I was in college, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. It was only through the intervention of mentors who knew better than I knew myself that I was encouraged to pursue this other path, which was writing and psychology — where my strengths really lie.”

Crafting Your Story

“If you want to tell a story about your life, you either begin by thinking about it or writing about it. I would begin by reflecting on the defining moments of your life. What was your childhood like? Did anything happen there that you think really shaped you? Was it a positive? Was it a negative? How did it make you grow? Piecing together those dots of experience into a bigger picture that explains who you are today is the first step.

“It’s important to recognize you’re not just going to sit down one afternoon and say these were the key experiences of my life, and this is how they shaped me. Storytelling is an ongoing process, and you can constantly revise your story, edit it, tell it, and retell it in different ways, even if you’re constrained by facts.

“For example, you can imagine that two different people have the same set of events happen to them. Both people went through their parents’ divorces when they were younger. Then their parents ended up getting remarried. One person could say that was a really awful experience, and it made me lose faith in the idea that long-term commitments can ever work out positively. Another person might say that was a really terrible experience for a while, but then I saw both of my parents went on to have these new richer lives with their spouses. It made me see that maybe sometimes we make mistakes, and we have to try again in our relationships. It’s the same set of facts, but two different interpretations.

“Researchers find that when we tell redemptive stories — stories that move from something bad happening to something good happening — we tend to believe our lives are more coherent and more meaningful. So in addition to reflecting on the bullet points of your story, see that you’re interpreting them in a way that’s both consistent with reality, and focuses on the good that ultimately came of your experiences.”

Helping Children Shape Their Stories

“An educator or a parent, any adult who is working with kids, has a powerful role to play in helping kids understand and shape the stories they’re telling about themselves.

“If kids are telling a dysfunctional story about who they are or where their lives are going, then you can help them edit that story by pointing out that their interpretation of events is not true. ‘Do you really think that nothing that you do matters? What about the time when you studied hard for that test and your grade got better?’ Helping them edit their stories in ways that are healthier would be good for them. Research shows that the stories we tell about our lives actually shape how we live our lives. If we tell positive stories defined by redemption and growth and love, we end up living more in accordance with those values ourselves. It’s this self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Finding Meaning in Others’ Stories

“All the stories in the culture, whether it’s movies or television shows, radio stories, stories that your friends tell you over dinner, stories that you read in novels can build meaning in two ways. One, if you’re sharing stories with another person, it builds a sense of belonging because people love listening to each other’s stories. Having somebody listen to your story in an attentive way makes you feel like you matter and like you’re heard. David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, said listening is an act of love, and I think that’s absolutely right.

“The other way storytelling builds meaning is when we hear somebody else’s story, or read it in a novel, or watch it on television, it helps us process our own story more deeply. You might read Hamlet by Shakespeare, and maybe you haven’t gone through everything that Hamlet has gone through, but maybe you experienced self-doubt. Maybe you are unsure about a major decision you have to make in your life. Hamlet’s story of doubt and uncertainty helps you come to a deeper understanding about where you are and how you might move forward.”

Opening Yourself to Transcendent Experiences

“Transcendent experiences exist on a spectrum. You can have a major transcendent experience when you are meditating, in prayer, or doing something where your sense of self just completely fades away, and you feel like there’s no boundary between you and the world around you. You feel totally connected to the outside world, to God, to nature, whatever the case may be.

“There’s also more ordinary, everyday experiences with transcendence. You can go on a walk in the woods and feel a little bit more connected to the world around you, a little bit less weighed down by your own problems. You can listen to a beautiful piece of music, or go the art museum and just look at a beautiful painting. In those encounters with beauty again, you can experience a stillness and a renewal that comes from slowing down and stepping outside your own head for a few minutes.

“To have more of these experiences, you can be intentional about seeking them out. Instead of spending the last five minutes of every day on social media before you go to bed, try listening to a piece of music or reading a poem you love. Don’t just eat lunch at your desk; go out for a walk during your lunch hour. A lot of times we’re so tempted to be tethered to our phones, to not just walk to school or whatever, but to listen to our pop music as we’re walking to school, or to be checking our texts and email constantly. If we can resist this urge to constantly be connected to our technology, we’ll open ourselves up to more opportunities to experience transcendence.”

Seizing Opportunities to Grow After Crisis

“It’s important to have meaning in life because it brings you a sense of wholeness and well-being, but it also helps sustain you through life’s more difficult challenges. The people who tend to be more resilient in the face of a crisis are the ones for whom the pillars were already strong in their lives beforehand. The ones who tend to grow in the face of some sort of crisis are the ones who lean on these pillars to get them through, or actively build the pillars up in their lives.

“I interviewed a Vietnam War veteran, who experienced a terrible post-traumatic stress disorder when he came back. It turned him into an alcoholic, and his life completely unraveled to the point that one night he drank so much that he got into a car accident where he killed another man who was on a motorcycle. This person, Bob, hit rock bottom. Not only did he take somebody else’s life, but he thought his own life was now meaningless. He couldn’t understand why he was here and what purpose his life had. With time, he started to see the only way he could redeem what happened to him was by helping veterans who were struggling in the same way he was.

“He started this organization called Dryhootch, a chain of coffee stores throughout the Midwest for veterans. There’s no alcohol, just coffee. It’s also a community center for veterans to do things like meditate together, play board games. It’s a space that’s familiar to them and comfortable, but is also protected from the temptation of alcohol and other substances.

“His goal was to help people like him not make the same mistakes he did. He was able to overcome the crisis he faced by having this renewed sense of purpose, by creating community, a form of belonging for others, and he really built these pillars in his life.”

Fostering Students’ Resilience in Adversity

“I would encourage educators to help their students connect with the different pillars in their lives, and help them see how those pillars already exist or how they can build them up.

“The research on kids and adversity is clear. One of the profound things that makes a big difference in how a child weathers adversity is if they have one person in their life who really cares about them. Things could be a mess in their home life, and maybe their friends are not there for them either, but if they have a teacher or an aunt or an uncle, somebody who shows them love and affection, they will fare a whole lot better. A teacher can either be that person, or can help guide their students to somebody.

“Teachers can encourage students to form a kind of community. If they’re struggling with mental health, maybe they can reach out to other people who are struggling, too, and create a support group where they get together and talk regularly about these kinds of things.

“The other thing that’s very important for kids is purpose — if they know and feel connected to some dream they have, some goal that lies in the future, it can be something that motivates them and helps them get through whatever they’re going through at the moment. We know from research that kids who have a sense of purpose are much more resilient in the face of adversity.”

Nurturing Children’s Natural Generosity

“I am so excited these ideas are reaching children because I think they’re some of the ones who need it most. I hear all the time today from parents and teachers that so much of what their kids care about is becoming an Instagram celebrity or making lots of money, things that are more about self-glorification.

“But I think kids have this natural generosity to them, and all we have to do is encourage them to bring out that part of themselves. Then they will be far more likely to withstand the trials of childhood and adolescence and not fall into so many of these problems that we see young people falling into, from depression to suicide to substance abuse. It’s about helping them find their meaning, and helping them realize it’s not about them. It’s about how they can contribute to others.”