Monthly Archives: November 2012

Closing the Gap

I was staying overnight with my brother and his family so I wouldn’t have to get quite so early a start to attend a conference at Simmons College entitled “Dreaming Big: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?” The conference would present a study on middle schoolers and career aspirations and provide opportunities to discuss implications and ideas for follow-up. My brother and sister-in-law enjoy the TV program “Modern Family” (as do I), and after we caught up on our lives for a bit, we settled in to enjoy the evening’s episode. In retrospect, it turned out to be a good way to warm into the conference, as the show, progressive as it is in some ways, does in other ways reflect the kind of stereotyping about work that is too often seen in the media. For one example, neither of the two moms in the show have a salaried job.

Luckily for middle school girls, the media is only the third strongest influence on their career aspirations. As you might expect, schools and parents are the two most dominant influences. And as you might also expect, single-gender environments can have a positive effect. The study being presented used Girls Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts as a proxy for girl-centered organizations, and looked at the views, opinions, and attitudes of 1200 middle schoolers including 487 Girl Scouts, 299 girls who were not in the organization, and 414 boys.

The study painted a picture of middle school girls who, in envisioning their lives as adults, are confident, ambitious, want to enjoy what they do, desire financial security, and value time with family friends. It also showed that girls are more likely than boys to stop work and care for children, more relationship focused, and more wiling to consider jobs historically dominated by women. Such jobs (for example, teaching) continue to be less attractive generally. All the kids believed boys had more career options than girls, and three-quarters of the boys and over half the girls believed boys were better at some jobs than girls. Interestingly, when girls were asked to consider what they would do if they were boys, they were much more likely to choose STEM or athletics. And girls who express an interest in STEM by eighth grade are two to three times more likely to choose that direction that those who do not. Along with these more general findings, the study also showed a measurable, positive effect of girl-centered organizations in helping girls resist the pressures of the culture in which they live and remain true to themselves and what they want out of life. As one of my 8th grade advisees said the other day, “I know what I learned last year. I learned to speak up and to speak with conviction.”

Of course, as long as our culture continues to push back against confident, ambitious girls, our work will not be done. For one thing, those girls who do not have the benefit of the support of girls schools and girl-centered organizations will continue to eclipse themselves to a greater degree than their more fortunate sisters. But even girls who have that additional support have to deal with the notion that significant parts of society may not want them to be all that they can be, and that fact does continue to shape their lives. And realistically, society also puts boys in little boxes that do not necessarily fit them. So really, as we teach girls – and indeed all children – to empower themselves in the face of resistance, we also need to work together to eliminate that resistance.

During a morning session at the conference, noted author and speaker Rachel Simmons was asked, essentially, if she could envision a future where true gender equity will have been achieved. “Not in my lifetime,” she responded. The words hung in the air. And maybe she is right. But if during our lifetimes we have not, to paraphrase Peter Sellars, closed the gap between dream and reality, we will not have done our job. The big dreamers who populate our school and who will join us one day are depending on us. They speak with conviction. Will we?

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Filed under Gender, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage

Moving Mountains

For January 1, 2000, my mom and stepdad helped our family assemble a time capsule which we would open exactly 20 years later. Among other things, we were asked to respond to a list of questions about our favourite things. For my favourite sports team, after some thought, I put the SBS varsity basketball team. My son’s sports career had not yet begun, and after years of running the scoreboard for home games, I felt a deep connection to the program.

As I processed the similar question “What is your favourite singer or rock group?” during the middle school bonding trip at Camp Becket last September, I realized that I couldn’t go with the semi-obvious “The SBS Rock Band” as I teach two separate groups, one each in the middle and one upper schools, and even if I felt favoritism (which I never would!), I wouldn’t dare show it. Furthermore, I love so many different musicians that I could never settle permanently on one favourite. Sitting there surrounded by 43 middle school girls, thinking back to summers with my son listening to our phones and sharing music, I settled on Taylor Swift as my favourite singer of the moment. There were in fact around ten other students who made the same choice, and we settled together in a group on the floor waiting for other groups to form.

Driving into school this morning, Ms. Swift’s song “Long Live” came up on my phone. The cover image shows her hair flying out behind her as she prepares to strum a chord on her Les Paul electric guitar, pure power in a sparkly dress. I thought back to last week’s Upper School Rock Band rehearsal for last night’s informal end-of-term concert. One of the combos performed “Alice” by Avril Lavigne last night. Those who know Joyce, our lead singer on this song and typically one of our quieter students, got a surprise and a treat. During rehearsal, we plugged her through the keyboard amp, and the power of her voice as she sang “I, I’ll survive / When the world’s crashin’ down / When I fall and hit the ground / I’ll just turn myself around / Don’t you try to stop me!” just about blew me forward into the piano. Later, as we discussed costuming (with the informal concerts, we have a lot more latitude than with the three big performances of the year), Jin having already determined that hoodies would be acceptable, Joyce asked if she could wear ripped jeans. She could, and we settled on jeans (ripped or otherwise) and SBS hoodies as our costume for the night.

“Cause for a moment a band of thieves / In ripped up jeans got to rule the world.” – Taylor Swift

In the second year of the SBS Rock Band, then known as PW Rock (PW for “Performance Workshop,” the original name of the course), we set themes for each concert, and discovered as the year progressed and we were growing together and as individuals, the themes we chose reflected that growth. You saw that especially in the ani difranco songs that framed the year, from the in-your-face attitude of “not a pretty girl” (“I am not a pretty girl. That is not what I do. I ain’t no damsel in distress and I don’t need to be rescued. So put me down, punk…”) to the affirmation of “32 flavors” (“I’m not saying that I’m a saint / I just don’t want to live that way / no, I will never be a saint / but I will always say / squint your eyes and look closer / I’m not between you and your ambition / I am a poster girl with no poster / I am thirty-two flavors and then some”), the lyrics reflected the girls’ take on their own lives and their place in the world.

“You knew our lives / Would never be the same / You held your head like a hero / On a history book page / It was the end of a decade / But the start of an age / Long live the walls we crashed through…” – Taylor Swift

I sometimes wonder about the long-term effects of performing in a group where you are not only allowed but also encouraged to get up in someone’s face, to affirm without challenge or question that you have the right to be exactly who you are and think exactly what you think, and to do so publicly and be recognized for it. I’m sure they remember – two former members of my Humanities 7 class who are now off at college recently shared with each other, and with me, memories of writing and performing their seventh grade play, and I know that former members of the SBS Rock Bands have also stayed in touch. At its best, rock music is not simply about rebellion, but about breaking shackles and emerging free and whole and complete, in the process freeing others to do the same. I hope and trust that spirit has animated the group down through the years and that spirit is being passed on. Somehow, I suspect it is.

“Long live all the mountains we moved / I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you / I was screaming long live that look on your face / And bring on all the pretenders / One day, we will be remembered / Hold on to spinning around / Confetti falls to the ground / May these memories break our fall / Will you take a moment, promise me this / That you’ll stand by me forever / But if God forbid fate should step in / And force us into a goodbye / If you have children some day / When they point to the pictures / Please tell them my name / Tell them how the crowds went wild / Tell them how I hope they shine.” – Taylor Swift

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Filed under Athletics, Gender, In the Classroom, Performing Arts, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

In Community

All knowledge is held in community.Peter Sellars

As I was approaching the dining commons of my son’s high school, I heard someone shout “Mr. Ivey? No way!” One of my son’s best friends walked over to me, a huge smile on his face, and wrapped me in a bear hug. We spoke for a bit, and he pulled out his phone to get a picture to send to my son. The picture taken, I continued on my way to dinner.

I had returned to Andover to attend the inaugural ceremony honoring five Alumni of Distinction. Such ceremonies reveal much about schools – whom do you choose to honor, and why? Some schools honor the most famous, others potential donors. Others look to find someone who truly exemplifies the school in a special way. Andover? Their motto is “Non sibi,” “Not for self,” and that thread ran through the lives of all five of their honorees. Even with the obvious choice of an ex-President, George H.W. Bush, Andover chose to focus on his lifetime of service, devoting a third of their write-up to his time in the military and focusing on achievements such as the end of the Cold War, the creation of the EPA, and the Americans with Disablities Act. Another honoree was Wendy Ewald, a photographer who has turned her work to advancing the cause of social justice. Chemist William Knowles facilitated the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and biographer Stacy Schiff exemplifies a life where you take the time to “slow down and think.” (Schiff) And then there was Peter Sellars.

His name was vaguely familiar to me (and not just because it is only one letter off from the great actor Peter Sellers), but it quickly became clear that he was truly something special. Like all the honorees or their representatives, he spoke passionately about what his experience at the school had meant to him. Most particularly, he spoke of his experiences with the arts faculty in the early ’70s. Noting that in these days of NCLB, arts programs have been decimated for over a decade now, he spoke movingly of the importance of schools like Andover where the arts continue to play an important role: “The arts teach us to think, not what to think.” (Sellars) He spoke, too, of the importance of the arts in teaching us to “recognize the distance between dream and reality and every day make that distance a little less.” (Sellars) His words would resonate, I should think, with members of the Stoneleigh-Burnham community as well.

Abut three years ago, Stoneleigh-Burnham instituted our own “Distinguished Alumna Award.” Karen von Lengen ’69 was the first recipient. Ms. von Lengen, a noted architect and professor at the University of Virginia, points out in the first paragraph of her personal statement that she helped with post-Katrina reconstruction, worked to develop sustainable and emergency housing, initiated dialogues on the relationship of ethics and aesthetics, and co-founded a university initiative to improve the environment. The next two recipients, Dr. Denise Bruner ’70 and Judith Howard Whitney-Terry ’56B P’77, also exemplify service. Board Chair Kathy Opdycke ’70 wrote that “Denise’s efforts to help others reflect the spirit of a Stoneleigh-Burnham student. She has broken the barriers of gender and race in her profession…” and Ms. Whitney-Terry joined the Peace Corps 31 years after her graduation, continuing to maintain ties to the organization and to work in civic service.

Some weeks ago, I was participating in an #isedchat on Twitter when Lorri Carroll of Hamden Hill School asked me how we determined which of our alumni/ae are successes. My instinctive answer was that they themselves get to decide that. As I thought more deeply about it, I realized that when we talk about our graduates, the phrase “S/He’s doing well” primarily communicates that that person is happy in life. The ensuing conversation helps us figure out why. If the mission of our school is to help our students be their own best selves, by definition the measure of our success varies with each individual graduate.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting the new Chair of the Alumnae Board, Sharon Lewis Gaffey ’68S. Academic Dean Alex Bogel and Dean of Students John Larson were also present, and at one point in time Alex and I embarked on one of our many reflective dialogues as we were taking turns describing what was going on in the Upper and Middle Schools and how early growth in young adolescents is supported and enhanced as they continue in our school. Ms. Gaffey commented on how much she would have enjoyed being in these classes, remembering the classes she herself had taken, becoming for a moment the SBS student she used to be and in many ways still was. She concluded by saying that the school had given her the gift of the ability and will to use her own voice.

Listening to her, I couldn’t help but think back to when the school had renovated Reception and the front lobby. One morning, I happened to be passing through when some young alumnae had just returned. “Everything’s so different!” they lamented. I responded, “Yes, it looks different, but walk around. You’ll find that deep down, it’s the same school you knew.” And of course, it was. A sort of collective soul animates everything we are doing, have always done, and continue to do. It is what makes Stoneleigh-Burnham what it is and what brings together members of the community from every era. Every good school has it. And with the best schools, that collective soul works together to elevate everyone.

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Filed under Alumnae, On Education, Performing Arts, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

From Calgary And Back: A Letter of Thanks From PB

The Owl has finally landed, and our three excellent speakers are back in the fold. In preparation for the competition in Calgary, our work actually began in July: Caroline Lord and Mary Pura enrolled in Debate Camp and spent the week writing, polishing, and rehearsing. Jane Logan spent a month acting in New York City and New Haven. They return to us with rave reviews, very high marks, and several awards. I am still receiving emails from other coaches about these three. They loved their performances, and they loved the way they represented SBS in Canada.

Gratitude:

It starts with the Head of School, administration, and faculty—thank you for supporting their voices. An undertaking this large is never effected seamlessly, and I hope their return to Academia flows smoothly.

Karen Pleasant—thank you for navigating these waters. This trip threw you some weather challenges, but you communicated with all concerned parties, and you remembered all that was necessary. Your instincts were, in a phrase, spot on.

Kim Mancuso–thank you for your assistance with Jane Logan and Lillian Hellman’s translation of The Lark; your genius has now spilled over to our program. Bravo!

Highlights:

Mary Pura made the finals in After-Dinner Speaking. Jane Logan made the finals in both After-Dinner and Dramatic Interpretation.  Caroline Lord finished the week with a strong B+ average. There were 132 speakers and 44 teams from all corners of the earth.  Jane, for the second straight year, has been invited to join the US team which will compete, next March, in South Africa.

Thank you SBS—-it takes a village!

– PB (Paul Bassett, Debate Teacher)

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Filed under Performing Arts, School Happenings, The Faculty Perspective, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

He Said She Said

He doesn’t really remember his early childhood, of course. His first memory is a birthday – his third? – when his parents gave him a doll and a doll-carriage. He remembers holding his doll with a growing sense of confusion as he overhears his grandparents in the next room telling his parents, “The doll is fine, but the carriage is going too far.” He put the carriage away for the rest of his grandparents’ visit, not wanting them to fight with his parents again.

She doesn’t really remember her early childhood, of course. Her first memory is a birthday – her third? – when her parents gave her a doll and carriage and her grandparents gave her clothing for it. She remembers cradling the newly-outfitted doll, and everyone praising her for taking such good care of her baby.

He seemed to spend more time getting yelled at in gym class than having fun. While he actually loved sports – especially basketball, tennis, and biking – and ran relatively fast for such a little guy, no one ever seemed to notice, and at any rate most of his friends weren’t that athletic either and professed loudly and frequently that high school sports were overemphasized. Thus, it wouldn’t be until he was in his late 20s that anyone would tell him he had any athletic ability at all. Now 52, he continues to love running, and while he increasingly feels the necessity of daily exercise to maintain both his speed and endurance, he knows that he is in good shape for his age.

The ugly one-piece gymsuits told the story – no one really expected her to be all that active. She saw girls around her pushing to take their place alongside boys, forcing their way onto the swim team or arguing the volleyball team was just as deserving of support as the football team; she agreed and was supportive though she didn’t feel it really affected her personally. She did love playing tennis and going on bike rides with friends, but it wouldn’t be until she was an adult that she took up running and finally realized the sport her body was born to do all along. Now 52, she continues to love running, and tries to fit in at least a couple of miles every day. On a good day, she even manages to place in local 10K races she enters, and it gives her a feeling of pride.

He loved his wife deeply and felt they had created a strong marriage and an equal partnership. But while having a son together only deepened that bond, it also changed him more than he expected. Any time anyone attempted to put his son in a gender box, he reacted swiftly and with a surprising, uncharacteristic, and barely suppressed anger. Gender equity, always a priority in his life, became a cause. Meanwhile, summers off while his wife was working brought him the luxury of endless hours spent living in his son’s world – exploring the fields near the house, going on walks in the neighbourhood, playing out ritual dramas with his son’s toys as they revised and refined the original scripts day to day. Perhaps in part because of the bond created in those days, his son never really went through the turbulent separation you see with some teenagers, and they continue to enjoy an exceptionally close and loving relationship to this day.

Having a son brought out a new side in her. Having carried him for nine months, breastfed him, and attended to his every need when he was a baby, having developed an unbelievably close and loving relationship during his childhood, the thought of him potentially growing distant from her when he reached puberty and began to self-define the kind of man he wanted to be was devastating. Of course, she and her partner (now her wife) had no way of knowing whether that would even happen with a son who had two mothers for parents. Still, she couldn’t bear the thought of a possible emotional separation from her son even for a few years. Luckily, that separation never came, perhaps because of that relationship developed during his childhood, and they continue to enjoy an exceptionally close and loving relationship to this day.

He’s settled well into his role as a gender activist, knowing that having spent a lifetime in a girls school has affected that, knowing too that he wouldn’t have spent a lifetime in a girls school if he were a different person. Over the years, he has broadened his knowledge and understanding, of gender politics, of other people, of himself. He is working increasingly to break down gender walls and expand people’s thinking beyond a fixed gender binary, in the process working toward liberating himself – and, hopefully, other people – to fully and completely be their true selves. Thus, when a student mentions the question, “Who would I be as a boy?” it catches his attention. Who would he have been if born a girl? Let’s see… “She doesn’t really remember her early childhood, of course…”

She is enjoying the sense of stability and accomplishment that comes from having worked a lifetime in a girls school, setting the example of being a strong feminist, helping encourage those ideals of fairness and equity and the tools of strength and power in her students. Just as she supports girls and women breaking down gender barriers to be their own true selves, so too does she support boys and men doing the same. Having a transgender student only added to her sense of mission. Thus, when a student mentions the question, “Who would I be as a boy?” it catches her attention. Who would she have been if born a boy? Let’s see… “He doesn’t really remember his early childhood, of course…”

* With thanks to my Humanities 7 student Heidi for asking the question that inspired this memoir-essay.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Who We Truly Are

Several weeks ago, one of my Humanities 7 students approached me, a smile on her face but a furrow in her forehead. “The questions just don’t stop,” she said. “There are too many to answer.” “I know,” I responded. “It’s both fun, because you love the questions and they help you learn, and frustrating, because the more questions you answer, the more questions you have.” We went on to discuss a unit from the 2006-2007 Humanities 7 course, “Is it better to have more questions than answers, or more answers than questions?”

Earlier today, she shared a list of questions with me that she was considering developing into independent writing pieces. Among them:
• Who would I be as a boy?
• What would be the same, what would be different?
• Are the similarities who I really am?
• Was I born me, or do I create me?
• If others weren’t around to influence you would there be less of a separation between characteristics of boys and those of girls?
• Is it possible to change that separation and stereotypes so that it everyone is mixed in every way?

Immersed in her search for identity, as seventh graders tend to be, she has focused in on several fundamentally important issues: how we define gender and how in turn gender defines us, how it relates to our true selves, and what to do about it if gender is indeed limiting who we are allowed to be. She will continue to face those questions in eighth grade, high school, college, and indeed – most likely, however frustrating that thought may be – throughout her life.

For me personally, the most intriguing question is, “Are the similarities who I really am?” It’s not an easy question to answer, for one thing because there are some areas where it is much easier and more widely accepted to blur the binary gender line than others. So by definition, some of the similarities between her girl-self and her boy alter-ego would be facilitated by society’s acceptance of those traits in various genders. Yet… would they exist as similarities if they weren’t part of her to begin with?

Along the same lines, the parts of her that are the most personally important regardless of how they are tagged in a gender-binary world are precisely the parts she will work the hardest to preserve and bring out, perhaps even finding herself emboldened by a world attempting to make her play a part she was not born to play. In that case, of course, the similarities are indeed who she really is.

Where it becomes trickier is trying to figure out what parts of her may have been attenuated or accented, perhaps without her ever knowing it, by a culture that quite literally sees gender first and foremost (“It’s a girl!”), and how that would affect similarities between her girl-self and her boy-self. This is where her question about what would happen if others weren’t around to influence you becomes fundamentally important. While in one sense, we are born ourselves in that our genetic heritage most definitely shapes who we are, and in another sense we create ourselves in that we are defined by our actions, neither of those events happens in a vacuum. Babies, a recent study shows, are sensitive to gender expectations before they even learn to speak. Indeed, gender expectations form around them before they are even born: mothers use different language to describe their baby’s movements in utero depending on whether the child has been identified as a girl or boy, or not identified by gender.

So is it possible to change these expectations? Having spent my entire life chafing against, resisting, and working to expand gender constructs (first within the gender binary, and then beyond), I can only hope it is. For one thing, if this wonderful young person gracing my classroom is to be able to truly be her own best self, we need to be open to the full range of possibilities for what that best self is.

Earlier this week, I read a Facebook posting from “TowardTheStars” that quoted Emma Watson as having said, “You know, I feel like young girls are told that they have to be this kind of princess and be all delicate and fragile, and it’s [crap]. I identified much more with the idea of being a warrior, and being a fighter… I think women are scared of feeling powerful and strong and brave, and I think that’s something they’ve got to embrace.” I can’t help but connect that to my student. Of course, there are different kinds of power, strength, and bravery, and what’s right for her might or might not be right for another. But identifying and developing her unique brand of strength and bravery to be who she truly is will bring her a power like no other. I am sure she will find many kinds of success this year. But if I could guarantee just one venue for success, that is the one I would wish for her. It is one toward which I work every day, not just for her of course, nor even for her class, nor even for the entire middle school. For all of us. Including myself.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

The Right Thing is Easy to Do

“A good friend of mine who used to be Head of School here,” I began, “used to say, ‘The right thing is easy to do.'” I segued to a description of a 7th grader, the day’s recipient of the “Shining Star” award, who found the courage to go up to an adult who was smoking outside our gym, someone she didn’t know, and tell that person we were a non-smoking campus. A friend of hers who was proud of her had originally told me of the moment, something which this girl readily acknowledged she had done but which she also felt was no big deal. From my perspective, of course, finding the courage at the age of 12 to go up to an unfamiliar adult and let them know they are breaking school rules is a big deal. The right thing to do, absolutely. But easy?

Of course, in general it’s much easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing. We make that kind of decision probably hundreds of times a day, from the moment we first wake up and decide that yes, we will get dressed and go to school to the moment when, with the day behind us, we finally decide to return to bed and get some much-needed and necessary sleep. Even hitting the brake at a stop sign is a conscious decision to do the right thing. Indeed, my sister-in-law has observed that four-way stop signs restore her faith in human nature.

Where it becomes more difficult is when doing the right thing carries some sort of a risk. Context is everything here. What are you going to do about that stop sign if you’re racing someone and your pride is on the line? If your friends in the car are relentlessly teasing you that you couldn’t break a rule if you tried? If you’re running late for work and have been threatened with being fired? Or, much more seriously, if you’re being pursued by someone who has physically threatened you?

Often, too, it’s harder to do the right thing when the alternative is to do nothing and stay out of it. My college’s honor code meant that faculty members were not allowed to supervise exams. Instead, we students signed a statement that signified that we had “neither received nor given any information on this test.” Additionally, we were required to report any instances of cheating we observed or, under the rules of the honor code, we were equally guilty. I always kept my eyes glued to my test papers lest I inadvertently see anything I would have had to report. Technically speaking, I was honest and true to the honor code. Ethically speaking, too, you can argue I was in the right not to be hyper-vigilant and out to get people. But ultimately, if everyone had done as I did, we would not have been a community attempting to live up to the ideals of our honor code; we would have been individuals living in separate worlds. And this situation is much less serious than standing by and watching bullies taunt an innocent victim, as at least I could argue I didn’t know if anything wrong had taken place.

And what if doing the right thing carries a serious risk as opposed to remaining uninvolved? Malala Yousafzai took a bullet to the head for having stood up for the education of girls, and she is just one of countless thousands who are taking that risk every day. Tell me it was easy for any girl in Pakistan who knew what had happened to Ms. Yousafzai to wake up the next morning and go to school as if nothing had happened. For that matter, what civil rights would now exist in this country if people from early suffragettes to desegregationists to gay rights activists had not stood up for what was right despite potential risks to life and limb?

The key is where to find the courage to do the right thing when it’s not necessarily easy to do. External rules and motivation will be next to meaningless here. It’s got to come from deep inside you, from an internalized sense of right and wrong which may for some of us be infused with religious and/or spiritual beliefs. Often, it helps to consider the alternative. Reaching out to others of like beliefs for support and comfort can also help. Periodically, most of the visionary and innovative educators I know suffer from self-doubt when faced with strong resistance, and turn to others for reassurance that we are not rushing headlong down a path that will cause serious damage to our students but rather are lighting the way to a more responsive, humane, and ultimately effective educational system.

In the end, if you strive always to do the right thing, you can go through life with your head held high knowing you are truly being your best self. And, considering the alternative, maybe that means the right thing truly is easy to do. Perhaps my friend, Patrick Collins (Head of School from 1995-1998), was right after all.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage