An Inspiring Life

tomsblogcakeLast week, I wrote to Lower School families with the sad news that Pam Whalley’s 93-year-old mother had passed away in England. Fortunately, Pam was there with her family and today is participating in the celebration of her mother’s life.

I was able to connect with Pam yesterday. I again offered my condolences, and we then talked about the last two weeks and about her mother. Pam explained that despite the fact that her mother was 93, her death was a surprise. Prior to developing pneumonia, she was leading a vibrant, fully engaged and very connected life.

As Pam described her mother, she talked about her life in a small English village and what a strong and wonderful presence she was within the village. Pam’s mother apparently had an unusual ability to connect with others – all types, always reaching out, always making time for people. Pam’s mother was known for doing things for others. She baked cakes to welcome new people to the village and to support and help friends, neighbors and acquaintances during difficult times. She played a very key role in the village for so many – young and old. She played this role by being herself.

One of her last words to Pam and her sister instructed them to take 20 pounds from her purse and give it to one of her nurses (she couldn’t remember the nurse’s name) who is running a marathon and was looking for sponsors. Despite her frailty in her last days, she continued to think of others, and it was important to her that the nurse be supported and encouraged in her race.

There is a saying about “a life well lived.” Aren’t we fortunate to have so many wonderful examples to inspire us? I didn’t know Pam’s mother – but she has had an impact on me, and I am grateful.

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

Parent Partnership

During the first week of Spring Break, my wife and I were fortunate to spend time away with two of our three children, Charlie and Mullery, both of whom are North Shore graduates, both of whom are currently teaching in independent schools.

Both are enjoying their schools, both seem to be meaningfully involved and both seem to be making their mark. As I look back over our week together and reconstruct our conversations about their schools and their experiences, I find it curious how often they talked about their involvement with the parents of the students they teach, coach or advise. Whether it is regular email correspondence, regularly scheduled parent conferences or simply seeing parents in the hallways and corridors at plays and concerts or athletic events, it’s clear that parents play an important role – encouraging, guiding and supporting their children and in partnering with the school – and work, or partner, regularly with teachers, coaches and administrators.

Charlie and Mullery offered the perspective that working so closely with parents is a real positive of their jobs…usually. In almost all cases, parents are responsive, thoughtful and provide perspective and insight that helps them be effective in their roles working with their children whether it is in the classroom or on the athletic fields. Each, however, described a case or two of what I will call “parent dysfunction” — parents whose defensiveness, narrowness of perspective, over-involvement or micromanagement of their children shifted the agenda away from learning and growth. I asked them how they handle these situations; one seemed to keep things in perspective and offered an example of working with a difficult parent to get to a better place. My other child, however, was less positive, perhaps burned by a recent conference, where the disconnect between a mother and a father was so uncomfortable that not only has it left their child confused and overwhelmed but so, too, the adults who are working to support the child.

The takeaway is twofold: Good, committed, thoughtful teachers really do impact student growth in meaningful ways particularly when these talented educators are able to leverage the power of effective parent partnership. Secondly, a lack of partnership — parents who don’t listen, aren’t able to keep perspective or are driven by unrealistic student outcomes — complicates not only their children’s lives and compromises their performance, but, in many respects, also compromises the performance and effectiveness, and even the lives, of their children’s teachers, advisors and coaches.

I’m a parent, too. I’ve sat in the parent chair at conferences and know that it can be difficult to keep things in perspective when your child is facing a challenge or difficulty. I, too, found myself fighting a tendency to either second guess the School or over manage my child. Fortunately, I also knew that if I trusted and respected my child and the teacher/parent partnership, my children would not only get through any struggles they had but would turn out to be great kids as well.

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

School/Life Balance

Middle School Field DayIt’s pretty common in society today to talk about work/life balance. No doubt, in this fast-paced, multifaceted world it can be a real challenge to not let one overly influence the other — to move a career forward in a purposeful and positive manner while, at the same time, facing the challenge of living a full and purposeful non-work life.

Interestingly, the longer I work in schools the more convinced I become that the same can be said of school/life balance. Perhaps it is self-serving of me, but I think that managing a school/life balance is quite challenging as well — challenging for students, for teachers and for parents.

Personally, I find it best to focus on the now, while developing awareness of the long-term results. In effect, I think it’s best to keep perspective — taking both a short- and long-view — while working collaboratively to move toward understanding and outcomes. Reaching that awareness is, at times, not easy. It’s not easy when your child is in pain, you’re worn out and reality sets in.

Right now, I’m getting a lot of experience maintaining this perspective. As we head into Spring Break, we are in the midst of our hiring season and working to fill roles of those teachers and administrators who will be leaving North Shore. A handful of people have reached out to me with, “How are you doing, Tom?” “Isn’t it difficult to manage the many moving parts?” My answer is that I am doing well – challenged, yes – but encouraged by two things: that those who are leaving North Shore are doing so having managed the work/life and the school/life balance very thoughtfully and made decisions that are, in fact, the right ones; and that they are leaving with positive feelings about North Shore. This knowledge helps me, and others, keep perspective knowing they are making decisions that are best for them and their futures. And I’m truly excited for them. I’m also very touched by the words of support and concern from parents and colleagues who know the pressure that those openings create.

We all know that strong organizations and good people make it possible to work through challenges. And, sometimes, the ultimate outcomes are even better than the expectations. I think North Shore is one of those places.

I’m also confident that we are in a very good place. Candidates who visit our school are unanimously impressed by our students, faculty, program and facilities. I also plan to use the upcoming Spring Break to relax, recharge, spend time with family and recalibrate my school/life balance. I hope you will do the same.

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

Focus on Food


For years, the subject of the School’s foodservice has been on our radar. While our lunch program has functioned well on a number of levels, we always thought the opportunity existed to do it better.

The complexity of a JK-12 program — i.e. how we meet the needs of our wide range of ages, how we provide choices and options, how we serve food to the three divisions in an efficient and responsive way, and a very full school agenda — seemed to stop any evaluation before it got started. It wasn’t until a series of events started unfolding a year ago that we recognized we needed to commit to a thoughtful analysis and then act on the resulting recommendations.

In the short span of a few months last school year, a number of factors came into play. The first, we had an understanding that our new Upper School academic schedule would be implemented for the 2015-16 school year requiring a new way of thinking how we stage lunch for our three divisions. Secondly, we were learning about significant changes in lunch programs in leading schools throughout the nation — changes that​ brought an increased emphasis on nutrition, wellness and locally-sourced food. Thirdly, ongoing conversations among members of the faculty led to excitement about the ​prospect of integrating our foodservice program into our overall academic program. Finally,​ we hosted Alice Waters — a visionary American chef, restaurateur, activist and author — who spoke as a part of our Parent Education program about “Edible Education: Teaching the Art of Simple Food.” It was then we decided it was time to address the topic.

Last summer, I asked four colleagues, Cindy Hooper, Annie Collins, David Kubacki and Drea Gallaga, to be part of a Food Task Force and take inventory, investigate possibilities and ultimately make a recommendation that might lead us in a new direction. At the time, I had a two-year window in mind — researching, studying and analyzing this year, and planning and implementing on the docket for next year.

Not surprisingly, given the passion of the committee members, things moved quickly. What was expected to take two years to formulate has occurred in just one year. We are positioning ourselves to launch a new food-education program with the initial changes to be implemented at the start of the 2015-16 school year. Changes that will occur include working with a new on-campus foodservice partner — a vendor who brings a commitment to an educator-chef model, farm-to-table methods, local sourcing of food and sustainability practices.

In addition, as we move forward next year and beyond we are committed to a campus-wide education program to minimize and properly dispose of food waste, along with a commitment to develop and implement an integrated JK-12 food-education curriculum. Our sense is this curriculum will focus on nutrition and health education, food-sourcing and procurement, menu planning, food preparation, distribution and waste management. Finally, we hope to integrate our “Live and Serve” motto by addressing the issue of hunger through partnerships with local organizations and raising our students’ awareness of global food issues.

It’s an aggressive and optimistic agenda and will bring a lot to our plate (pun intended). We look forward to the challenge and are confident the improvements will be substantial and meaningful over both the short- and long-term.

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

A Week in the Life of North Shore

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At our Board of Trustees meeting held earlier this month, I gave a Head of School Update. I started my remarks by reading the following list — a quick summary of some of the events that took place in the previous week to 10 days.

  • The Parents’ Association held a volunteer day to “Live and Serve” at Bernie’s Book Bank
  • Teachers enrolled in our Global Cohort program met after school for a two-hour presentation and discussion
  • A gathering of Alumni in New Orleans was held
  • Our 8th graders attended a Shakespeare performance
  • Upper School students attended the Model United Nations conference held at Harvard University
  • The Benefit Board held a kick-off event for its annual Auction/Party “The Purple Wave”
  • Middle School held its annual Service Week
  • Liam Davis ’86 performed at Morning Ex
  • Candidates to fill Pam Whalley’s role as Lower School Head were on campus meeting with faculty, touring the campus, observing classes, seeing our students in action and meeting with our Search Committee
  • There was a Lower, Middle and Upper School band concert
  • Our Middle School Science Olympiad team competed at a local invitational
  • 29 Basketball games were played
  • The track team attended a meet in Champaign, Illinois
  • There was a meeting for Upper School baseball parents to discuss the upcoming season
  • Daily rehearsals for the Spring Musical, Footloose, in anticipation of the mid-March performances

This list doesn’t even include the classroom presentations, homework assignments, projects, experiments and discussions that take place each and every day.  My intent was to communicate to our trustees (lest there be any concern that winter is a time for hibernating) that activity across the divisions — from students, to teachers, to parents — remains at a high level, and that we continue to move full speed ahead.

Many of my most talented teaching mentors were consistent in their message that often the best learning is “learning by doing.” Fortunately, if that is the case, learning is at a very high level this winter.

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

Dual Stewardship


Morning Ex yesterday featured singer, songwriter Liam Davis, North Shore Class of 1986. Liam sang a number of songs, many of them that he had written. Beyond his singing and writing talent, it was his comfort on stage and his ability to engage the audience that stood out. Liam came across as exactly who he is — a bright, aware, interesting and interested individual. Liam is a person who takes a genuine interest in others, a person wonderfully adept at making personal connections. (Not a bad role model).

I remember when Liam was a student at North Shore in the mid ’80s. He was then what he is now — talented, open and very aware. As I watched him in various concerts and plays, in the hallways and on sports teams, I wondered what he would become knowing very well he would make his mark. So it was particularly gratifying for me to see him now, almost 30 years later, in such a positive place.

After Morning Ex, Liam admitted he got a bit emotional when he looked out and saw our kindergarten students on the laps of their senior buddies. The sight of these buddy relationships brought back great memories. He observed that the connection between our youngest and oldest students nurtures a kind of “dual stewardship” — both are there for one another and both benefit from the other. I have often commented that I am never sure which group learns more from the buddy connection, our kindergartners or our seniors. Liam’s observation affirmed what we have known all along — these students benefit greatly and very meaningfully.

Liam also demonstrated a type of stewardship as he shared his talents with our school community, talked with an individual student interested and passionate about music, connected with students in the Upper School hallways who offered congratulatory comments about his performance and engaged with faculty who remembered him as a student and welcomed him back to North Shore.

Thank you Liam.

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

“It’s Not What You Look At, It’s What You See”

lookingatart I recently saw a video interview of Jim McLaughlin, the newly appointed women’s volleyball coach at Notre Dame. McLaughlin, who I had never heard of, has had a very successful career and is the only coach in NCAA history to lead both a men’s and women’s volleyball teams to national titles. In the interview, McLaughlin was asked how he had grown over his years as a coach.

I was surprised by his answer. Instead of focusing on his recruiting philosophy, on training techniques or game strategy, he talked about having developed an improved ability to see, really see, what was happening whether it be with his players, a game situation, or the various elements that contribute to the development of a team. And, secondly, he talked about his improvement in his ability to listen.

McLaughlin’s words made me think about the exciting challenge we face as teachers – how can we teach our students to move beyond “looking” to really seeing and how can we help our students listen and really hear?

Whether it’s being able to see another person’s point of view, or approach a particularly challenging problem, science experiment or difficult dilemma, we recognize that “seeing, rather than just looking” is an incredibly important skill. Similarly, listening and really hearing is a requirement for any successful student, or for that matter, any successful person.

I find it affirming that at North Shore we do, in fact, focus a lot on teaching seeing-and-hearing skills. While the learning dynamic might be framed in class discussion, reading and summarizing, problem solving or a more creative endeavor in an art class or music class, much of what we ask of students is to “see and to hear.”

And just like Coach McLaughlin, adults, whether they are parents, teachers or coaches, should seek continued growth so we can better model the skills of seeing and hearing for students. In doing so, we help them and ourselves, as we open our eyes and ears to a much bigger world of thoughts, ideas, inspiration.

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.