Head of School’s Notebook: Falling Behind

March 12, 2021


I was on a Zoom call this morning with someone who accredits schools for a living. She was late for the call, and when I came out of her virtual waiting room she said, “I’m really sorry. It’s been a hell of a week and I have fallen behind.”

She meant that she was behind schedule, I expect, but I took her meaning differently. We’ve had a tough week, too. Have we also fallen behind? Has everyone? In the last year, we have come face to face with many grim realities. Not simply the pandemic and its far-reaching impacts, but where we are and where we are not with respect to race or gender, religion, or socio-economic class. We are a world in turmoil, it seems, trying to find a way through our apparent failures, which are especially conspicuous.

Surely we are behind where we want to be. It would be nice to presume a trajectory of improvement in our culture and our commonality, but that is not the path we are on, at least not if my lifetime is any indication. And it is not the path that most school communities travel. Working perpetually with 14 to 18-year-olds is a powerful reminder that all learning is neither cumulative nor predictably sequential.

Just because we deliver particular content to one class of students in a given year does not mean the acquired knowledge can be assumed for that class of students thereafter. Quite the contrary. Everything that matters must be taught again and again, not simply for emphasis, but because the knowledge we need, the essential knowledge about how to be a human being in a community of other human beings, is learned.

That was clear this week on the Mesa when community norms were violated using vile language that had also been learned. The lessons aren’t coming, obviously, simply from schools. And they aren’t consistent or complementary either. That’s the challenge, I suppose, to help our young people discern which lessons will move us or them forward, and which will cause us to fall behind.

There are no simple solutions. But there are simple practices that can make a difference. Conversation is a great beginning. Our Women’s Forum is holding a series of meetings, as is our Asian Student Union, our Black Student Union, and our Young Men’s Forum all on the events of the week at Cate and around the world. Each is trying to build momentum and trust around fundamental concerns and questions that cannot be answered without collaboration. In time our affinity spaces will broaden their membership and the dialogue will become more robust and the common experiences more apparent. Great and meaningful change—the kind that is sustained and comprehensive—can only come in such ways when the community itself acts with informed intention.

We will renew our commitment every day, to the very norms and standards we continue to build together. Maybe someday we will find ourselves ahead, though I doubt it. Education is an effort to reach the mountaintop. But we never actually get there. That is the blessing of this work. It teaches those of us who would presume to be teachers that our own work is never done. And it reminds us that the true paradigm we are forever seeking, for ourselves and our students, is not a place but a possibility made tangible by our own best hopes and aspirations.

It’s the most important work in the world, especially in times like this.