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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Moving Forward

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

It was a good Thanksgiving on average for independent school heads. Auspicious vaccine news corresponded with the future-gaze of budget planning to create a glimmer of light on the horizon of next fall. I heard that tentative optimism in conversations with heads over the past two weeks. It's the counterbalance to the inscrutability of major line items on the budget. One head told me he'd decided to make those items appear in a green font on the spreadsheet. Enrollment? Who knows? Financial aid? Anybody's guess. Another head told me that he was optimistic about enrollment for next year, then laughed, "Actually, I just made that up. I have no idea." The flip side to these troubling mysteries is the opportunity to begin thinking about a next school year without the dire precautions that have distorted this year, a time to imagine rebuilding the community that schools have kept together with the bailing twine of air-fives and Zoom.

This matter of rebuilding and repairing community is particularly salient for preK-6/8 heads as not only have their young students lost critical social learning this year but social fractures have also spidered out into the adult community. Faculty everywhere are emotionally and physically exhausted. At schools where faculty were given the choice to teach remotely or in person, resentment has grown among in person teachers who feel that they are carrying a greater share of the workload. Among parents, differing household COVID precautionary standards have divided once-close-knit friend groups. And, dysfunctional habits have arisen among some parents and their children through the enforced togetherness that has characterized this year. All of these tensions exist in high school settings as well, but in preK-6/8 schools where social learning makes up a bigger portion of "school," where parents see the school as an essential partner in child-rearing, and where parents often build some of their most lasting adult friendships, these rifts must be addressed head on next year.

First, heads know that they must very visibly lead this work--in the role as Chief Convener, host and emcee of new and traditional moments when the community gathers; as the person with the position on the org chart and the frequency of soft and soap box moments to elevate key matters; as the person most often called upon to resolve difficult tensions between people. Heads know that they have able colleagues to assist them in this work next year--school counselors, division directors, faculty--but that work will be amplified many times over if the head is actively leading the efforts to mend the community fabric.

Heads also know that they must establish the tenor of the work and provide teachers with the tools and the support to be part of carrying it out. They'll rely on a lay person's version of narrative therapy by providing new experiences to supplant last year's, by telling the stories of strength from last year and discouraging maudlin "doom-scrolling" (Twitter term of the year) of the past. They'll encourage colleagues not to project their own feelings onto each other and onto the kids and be open to understanding everyone's experience. Many teachers have already encountered the wide disparity among kids in how they and their families have experienced the pandemic and the impact or relative lack thereof on their affect and socialization, and they have seen how that can change over time or be deeply disguised. They'll remind everyone that we can count on each other's resiliency and on the remarkable gift/curse of human memory eroding with time, and that we can learn to be available to each other's struggles and grant each other the time, patience and resources to move beyond them. This last may be the greatest gift that heads can give to the faculty: an insistence on the importance of building their classroom communities and wider school community, and a reminder that very little academic learning will happen individually and collectively until everyone feels safe. This is neither toxic positivity nor a call for round the clock therapy; rather, it is a call for truly listening.

Whenever I find myself in this state of worry, I return to the Malcolm Gladwell essay Getting Over It, published in the New Yorker in 2004. It's Gladwell in his usual contrarian/provocateur stance providing a counterpoint to a phenomenon that has only grown since 2004, namely, that Americans have come to believe that our negative experiences irremediably damage us, incrementally or emergently, and that we must be on guard to avoid these experiences (and help our children avoid them) at all costs and to enter a state of panicky fatalism when we do encounter trouble. Wrong, Gladwell contends, humans are much, much better than we think at overcoming negative experiences, even trauma. But we need help from others to heal, and I would argue that independent schools are pretty damn good at that.

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