Enduring School Riddles, Part 4

Been a while since the last core issues piece, so here goes another. If you’re keeping score at home, Riddle 1 was about tuition and how best to manage the iron link between what families pay schools and what schools pay faculty, Riddle 2 was about how best to draw, support, and celebrate teachers in a world where working at home in pajamas is increasingly a work option, and Riddle 3 was about the need to raise funds beyond tuition without some people feeling more important than others. Add to those head scratchers the question of curriculum, of the what, the how, and the why of our programs:
Everything that defines a school emanates from its decisions about program—how many people we need, what kind of campus we need (if any), what kind of schedule and calendar, what kinds of students, and the list goes on. All of our costs and all of our benefits come from those program choices, and you might think that every year a school would zero-base and start anew, based on changing circumstances. But overwhelmingly, schools are conservative entities, preserving what’s familiar and avoiding the risks of the unknown. You’d be hard pressed to find a social institution that has changed less across the generations—add teachers, students, rooms, departments, transcripts, books… and repeat.
It sort of makes sense, since the basics (reading, writing, math) are still pretty basic. And society needs childcare. And it’s not OK to experiment with people’s kids, right? At the same time though, aren’t we preparing young people (for lives of significance, in Island School’s case) in a future that is guaranteed to be different from what we know today? How do we strike the best balance of what has worked for so long and what we know should be new? That’s where program comes in.
In the case of a pretty new school, like ours, in a pretty remote location, like ours, there’s bound to be pressure to do what’s considered to be best elsewhere, in more established settings, or at least to do what we think is being done in those settings. And that’s basically what I’ve seen in my short time here. We’re fundamentally safe, taking care of what has been given to us by those who worked so hard to make the school in the first place. Who are we to go around messing with the recipe for prior success?
What tends to drive big change in schools is some crisis or unavoidable threat to their very existence. COVID showed us some of that, then we snapped right back to what came before. My dear old friend, songwriter John Prine, once said, simply and brilliantly, “happy people don’t write a lot of music.” And for many good reasons, we are pretty happy people. We know what we like, because we like what we know. At the same time, look around—huge societal changes afoot in terms of the way we work, the way we live, the way we interact with one another, and the way we access information as we learn.
So it just might be that our children’s’ children will not do school (or college) the way their grandparents did. The question is what we should reconsider, and when, for how long before we know if we are on the right track. Maybe Voyager Week should be Voyager Month, or Voyager Year. Maybe our day should start later or end later or change from season to season. Maybe part of our students’ experience should be in smaller groups, or in larger groups, or in remotely assembled groups, or solo. The key, for me, is biting off the right size chunk for innovation and being really, really intentional about testing our best theories for change, as we communicate exactly what we are doing and why.
Flipping this notion around, imagine if we somehow agreed that we’d change nothing at all—wouldn’t that be worrisome? What we need is a process for identifying how we want to lead. That’s what independent schools should do as we address the program riddle. Nothing could be better for the long-term benefit of the school. Lucky there’s a great new school head about to show up. My guess is that a planning process will begin sometime in her first year, and my hope is that you’ll answer the call when it comes.
Until then, our time is best spent getting everything in the best shape possible in advance of that process. Like finishing that new building, taking care of our faculty and staff, watching every discretionary dollar spent, and connecting with one another in this very rare community. One lesson from nature on island is that if something rests, it rusts. We’re no exception.
You’re kind to read,
ps- keep eyes and ears open as we consider open positions at school—our best opportunities may be very close at hand.