Farewell to Pat

Pat Bassett, who is retiring from the presidency of the National Association of Independent Schools this month, chose to focus his June “Bassett Blog” on summer reading book ideas that he believes, in his words, “are germane to, and useful for, the independent school community constituents committed to learning new strategies for the age-old task of getting better at what we do.” The topics included:
• a different take on bullying summarized by Mark Twain’s quote that “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”
• an examination of how technology has essentially evolved to become a third parent.
• the interplay of discipline, paranoia, and creativity in successful companies.
• an examination of how by “de-emphasizing grades (and emphasizing learning), the appropriate use of grades can paradoxically improve achievement, the difference between developing talent and selecting it.”
• how a diversity of progressive teaching movements are coalescing around the concept of “positive psychology” and how it may be promoted in schools.
• a book on what parents – and by extension teachers and schools – can do to maximize the chances that boys will find success in school and in life.

If the scope and depth of these topics may surprise you, that may be because you have unfortunately not had the chance to know Pat Bassett. When he first took office in 2001, NAIS was – at least as I saw it – the kind of stodgy, remote, elitist, perhaps slightly out of touch organization that characterizes the worst stereotypes of independent schools. Over Pat’s term of leadership, the organization gradually took on new vibrancy, seeking to push people’s thinking forward on the realities of educational practice, mission, and governance. NAIS progressively became an organization that occasionally dropped interesting ideas, encouraged me by confirming some of my more innovative thinking, stretched me further, and finally caused my jaw to drop with the level of courage they demonstrated in publishing a piece by my friend Fred Bartels entitled “Our 1% Problem” that challenges independent schools to examine at a deep level our commitment to working for equality and social justice, and our success in doing so, given the growing inequality of wealth in this country.

Through all of this, Pat remained down to earth and accessible. Every time I wrote him, I received a kind and gracious response. He was also unafraid to take on difficult challenges, perhaps few as tricky as navigating a controversy sparked when a religious-based school advertised a job opening indicating the requirement that applicants share certain religious beliefs held by the school, including that marriage should be between a man and a woman, in apparent contradiction to some of the core principles of NAIS. His piece “On the Horns of a Dilemma” is a model of the kind of transparency and clear thinking that can help skilled leaders navigate their way through such a crisis. Three of the core questions brought to the NAIS Board illustrate the clear, humane thinking that Pat brought to what was essentially a no-win situation in an attempt to make the best possible decision:
• What takes precedence — clear and uniform commitment to a social justice principle, or inclusion of a wide variety of schools, particularly those with whom some of us do not agree?
• Which option, taking a stand or maintaining a big tent (if we pursue it or if we fail to do it), will diminish us more as a whole?
• Which one is better for the common good?
The Board chose both to strengthen the Principles of Good Practice regarding Equity and Justice and to grant exceptions for schools with religious affiliations as might be determined by their local accrediting bodies.

I remember driving to a benefit concert in the late 1990s with a student who told me she loved Stoneleigh-Burnham from her first visit, but nearly chose not to attend because in response to one of her questions, an Admissions officer told her we didn’t do much service work because we “didn’t have time.” Contrast that to Stoneleigh-Burnham in 2013 where Mary Pura’s CAS (Creativity-Action-Service) project staging a Women’s Film Series was instrumental in bringing feminism to a new level in our school, where the Community Service Club put countless hours into making our school and the world a better place, where middle schoolers go out into the community every other week as a standard part of our program. We work hard to thoughtfully and thoroughly meet our joint mission of supporting girls as they develop their voice and sense of their authentic selves and of building a world where those voices will be heard. Our own growth, it would seem, has paralleled that of NAIS.

Peter Gow‘s thoughtful blog post “An Open Letter to John Chubb” charts a course for the future for NAIS schools. As he says, ” I am proud of the best work we do in our schools: proud of our caring teachers, proud of our most forward-thinking leaders, and proud of our students and the positive difference so many of them have made and are making in the world. Independent schools have worthy students to educate, John, and a body of great schools to do the work. But we also have a world to help save, and fine minds and rich resources with which to save it.”

So as we wish Pat Bassett the best as he embarks on the next stage of his life as a consultant, we recommit to working for social justice, both to honor his legacy and to meet our own mission.

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