Inspiration

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Among the many advantages of working at a school as a teacher or administrator is that one finds oneself being inspired by others on a regular basis. This week alone, I have been inspired numerous times.

Just yesterday, I witnessed the incredible strength of a tight-knit family as they dealt with the loss of a loved one. They demonstrated a commitment to one another – love, courage and strength, despite their deep sadness. Despite my own sadness, I felt buoyed by who they are, how they are there for one another and for others. I felt inspired by their example.

Earlier this week, North Shore learned of the death of one of our oldest alums. Fisher Howe ’31 died just days shy of his 101st birthday. I knew Fisher, admired him and over the years have been inspired by his energy, spirit and example. As an expert in the field of not-for-profit governance and a true believer in the power of young people, Fisher clearly lived a life that exemplified the North Shore motto “Live and Serve.”

Very early on Monday morning, I had a conversation with one of our coaches to catch up on his team’s performance over the weekend. As he described the performance of one of his student athletes at a recent competition, I was struck by how invested the coach was in his team and each of the team members. He didn’t talk of his athletes in the context of winning and losing, instead it was about their growth, the habits they were developing and the lessons they were learning. I left the conversation energized and, yes, a bit inspired my colleague’s commitment, his knowledge of his sport and his knowledge of his athletes. I found myself inspired.

Every day in school “inspiration walks the halls,” whether it’s four- or five-year-olds or 16- or 17-year-olds. I find students who are “doing school,” inspiring — each positioned to grow, each collaborating with peers and teachers, each investing themselves in their education.

Finally, I have been inspired by our trustees who have stepped up whenever they have been needed the most. In recent weeks, three key Board leaders went above and beyond to provide guidance and perspective as I was preparing to announce my retirement. Their commitment to North Shore — to our students, faculty and staff, parents and families — is inspiring.

I realize that 14 months from now, I will leave a routine that has meant so much to me and through which I have found inspiration. Am I worried about what comes next? Not really. I will have 40 years of inspiring memories to look back on.

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 JK-12 Community

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When I talk to prospective teaching candidates, particularly those who are not from this area, I try to explain what sets North Shore apart from other independent schools, what we do or believe in that makes us distinctly North Shore. When having those conversations, I focus on a handful of things. One is our long-held commitment to being a true JK-12th grade school. In doing so, I often hear myself say that North Shore is more “JK-to-twelvey” than most JK-12 schools.

We believe in the power of educating a wide range of ages on a single campus. We have generations of evidence that show learning opportunities abound when there is interaction between “big kids” and “little and middle kids.” Our structure allows us to ask different questions, learn from different voices, and it allows for modeling – challenging our students to be role models and benefitting from the modeling of others. We know the benefits go both ways. Many times my colleagues and I have had discussions about the kindergarten-senior buddy relationships and are undecided as to which group learns more.

The power of that dynamic was evident on Monday when 3rd and 11th grade buddies joined together for a project in honor of National Poetry Month. Third Grade Teacher David Green introduced the work of writer and artist Joe Brainard, who wrote a book-length memoir/list poem.

The buddies were asked to write a set of “I Remember” memories, learning more about each other in the process. Their favorites are displayed on a wall for all to read whenever they pass through the Conant Science Center Atrium.

I didn’t participate in the exercise. In fact, my observation was limited to walking through the Atrium space while the students were working. The positive energy, willingness to connect across ages, positive connections and spirit came through loud and clear. Kids learn from each other – both ways.

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.

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

BrainFood

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.