a little something extra
Andrew W. Niblock
Director of Schoolwide Initiatives
The Greenwich Country Day School
Director of Schoolwide Initiatives
The Greenwich Country Day School
It is important to be earnest.
According to computer scientist, writer, and entrepreneur Paul Graham, “When you call someone earnest, you're making a statement about their motives. It means both that they're doing something for the right reasons, and that they're trying as hard as they can.”
Earnestness is such an outrageously wholesome driving force that Oscar Wilde wrote a play making fun of it. We never hear it in descriptions of today’s leaders… It’s not hip enough.
It is an apt descriptor of so many on our campuses, though. If you need specific visuals, conjure up images of Debbie Kerrick and Tim Helstein.
For those of you who don’t yet know them, Debbie is the Director of Arts and Tim is the Director of Athletics at GCDS. Their titles convey a certain amount of gravitas, respect, and expertise, but that doesn’t nearly tell the whole story. These two are forces of nature. They are relentless, successful, and definitionally earnest. It is on full display every day.
One need only watch, or hear tell of, Debbie’s spirited musical rehearsals to get a sense that energy, passion, and high expectations are catchy.
Every athlete and coach knows Tim’s standards of commitment, caring, and character start with him and are non negotiables throughout the program.
These two love their work. It’s obvious, and it inspires others to dive in.
Earnestness has never been more evident or important than this year. Debbie and Tim have led the way - making the most of every challenge. Debbie has turned the Middle School musical into a cinematic experience that will give performers and audience an experience unlike any before. Tim has led our Upper School through the first year of varsity competition, finding success on the scoreboard and laying a sturdy programmatic foundation, despite state health regulations that have been a perpetual moving target.
Earnestness has ruled the day.
Look around. The past twelve months have exposed and accentuated earnestness. We all have our moments, but be especially mindful of the earnestness that oozes from our children. Call it out and appreciate it when you see it. It is an outrageously wholesome driving force worth encouraging.
The mission of Greenwich Country Day School is to enable all children in our care to discover and to develop what is finest in themselves—to achieve the highest standards in their studies, in their play, and in their character.
These words keep showing up.
Study, Play, and Character were foundational long before GCDS began our most recent chapter, adding three grade levels and becoming a nursery through twelfth grade school.
Do they still fit?
It’s easy to endorse the enduring value of rigorous study and high character as our graduates now head to college rather than finishing schools.
But, does play still resonate?
Yes. Play may be more important than ever. Play is where we are unique as a school, and as people. Play is where study and character find life. Play creates room for innovation. Play exposes our choices.
Play is where the magic happens.
We know play is how young children explore and make sense of their world. This holds largely true as our learners grow older. The ability to be nimble, playful, in our study of complex and challenging concepts is a powerful advantage. To be able to connect and extend disparate ideas is a playful and vital skill. It is through adhering to the principles of play that scholarship gains depth and texture.
Play is curious in its soul, and it is through enduring curiosity that we peel back the layers of history, science, and mathematics. When curiosity becomes insatiable, it is inspiring and the fuel of revelation. Play is like a curiosity incubator.
Play is also a proving ground for developing and refining character. Play provides the dynamic, cooperational, and, yes, joyful situations that call us to make choices. These choices are made in consultation with our moral compass, our conscience, and our curiosity. These choices also shape our character. The principles of play allow us to make choices in challenging situations throughout our lives, because we have learned to do so and practiced, on stages, and playing fields, and jungle gyms.
GCDS students learn and grow through play every day, in every setting, and at every age. Play extends our scholarship and strengthens our character. Play is where study and character meet and catch fire—in a good way.
Upon reflection, I am happy to report that each tenet of our oft-repeated trio of study, play, and character is alive and well in 2021—perhaps more so than ever before.
Tony Jarvis, the former Head of School at Roxbury Latin School in Boston, would open every school year by promising families that their children would be, “known and loved.” These are powerful words: compelling for parents, exciting for teachers, and empowering for students. We are not the only school to have re-extended Jarvis’ promise, but I don’t know of a place that does it better. Never is our commitment to this more evident than during conference season.
I have always loved conferences—as a teacher, as an administrator, and, in particular, as a parent. I believe in the power of relationships; the ability to spend time with the team of people who care deeply about a child is just awe inspiring. It's not because everything is perfect, quite the contrary. It is because an amazing group of exceptional adults have come to know, love, and value the unique attributes and imperfections of each child, that I am blown away, every time.
Author and educator, Michael Thompson wrote an essay entitled, “Say Something that Claims the Child.” When I was a division head, faculty in my building knew to expect this essay in their inbox the week before conferences every year. In his essay, Thompson wrote of the love that radiates when a teacher describes a child within the knowing context of a relationship, illuminating a student in a light that is more than test scores and homework records.
As a parent, you hope that your children will spend their days with teachers who know and love them. You hope they will be with teachers who get them, believe in them, enjoy them, and inspire them.
These conversations are our opportunity to share stories and strengthen connections. They are a gift.
I am hard pressed to think of a time when I am more proud to be part of this school community.
I have found myself using exclamation points recently. As a general rule, a lot of exclamation points is a bad literary choice, but I think I had a subliminal reason. I was trying to kick-start my energy, my hope.
I am an obnoxiously positive person. I pride myself on it, but the past six months have been doozies. On that, I think we can all agree.
This spring and summer, I was grateful to have time with family, books, music, and a handful of streaming video services. But, I was missing something.
“To get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with.” - Mark Twain
My esteemed colleague David Griswold recently shared this quote with the faculty. It was an eye opening rediscovery for me.
I needed school up and running. I always do this time of year, but this fall especially, I needed our community back together to get the full value of my joy.
I propose that learning is another experience most fully realized with others.
We learn from and with our friends. Ideas grow from ideas and questions grow from questions. A multitude of experiences and perspectives in the room makes for fertile learning soil. Insatiable curiosity and the care to listen for understanding ensure that we continue to grow. That is nearly impossible to do if we’re alone.
This week, students came back to school, on campus and remotely, and the experience was undeniably different from any September in their, or our, memory. Face masks, air hugs, zoom buddies, and physical distancing are sub optimal. The power of real hugs and visible smiles can’t be overstated.
However, this week we returned to the adventure of learning, together, and I don’t need any exclamation points to express how important that is. The energy that, every year, vibrates through the walls and fills the air is still there. The promise of great questions and new friends is just as true at the opening of this year as ever. School is enthusiastically afoot, and we are back together, in a position to get the full value of our joy.
Familiarity breeds …
There are a great many answers to that prompt. We all have our own. Especially now, because there is a whole lot of familiarity going on this spring.
As we are forced to stay apart from friends, classmates, teachers, and teammates, many of us are spending a bunch of time up close with our families.
While we all have our moments, I suspect there have been some interesting quarantine discoveries. Amid the uncertainty and mishaps, our family’s familiarity has bred…
… A healthy appetite. There is magic in a shared meal. Dinner together has been far more regular recently. None of us have any practices, meetings, or events to go to! Having everyone at or near the table does not, in and of itself, guarantee gripping conversation, or any conversation at all, but it increases the chances!
… Music. Bandleader and trumpet wizard Wynton Marsalis wrote a children’s book called Squeak, Rumble, Whomp, Whomp, Whomp about the music he heard in the everyday sounds in and around his family’s shotgun house in New Orleans. To be fair, Marsalis grew up in the first family of jazz, so music was likely to be everywhere. We are not the Marsalises, but I would wager each of our homes has a collection of sounds that makes our own music. A constant soundtrack pervades our house. The occasional bark from our dog mixes with a Stevie Wonder record, which joins the laughter of a game of tag, which is accompanied by a zoom call from the next room, which is punctuated by blasts of a third grade recorder. It all blends to make a particular melody, unique to our address.
… Knowing looks. Our unspoken language is robust. We can announce our approval or challenge without saying a word. A glance can be a signal. An eye roll can be a full sentence. A nod can be a call to arms. There are volumes spoken through the silent looks that pass under the rhythm of our house music.
… Surprises. I read recently a recommendation that we, “ Listen as best you can for what’s different, for what surprises you. “ Even in our homes right now, with our abundant familiarity, we will find the surprises if we listen intentionally. What surprises us, especially with those we know best, unwraps new layers in our relationships.
This practice can also be the cure to the deja vu of our daily zoom calls. Listen for surprises. If you are lucky enough to work or live with children, you won’t have to wait long. The attention will be worth it. Surprises may spark conversation, new reading, or even a song.
We, as people who care about other people, ask lots of questions. Questions are how we learn. They are how we show interest. They are how we connect.
The ability to develop and deploy a great question is one of life’s truly valuable skill sets.
In thinking about learning, we ask lots of questions. What do we value? Why do we value it? How do we best measure it?
Finding ourselves today in a spot where teaching and learning looks very different than it did the first week of March, we are asking ourselves those questions regularly.
In unpredictable times we are called to our core, the stuff that defines us, and we are challenged to use that core in new and, perhaps, surprising ways.
In teaching and learning, parenting and growing up, relationships are that core. Relationships grow from conversations. In school, those conversations are at the core of assessment and feedback, and we are having them in new and surprising ways.
Surveys, small groups, debates, songs, kahoots, shared docs, and exit tickets all play a part in our new school conversations.
They are all a way we ask, and try to figure out, How are you doing?
It is more important than ever, in school and out, that we give the time and attention to listening for an answer.
It’s also more important than ever that we ask that question throughout our connections with other people - as often, and in as many different ways as we can.
David Brooks wrote recently that now is the time we need to “practice aggressive friendship with each other . “ To reach out and connect with those people in your life who need a lift.
Where are those people for each of us? Are they within arm’s reach or a zoom call away?
In any case, now is a great time to build a habit of checking in on the people you care about, asking questions, and giving time and attention to their response. It will feel good, and it will help others in ways you would not imagine.
Neil Degrasse Tyson, the scientific director at the American Museum of Natural History and a dizzying expert on astrophysics, was once asked, by a six-year-old, about the meaning of life. His response resonated with me--the meaning of life is to learn something new every day, and to have fun doing it.
I have always felt that, as a teacher, I had a leg up in this endeavor. Teachers learn every day, whether they want to or not. Spending time with students presents a curriculum that is dynamic and engaging, confounding, and inspiring. Every day. And it is really fun.
While teachers may have had an advantage, in the not so distant past, just moving about our normal lives, we all had ample opportunity to pursue Tyson’s meaning of life.
However, in case you’ve missed it… Normal has left the building.
We are all facing daily uncertainty and bewilderment, and we have no idea when it will slow down.
Channeling my inner Neil Degrasse Tyson… How lucky are we!?
In our “ new normal” we are all in a distinctly advantaged position to learn something new every day, and to have fun doing it.
If you are an adult in view of children, virtually or actually, let them see your bewilderment, laugh with you at your blunders, and rejoice at the well earned epiphanies of new knowledge. We are learning dramatically all the time these days, and it should be a little fun.
If you are a student in view of adults, virtually or actually… Ditto. Adults need learning role models, and you all are the best!
Find the fun in figuring things out. Unearth the joy in trial and error. Embrace the excitement of discovering a new interest.
Learn with impunity, and let the people around you see you doing it!
A friend ( Jackie) got me thinking.
I have always spent my days neck deep in relationships. It is my work. It is my calling. I love it.
Listening, collaborating, cajoling, laughing, crying, counseling, questioning, and learning.
My days are regularly full, and always unpredictable. I have always needed a release. A way to give my soul some predictability, on my terms.
The Serenity Prayer is a prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). It is commonly quoted as: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
I find inspiration and challenge in the Serenity Prayer. I try to work toward it, but I am rarely successful.
I realized long ago that I didn’t stand a chance to find the serenity, the wisdom, and the courage unless I gave myself some time.
For much of my life, daily physical exercise, often running, was my chance to take control for a bit. I can still close my eyes and feel my favorite runs, the ground under my feet, the smell of the trees, my breathing, a sunrise over campus. I miss it.
My 40s have been influenced by a daily battle with ALS. There have been many adjustments and frustrations, but one of the most difficult is the loss of my ability to lace up my sneakers and go for a run.
I needed a new release. A new avenue toward serenity, courage, and wisdom.
I love writing. I love words and turns of phrase. I believe what we say, and how we say it, matters. I don’t often really know how I think about something until I write about it.
I don’t know whether I am more serene, wise, or courageous after I write, but I know I need it like I needed my morning run. Writing is my daily exercise. It makes me happy, clears the noise, and gives me focus.
It makes me a better me.
What makes you a better you?
In late August 2005, normal life in the city of New Orleans, and in the school where I was teaching fifth grade, came to an abrupt halt. Hurricane Katrina forced evacuation, resulting in remote learning and work if you were lucky, and a fight for survival if you were among the thousands who weren’t.
It became common in the days following the tragedy to question whether the city would, or should, come back.
Those who doubted the city’s resilience and renewal didn’t know many New Orleanians.
Soul is waterproof.
This was, and is, the statement on the front of my favorite t-shirt. It summed up the dogged hope and belief that fueled the rebuilding. The city has soul, and no storm could wash that away.
It is also how I know our Country Day community will come out on the other side of this.
Our school has soul.
Our soul is made up of the stuff that weathers the storm. We are a place where character, kindness, curiosity, and joy fuel a desire to chew on problems and the resilience to chew as long as it takes.
We are fortunate to have resources and access that allow for learning to continue despite our distance, but the magic is the people, the relationships, and the culture that binds us.
The strength of our connections is more important now than ever. The time given throughout the year to knowing each other well allows the virtual connections we make today to be powerful. We have learned the twists and turns of the people around us, through discussion, play, good questions, and some sweat. We will find a way to keep them strong.
It will be different. It may be different for a long time. But, it will be ok. Some of it may be great. Some not so much. But, it will be ok.
We have soul.
February is here. Most New Year’s resolutions are long gone, and those that are still kicking may be on the way out. A precious few will see the light of spring.
Resolutions aside, it can be tricky to muster the energy for anything when it’s dark by four.
What makes the difference between what gets done and what gets lost? The answer lies in motivation.
Motivation is essential. It is what urges us over, under, around, and through life’s adventures.
Author Dan Pink wrote a book about it called Drive, which is worth reading. In it, he exposes the serious limitations of traditional, carrot and stick motivation, and he sings the praises of intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive, and Pink argues this is what gets us to the mountaintop. Intrinsic motivation is the brass ring, and it is fueled by passion, purpose, curiosity, and belief. Building the stuff of intrinsic motivation is what life, and particularly school, is about.
Ironically, one of the ways we cultivate our inner drive is from the outside. We use the people around us - our teams.
These teams often fall into two camps - tough love and enthusiastic support.
Which do we need?
Last year, Drew Brees, an undersized and often underestimated NFL quarterback, broke the record for career passing yards. In an interview following the game he was asked what fueled his success. Brees gave a refreshing response.
“I have so many people who believe in me. I want to prove them right. “
It would have been so easy, cliche even, for Brees to call out his naysayers. Instead, he thanked his enthusiastic supporters, his gospel choir. ( I read an article recently that introduced the concept of the gospel choir as the epitome of enthusiastic support - I grabbed it.)
When that enthusiastic support comes honestly and regularly from people you value and trust, it is particularly powerful. At Country Day, our students have a gospel choir of peers and teachers who believe in each other and earnestly work for the success of those around them. This mentality is very TIGER PRIDE, and it works. It cultivates valued relationships well beyond Upper School commencement.
The late educational leader Rita Pierson said that every child needs a champion. To take her message further—everyone needs a champion, regardless of age. We all need someone who believes in us—our worth, our ability to grow.
Who is your gospel choir, the champions in your life that provide you with enthusiastic support? Who are those people for your children?
Who do you champion?
Having a full-throated gospel choir is probably not enough.
Professor and author Adam Grant espouses the benefits of a cultivated challenge network. A challenge network is a group of people you respect whom you ask to shoot holes in your work—your ‘tough love’ team. They are the editors who trim eight paragraphs to five. They are the devil’s advocates who ask the question that exposes the fault in the perfect plan. They help us keep our eyes on improvement.
Your children have challenge networks. They include teachers, coaches, siblings, and you. They also include peers and the world of popular culture.
Constructive feedback can be hard to chew coming from the best of sources. As adults, we filter the feedback, we curate our challenge network. As parents and teachers we have an obligation to help the young people in our care see the value of a feedback filter, and to help them be intentional in its development. At GCDS we are intentional about not only providing frequent informed feedback, but building the confidence and core knowledge in our students that allows them to craft their filters.
Who is in your challenge network? Who is the challenge network for your children?
In both cases, what voices are too loud? What voices are missing?
Knowing how you are most powerfully, effectively, and honestly motivated by those around you is a worthy aim. We should pay attention to our motivators, and we should help the children in our care do the same. It can determine what gets done and what gets lost.
Lagniappe is New Orleanian for a little something extra. On this blog my goal is to share something that has caught my eye or gotten me thinking. Something extra…I truly enjoy writing it, and I appreciate the time spent to read it.