Gomer Pyle, Headmaster, Sees the Big City and the Future
Right now I don’t have jeans on. I’m at 40,000 feet flying home from NYC and the NAIS Annual Conference. Someone quoted Tom Wolfe there: “You can be of New York in 5 minutes as easily as in 5 decades”—or something to that effect. But I don’t think so. I always feel displaced there. I was walking down the street my first day, glanced sideways at a fellow conferencer, asked for directions, and then—upon getting them—extended my hand and introduced myself. It was an awkward moment. I suppose one does not do such things in New York. Then there was my Coffee Crime. I’ve stayed in hotels with coffee makers in the room before, but never with Starbucks-in-the-bag. So I made a cup when I rose and took the remains of it downstairs. I ordered a fresh cup in the line for my bagel and yogurt, but since I already had a cup and since I wanted to show these New Yorkers that we Southerners can be as Green as the best of them, I magnanimously volunteered to keep my used cup. But when I went to the coffee pot to fill my half-full cup, the Coffee Cop in a waiter’s uniform started yelling at me. Well, I think he was yelling at me—he probably didn’t think he was yelling at me. “You can’t get refills here without paying for them.” I proceeded to explain my rectitude to him, but he was unimpressed. I tried again, but his English was not great and I only dug myself into a deeper hole with him. Finally, when I realized that everyone in the line was staring at us, I decided to cut my losses and absconded with my coffee, looking for the table in the darkest corner I could find. Such experiences do not endear me to this great city. The great city where the yell at you and then expect you to tip them.
But one can be amazed without being at home. I had never been to Radio City Music Hall, and this trip I had the chance to sit with 6700 other school leaders and hear from the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, and Mariane Pearl. I heard the Madrigal Singers from Greenwich Academy, the Town School’s Lower School Chorus, the Elisabeth Morrow School Orchestra (amazing!), and the acapella choir from the Master’s School (where Roger Brooks, son of our own Fred and Nancy, has his children). And, of course in New York, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Manhattan. I met the famous Jim Wickenden, who gave up his job as Admission Director of Princeton to do head searches for the most elite private schools in the country. Warren Gould (with whom I shared a room and several hours of planning and conversation) showed me the cavernous Carney Sandoe room where the independent schools do “speed dating” with all the candidates who come to interview for teaching jobs. And I rode in the front seat of a New York cab and heard a Lebanese Catholic driver cuss his way to LaGuardia, while at the same time asking me how he could teach his young son to read well enough to become a doctor. I was Gomer Pyle in the Big Apple, and I’m sure my jaw was agape half the time.
You have to pay for everything in New York. I had to pay to use the internet in my room. I had to pay to go to the fitness room. I had to lay down the cash to store my suitcase all day Friday, else I would have had to pay a lot more for checking out late. So far, they haven’t started charging for the bathrooms, at least not where I was. And I had to pay for the conference. So much that I almost didn’t go. But I’ve been hearing about this NAIS conference for years, and I decided it was high time I saw for myself. Besides, Warren works in Princeton, just an hour’s train ride away, and he was coming up for Carney Sandoe and so it was a great chance to meet him. And, most of all, the conference theme was new and novel to me.
If they did a good job (and largely I think they did), the conference was new and novel to everyone, seeing how the theme was “Schools of the Future: The Educational ReNAISsance.” Clever marketing, finding that acronym like the chocolate in the middle of the title, don’t you think? The school I run is, by necessity, a school of the present—at least it was when I left it Wednesday morning, and from all the emails I read on my Blackberry while walking down 6th Avenue (multi-taksing with the best of the NYC natives), it still is very much a present, urgent, bustling concern. And if we look elsewhere than the nunc, it’s often to the past—to the Trivium, to the masters, to the sages and scientific pioneers. So I figured it would round us out some if we found out about the schools of the future. We’ll be there soon, I suppose.
In fact, the point of most of the speakers is that we’re there already. Change was the theme. Someone flashed up a cartoon with a stodgy business executive, in designer pajamas, sitting on the side of his hotel bed, corded phone to his ear, with this caption: “This is your wake-up call: Change or die.”
I’ve written about this elsewhere, and I think you don’t have to repeat yourself in a blog just to be thorough. Right? Change is a mixed blessing. Change is not, to contradict the common mantra, “good.” I believe that change is morally neutral in and of itself. Some change is good, some is not. But the mavens of the future are saying, “Stop quibbling. You don’t have a choice.”
I found myself wide-eyed and inquisitive for much of the time. I learned about wikis and Ning. I heard about a school which sends 60 high school students a year to developing countries to live in homes and work on a project. I saw some amazingly creative demonstration lessons. I watched a chemistry professor debate global warming in a powerful, engaging and pedagogically astute way. I came away with dreams of a jazz ensemble, an acapella chorus, and a string quartet. I saw podcasts which Upper School students have made and which are now part of the Smithsonian’s collection. I watched a CSI video made by students in a forensics class.
I came away very thankful to be at Trinity. I was there with some schools hundreds of years old. At least one of them just crossed the $1Billion line in their endowment. But I’m very happy to be coming home to our little school which just raised our first million in endowment. Why? Lots of reasons. I kind of like trying to be friendly and courteous, even if I’m not particularly good at it sometimes. I like the fact that on Saturday I’ll probably get to ride my bike down country roads with little traffic. I like it that our school doesn’t have to wrestle with the levels of elitism which some of these schools do. And while we’re thinking about the conference theme, I like it that our school is young and nimble enough to make the adjustments which this Future they talked about will dictate. One of the intense moments of the conference came for me in a session where Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point and Blink fame) and Adam Gopnik, both writers for The New Yorker, debated—I kid you not—“Should the Ivies Be Abolished?” Gladwell took the affirmative; Gopnik, I think, was supposed to take the negative, but his defense was less than robust and one was left wondering at the end of hour just what the difference was between these two. And where the Champion of the Status (pun intended) Quo was hiding. One of Gladwell’s inimitable barbs was to suggest a game, where you ask someone, “If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?” Gladwell said his change would be this: That no one would ever be allowed to mention the name of the college or university he or she had attended in any conversation. Everyone laughed, but at the end of the session, the moderator could not resist the temptation to mention that both he and the President of NAIS had attended the same college as someone who had been favorably cited in the debate. All of this I mention because it shows just how deeply invested we all are in this Status Quo which is soon to be Status Novus, some of us more than others. The bad news is that Trinity’s board is not comprised of major donors from Williams, Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. The good news is that Trinity’s board is not comprised of major donors from Williams, Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. Other schools may find the money to change. We may find the will to change. Which would you prefer?
But change comes hard for us all, no matter where we went to school. And, always, we have good reasons not to change. The hairs on my back went up all three times that speakers suggested we should stop banning cell phones from classrooms. Such bans are the Blue Laws of today, our last holdouts against a rising tide of technology, they argued. I think they may be right about the rising tide. Did you know that cell phone penetration into the American market is at something like 80-90%? For our children, they are like wristwatches—in fact, they are wristwatches. How many of our teenagers own a wristwatch? Why not? Because time is everywhere for them, especially on their cell phones. How would I feel if someone told me I had to remove my wristwatch before I came to school? So I see the point and feel the change coming, but I also hate the specter of students texting surrepetitiously during class. Like all the school Heads at the NAIS conference, when the workshops got boring. Which is to say that maybe the real issue is how to keep the workshops, and our classrooms, engaging.
So in case anyone is interested, here are the workshops I attended:
“Toward a True Global Classroom: Best Practice Merges with New Ideas.” I learned about some distance learning classes which have been running now for ten or twelve years and have really worked out some of the kinks. Some of these ideas might pay off soon for Trinity—we could offer distance learning classes for high schoolers who want to take a course we simply can’t offer yet. Additionally, if we ever had a teacher who would want to be trained to do a distance learning class, Trinity would benefit in a couple of ways: We would get to barter classes taught for our own students’ classes taken; and the teacher who engages in this kind of teaching, perhaps more than any of us, will figure out what kind of learning is best done online and what is best done in the classroom. That question seems to me to be key. And to bring some great ideas to other teachers at Trinity, to say “Try this with your face-to-face class”—that would be a great benefit to us.
What Is Global Citizenship and How Do We Teach It? I heard from the Director of Global Programs (I kid you not) at Lakeside School in Seattle. This school has developed a strong and vital program which takes about 60 high school sophomores and juniors to developing countries, houses them in the homes of the people, and puts them to work on a service learning project. Amazing stuff. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have Microsoft nearby when the Head wants to raise endowment to fund this program.
Communications and Advancement. We’re looking for a new Communications Director, so I took advantage of this workshop to network, pick people’s brains, and hear how other schools have had success in hiring from within.
Classroom of the Future. This was a most interesting part of the conference. NAIS set up a futuristic classroom and taught lessons there. I attended a couple of these and soaked up what I could. Learned about NING and wikis and how you can use your cell phone to make a podcast and all manner of other new fangled stuff. Stirred me up a good bit, but I can’t get my mind around just how to incorporate some of this into Trinity’s pedagogy.
The Communications Office and Technology Department in the 21st Century School. Again, I was thinking about this new hire. But also about the inter-connectedness of communications and information technology and how to organize the work at Trinity is the smartest way. I think I was the only Head in the room of techies, and much of the workshop was too granular for me. But it was actually very good for me, and I picked up a lot of great ideas about Web 2.0, about how to we ought to use our website, about online communications, and about using sites like Edline and Moodle for teaching.
Roundtable for New and Developing Schools. I was especially excited to find this group. I’ve often felt the need to connect with others who have started schools or have been involved with growing schools which are young and small. There aren’t that many in NC, and so this provided me with a wider network. NAIS is planning to develop a Small Schools Network, and I put my name on the list to stay informed. Good dialogue: cathartic even if not particularly enlightening.
Teaching Right-Brained Creativity. Pat Bassett, President of NAIS, did a great workshop in which he took Daniel Pink’s ideas and fleshed them out with particular examples of things schools across the country are doing. I’m planning to do my own version of this for our teachers this coming Tuesday. Good chance to share with them some of the more innovative things I learned.
All in all, it was a great conference. I went with a goal: to stretch myself to think about the ways education is changing, particularly to explore global education and the impact of information technology on education. Those goals were surely met, and I’m ready to dive back into the present.
And by the way, NAIS did a good job of selling me on the value of NAIS membership. Up to this point, I’ve thought that the membership was too rich for our blood. But several things are conspiring to change my mind about that. This conference (much cheaper for members), the demographic tool they have, and the financial planning tool they showed some of us down in Southern Pines a month ago.