The ongoing greatness debate is becoming more and more acute. Recently, I have tried to clarify what I believe to be the greatest marketing challenge facing independent schools today. Simply put, we are faced with this reality:
Mediocrity looks like greatness and greatness looks like mediocrity. Therefore there is simply no motivation to strive for greatness.
1. Mediocre schools only accept mission-appropriate students. Great schools have many mission-appropriate students, but take pride in turning all students into mission-appropriate ones.
2. Mediocre schools devote too much time to pedagogy and curriculum. Great schools have outstanding pedagogy and curriculum, but also…
3. Great schools focus on what makes a great person.
4. Mediocre schools have centralized control, and don’t deal well with chaos. Great schools create a culture of individual initiatives and relish chaos.
5. Mediocre schools have a discipline system based on punitive methods as a form of prevention. Great schools have a restorative-justice culture based on kindness, empathy, forgiveness, and love, which allows for substantial growth for all students.
6. Mediocre schools celebrate where their graduates are accepted to university. Great schools celebrate university preparedness, and the development of true passions.
Talk about a complicated business model! True greatness appears to be countercultural. This is why we need our entire community to understand and celebrate how Selwyn House strives for greatness and will not be compromised in this quest. I did write about this fact last year, but to remind you again:
A truly great school strives to become a relational school, dedicated to the glory of education, while at the same time placing the highest emphasis possible on the development of a vibrant, progressive, and exciting faculty culture.
The first part of this definition needs to be studied carefully, and in particular we need to fully understand the concept of relational schools. Time for another definition:
A relational school is one that understands the value of, and is committed to fostering deep connections with, the goal that all members of the community will feel a true sense of belonging. The only infinite currency of worth is self-worth. This creates a springboard for all professional pursuits.
Connections are so crucial. When connections are fostered properly, every other aspect of a school’s program can excel to levels we were previously unaware of. I simply do not believe that there is any challenging, problematic child at school whose issues cannot be solved through meaningful, deliberate connection. Everyone needs powerful connections, and of course, the people who are the most challenging to connect with from an attitudinal and behavioural point of view need connection as much as anyone else. The interesting concept, though, is that the very best of students need to witness connections with the marginalized so they themselves can discover the value of a sense of belonging. Watching and experiencing people grow, improve, and change through connection makes us more capable of developing our own meaningful connections.
Susan Doherty (my wife, whom many of you know well) has just published her latest book, The Ghost Garden – Inside the Lives of Schizophrenia’s Feared and Forgotten. It is an important book, and one everyone should read. She argues about the value of connection when dealing with the most marginalized, and articulates the success that meaningful connection has had. Her point is that everyone needs and deserves connection. Period.
Moving away from the connection/belonging concept, what does it take to become a truly relational school? I would suggest there are four important components. The first is that there must be institutional commitment. Trustees, senior management, staff, faculty, parents, and students must be totally committed to the concept on both a strategic and operational front. Secondly, there must exist a level of relational trust among all stakeholders. Thirdly, it is important that all of us need to recognize the amount of emotional labour required to fulfill this mandate. Relationships are emotional and sensitive. From time to time they get temporarily derailed, and the ongoing work to sustain them is intense, challenging and exhausting. But that is what great schools are prepared to do. As I keep reiterating, no one has suggested this is easy work. Finally, as teachers or adults, we must remind ourselves and each other that it is our responsibility to be relational managers. We must take ownership with this critical responsibility. It is up to us—not our students, who have yet to develop cognitively, neurologically, and emotionally—to understand the emotional labour required. We are, after all, teachers.
A community should be judged on its ability to look after its members. Collectively, power becomes strong and its influence authentic. Imagine if all schools were legitimate communities and operated in this relational form. Just think of the impact alumni would have as they thread this influence through their own places in the world. Schools are vibrant microcosms of life, which is an even greater argument for recognizing their impact and power within. Above all, they illustrate VERITAS.