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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

The Poet's Eye

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

This morning while I was at the "gym" (patch of shade on squishy playground surface outside the caution tape), I thought about the reach-out calls that elementary school teachers make to their students and families a month or so before the first day of school. Talking with young children on the phone can be a weird and unsatisfying experience (Zoom might make them even weirder), so many teachers send something ahead that they can talk about together--a little family questionnaire or a brief art project--and they're prepared for the anxious questions parents have about the year ahead. I think these calls are really big moments, and elementary teachers are expert at them. Parents experience them as grounding:  "I've read through the mountain of documents the school sent, but this is what it's really going to be like; this is the person who's going to be guiding my child, our family through the year." This summer, teachers and advisors should call kids and families at every grade level to ground all the school's plans and family concerns in reality. Whereas this routine transpires like clockwork in a typical year, this summer's calls will require some extra planning, and the details of the school's fall plan may be the easy part. It will be critical for teachers and advisors to be knowledgeable (but not encyclopedically so) of the school's fall plan but even more important for them to convey confidence and "on-boardness" in these calls. On the first point, a two call scenario will allow teachers and advisors to get back to parents' on any arcane or puzzling questions. The second call can otherwise be just a quick touch-base a week or so before opening day. The latter point is a much more complicated matter. Heads face a challenging conundrum this summer: the need for small, efficient decision making teams vs. the need to have everyone inside the operations of the school feel like they're on the team.

All of this argues for Heads to think carefully about how they include faculty and staff in the fall planning process this summer. First, it's important to note that Heads are going to be making a big withdrawal from the trust account they've built with faculty and staff. New Heads and long-serving Heads at a low point on the trust curve are at a disadvantage. Second, Heads should describe to faculty and staff why the leanness of this decision-making process is appropriate for the moment and acknowledge that it's going to feel strange by comparison to the elaborate consensus building strategies they're used to. Finally and most importantly, I think Heads should surround the process with "windows"--regular updates on the design team's conversations--and "doors"--opportunities for faculty and staff to contribute to the conversation in substantive ways (and not only through representation on task teams)--all of it with a very clear description at the outset that all voices will serve in an advisory capacity (that is, you're not going to put the plans up for a vote) and that the decision and the responsibility for its results ultimately rest with the Head.   Then, Heads must explicitly ask for the public support of every employee and help them understand what that means, how in their everyday interactions they will be the school's most powerful models of confidence for each other, the kids, families, the community outside the school. It's worth imagining how that support will sound, what the body language will look like, how they can anticipate their responses to the anxious or unhappy parent or colleague, and how those distinctions might change over time with the vagaries of the virus and the unforeseen consequences of the school's plans. All of this work, as full of protocols and logistics as it might seem, is ultimately about creativity, with everyone in school operations and governance in the role of the poet as Theseus describes him (Shakespeare winking theatrically from the wings) in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

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