Today, I read with great sadness the news reports arising from a situation at a highly-regarded boarding school for high school students in the Northeast. It seems that allegations of sexual assault by a freshman female student against a senior male student have led to revelations about the existence of a student and school culture that tolerates and encourages sexual adventurism and scoring of encounters. A court trial is about to begin; I expect other articles to follow.
Several administrators and I have had conversations throughout the day today on this subject. We have recalled and discussed the steps taken here at the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge—just in the last two years--to work toward healthy relationships between our male and female students. Some of those steps include:
In our conversations today, the partnership between Episcopal and parents of Episcopal students that exists naturally in our day school has been identified as a great asset. Sexual assault is like a few other major plagues on our society which defy absolute guarantees that they cannot happen “here.” We all know that adults through the ages have not found a way – absolutely – to stop a segment of adolescents from engaging in unhealthy risk taking and illegal behavior. We are committed --- and after today’s conversations recommitting --- to striving toward an even healthier community where sexual assault and related harmful activities, along with the attitudes that underlie them, are clearly neither encouraged nor tolerated.
The Upper and Middle School Division Heads, Counselors, Dean of Students, and I will be in touch in the first half of this semester to let this community know what additional steps are being taken in this Episcopal community to keep us strong and healthy.
Head of School
I am NOT being lazy! Together with school colleagues, I’ve been working this summer to ensure that the 15-16 school year starts off well and becomes --- with cooperation of students, parents, and friends --- a remarkably positive school year that ushers in the “Next 50 Years.”
But, I am a big fan of David Brooks. I read his New York Times commentary and watch him speak for the conservative side of things on public television shows. I agree and disagree with him depending on the topic, but when the discussion or reading is over, it never fails that I walk away in a thoughtful and informed mood. I wish he lived next door! He would be a great neighbor.
At the beginning of the summer, I purchased David Brooks’ newest book: “The Road to Character.” I jumped into it and, as I read it, I had all kinds of thoughts about recommending it to our community as a book we could all discuss right after school started in August. I was NOT being lazy this summer; things (like traveling around and getting some of our long-ignored alums informed about what’s shaking at Episcopal) just intervened. I’m settling for half a loaf on “The Road to Character” by simply recommending it to you. In particular, the first 15 pages will help you locate what “character” looks like in our times and what forces are shaping it today in our lives and in the lives of students.
As a service to you, I’ll help set the stage for you with this quote from page xiii of the “Introduction: Adam II:”
“We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life. The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming. The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions. The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character…..This book…is about how some people have cultivated strong character. It’s about one mindset that people through the centuries have adopted to put iron in their core and to cultivate a wise heart. I wrote it, to be honest, to save my own soul.”
At some level, almost all parents send their children to Episcopal to learn how to be competitive in the world but also how to have “iron in their core and to cultivate a wise heart.” In our Mission & Ministry, those concepts are combined into our preparation of students “for college and for purposeful lives.” I think, if you read David Brooks’ book, you will nod affirmatively all the way through it; you will be confirmed in your choice of a school that does not ignore character and that works on the movement of students along their respective spiritual journeys. Moreover, you will also close the book at the end more informed than when you started about the imperative of character development among all of us. Plus, we know, once character is attained to some degree, how quickly and easily it can slip away. The stories of individuals that David explicates in the book illustrate how the struggle, if well done, is life long, Perhaps, like David Brooks’ personal ambition for his book, it will help to “save my (your) soul.”
If some want to get together as the year progresses and talk through some aspects of the book, I would welcome that. Just let me (or Becky Ewing) know and we will work something out. We could touch on the importance of daily Morning Meeting in Lower School, twice-weekly Chapel Services in Middle and Upper School (with students involved in planning and carrying out those Chapels), the advisory program, Episcopal’s growing (or, is it “deepening”) Center for Service Learning, Episcopal’s classroom instruction on religion and graduation requirements in this area, and the examples students experience and sense everyday of teachers, coaches and “admins” (as we are charmingly referred to on campus) who live out character in relationships with students. During the 15-16 school year, a small group of faculty members will be analyzing in a comprehensive manner how faculty and staff relate to students; this will be built around the quality and timing of advice that students are given and will explore how far we should take the concept of “personalization” of the Episcopal experience for each student. I want us to challenge ourselves about how we identify the God-given talents of each student and how we act to cultivate those gifts from the Creator to encourage the “purposeful life” that is intended and possible for each student. I think David Brooks would approve!
Just a few days ago, an Op-Ed by David Brooks in the “New York Times” caught my attention. Entitled “The Structure of Gratitude,” you can read it here. He wants United States citizens to recognize the importance of an economy of gratitude alongside, along , as complementary to our country’s strong commitment to our more utilitarian financial system of risks and rewards. As a conservative commentator, he is making the case for being stronger with both. For him, it is not a choice of one over the other. He wants us to embrace both. In his view, the strength of each system reinforces the other.
Here are some quotes intended to entice you into reading the rest of “The Structure of Gratitude:”
“You’re grateful for all the institutions our ancestors gave us, like the Constitution and our customs, which shape us to be better than we’d otherwise be. Appreciation becomes the first political virtue and the need to perfect the gifts of others is the first political task.”
“People with grateful dispositions see their efforts grandly but not themselves. Life doesn’t surpass their dreams but it nicely surpasses their expectations.”
“Gratitude is also a form of social glue.”
“Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved. Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.”
One of my prayers today is this: “May gratitude abound in the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge from beginning to end of the 15-16 school year. May each student and each family sense that their expectations are more than fulfilled. May the social glue of gratitude work its magic by bonding us together more closely. May our personal gratitude translate into incessant laughter of the heart. Amen.”
I’ll still contend that “I am NOT lazy,” in borrowing my first blog of this year from David Brooks. But, I won’t argue the point, either!
Look forward to seeing you on campus.
Head of School
Each school year is an exercise in re-constituting the Episcopal School community. Volunteer leadership in Parents’ Guild, Squires, and other organizations changes year-to-year. Each year, some members of the Board finish their terms and others join the Board. Admission of students is certainly the most significant activity in our annual community building, including welcoming the parents who come with the student! This letter is all about the other critical element: Faculty and Staff.
The quality of a school’s faculty and staff is essential for any success. We know that. But, as with other truths and axioms, they can be easily taken for granted. Over the past few years, the Faculty and Staff at Episcopal has not been taken for granted. While we all focus first on the number of changes in faculty members, there is much more to the story. Over the last few years, we have reviewed and improved employee benefits for all full time employees at Episcopal, in compliance with relatively new requirements of the Episcopal Church. Salaries, along with benefits, have been reviewed in a more thoughtful and thorough manner and, in general, have been conformed to relevant compensation standards. With the Chief Business Officer, I have worked toward fairness within the school’s compensation system. We have worked diligently and sincerely to create a feeling of respect for great teaching and for great teachers, dedicated to putting students first. Teacher voices are heard by administrators in our purposefully decentralized environment. Chef Pat certainly does his part to keep up morale! Voluntary attrition among Episcopal’s teachers is enviably low.
In survey after survey, teachers rank “support by the administration” as the number one factor in job satisfaction and willingness to return year after year to a particular school. No one who speaks of “support” in this context is referring to “blind support,” but logical and reasonable support when called for. Some of my most satisfying days at Episcopal so far involve resolutions of issues that threaten the critical relationship among teachers and parents. Reasoned dialogue among people of goodwill goes a long way toward resolving the issues that do arise. Where this kind of atmosphere is reinforced daily, teachers are prone to stay and to dedicate themselves in ways the traditions of this school compel. A supported teacher will help support other teachers.
There is an attractive balance in this group. The experience level is impressive, as are the credentials of these dedicated educators. While most have been on campus for a while already, on Monday, August 3, they will experience their first official day here. On Tuesday, August 4, they will be introduced to their colleagues and join in the opening experiences and exercises planned for In-Service for all faculty and staff. It is my pleasure to make their introductions. Please welcome them. You will enjoy, as I have, getting to know them.
Head of School