I got to St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School latish in the afternoon; most of the students had left for meetings with college admissions reps, but I had a quiet chance to meet with long-time Head Joan Holden, long-time CFO Beth Chase, and two art teachers. Most schools don’t roll out the art teachers for me to meet; it is usually the high-tech types, but I got some great insight into how the passions of teachers can translate to students before sitting down for some really thoughtful lessons with Joan.
SSSAS has 1,140 students on three campuses. Joan has been the head for 29 years, so what she says later in this post you should receive with the reverence of experience. Beth walked me around the Upper Campus, showing me the reflection and working garden that had been created in the central courtyard, and a “play space” with Legos and toys, a hugely popular hang out spot that they have created on all three campuses. Students here are encouraged to slow down from time to time, which is a theme we have heard a lot on this trip.
We stopped in and talked with the two art teachers who are also focusing on “getting kids to slow down. I really see it when they come in here for an hour and immediately want to be quiet and just do their artwork. Clearly it is relaxing for them. At one point I thought the future of art was in technology, but none of us can multitask as well as we think. We all need to calm down and focus.” SSSAS focuses PD budget on teachers who want to go away and do something out of the box and “bring back expressions of passion that make the program new and fresh for our students.” The teachers are encouraged to seek out new ideas beyond the school walls, and they given opportunities to share with the rest of the faculty.
Joan and I talked about the directions of schools today relative to the arc she has seen over her career. “The answer continues to unfold, but I know for certain that there is no one set of processes for this transition we are in. The movement to more of a right brain approach is taking place in so many ways, yet we always find, and need to find, ways to get better.”
Joan thinks that schools remain unnecessarily reluctant to take on new programs where risk and success are hard to measure. “Schools want to measure everything. Parents want me to tell them where their child is weak and want to immediately go out and get a tutor to fix the problem.” She also sees real strength in the multicultural view that schools and students are developing. “We know openness is a key: openness to others, the ability to hear other voices, the willingness to listen.” Joan has been successful at nudging the educational program along these lines through a steady application of gentle push and pull. She noted the following ingredients:
- Bringing in outside voices.
- Sending teachers out into the world.
- Modeling a growth mindset at the leadership level.
- Creating a culture of openness.
- Resisting the urge to impose all of the ideas from the top.
- Keep working at it!
Joan believes that developing a growth mindset is key to being a good educator. I played the Devil’s Advocate and asked her how that key need is different today than it would have been 25 years ago. “We are a vastly more multicultural and open society than we were then. Transparency was not something we really worried about. And then there is technology. Computers have forced everyone to be life-long learners, and that is a very good thing. We also know a lot more about how the brain works; we can assess the kind of skills we value. We aren’t there completely, but we are getting better at it. We can’t be afraid of learning the assessment piece at the same time we are learning the teaching piece.”
Pretty darn good learning for a short visit!