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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Keep it Real

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

If you've read even a few paragraphs of my blog pieces, you know how deeply I believe in the power of community in independent schools. Our work in creating those communities has been tested since last spring as the pandemic fractured the patterns and geographies that fostered those relationships. But we also discovered some efficiencies and developed some clever new tools that felt a lot like a new way of doing things. Below is a list of common independent school, adult-focused events and activities that we believe have great cultural worth lying below their practical surfaces. These are the activities that we believe schools should continue to hold in person, with an important caveat: now that we've experienced the conveniences of gathering remotely, event organizers must work hard to bring to fruition the collateral value of community building, and they'll need to communicate that rationale proactively.

Parent Open House (Curriculum Night)

Parents encounter bushels of very practical information on these evenings, things that in retrospect seem mundane, but to the parents of a new PreKer, the placement of snack time on the schedule can feel like mission-critical information. Schools are also showcasing their exceptional teachers, and, particularly in elementary schools, the thoughtful classroom spaces they've created with student work on display everywhere. This is an ideal time and place to help parents and teachers build relationships with each other, even if simply having parents introduce themselves in the classroom, and by having key administrators, particularly the Head, Division Heads and Director of Enrollment at large for most of the evening to circulate and introduce parents (especially new families) to each other. As convenient as it might be--and most heads I know got happy reports from some parents about the convenience of Zoom Curriculum Night--reducing this important cultural touchpoint to Zoom squares is a huge mistake. It is possible to over-invite parents to school (especially in elementary schools, and especially in the last weeks of school) in such a way that it feels to parents like a kind of soft tyranny (and tacit inequity). Conversely, it is appropriate and important, I believe, to ask parents to take time out of their personal and professional lives several times a year to attend important school activities in person. All of this said, I do think parents will reasonably expect an event like Curriculum Night to be recorded, and some will inquire about making live remote attendance an option. I strongly caution schools to think carefully about room and Zooming this event, however. The potential for technology hassles to interrupt the flow of the evening and for the erosion of the overall number of in person attendees will diminish the higher purposes of this event. This is a teaching moment, after all, a job more to be taught than done, the institution helping families understand the mission being brought to life and the power of adults forming relationships in support of students and their growth.

Faculty Meetings

Helping faculty form and steward relationships with their colleagues should be an explicit goal for any faculty meeting, and administrators and teacher leaders should be expected to employ the same creative pedagogies in engaging their colleagues that they use in their classrooms. The constructed and incidental ways in which people come to know each other in person are exponentially greater than those available in Zoom breakout and chat rooms.

Admission Tours

A good admission tour is interactive theater. If the purpose of a play is to hold a mirror up to nature, the purpose of an admission tour is to listen closely to prospective families about their hopes and dreams and then to customize their visit so that they might see their family reflected in new ways in what they're shown at the school. Schools created masterful remote tours during the pandemic, particularly those that allowed prospective families to self-customize their own admission experience through video and written content on the school's web page. Schools should absolutely leave that content up, and recognize that the frequency with which they created new content in response to the shifting patterns of the pandemic has established a new standard. That said, nothing can replace a well-constructed in person admission tour.

In the efficiency basket:

Parent Teacher Conferences

Parents hustling from their workplaces mid-day, waiting outside closed classroom doors, knocking politely, all seems a little silly in retrospect. In formal parent teacher conferences or for those moments when adults meeting face to face is important, videoconferencing feels like a new way of doing things.

Parent Education Events, Coffees

I can foresee schools rotating in person, and asynchronous and synchronous remote formats for parent education activities to accommodate varying schedules and thereby reach a greater number of parents.

Board Work

For the same reason that faculty meetings should be in person, I think Boards should retain a sizeable complement of in person meetings, perhaps all full Board meetings, or an orientation and yearly retreat at the very least. Committee meetings, on the other hand, seem like a great fit for videoconferencing and offer the opportunity to include trustees who have tighter work constraints or may even live well outside the area, a common thing at boarding schools but typically a deal-breaker at day schools.

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