A School Person’s Compass Points: Essential Advice to Center Our Work

Before I took a new post at Hawken School, I wrote the first draft of what has evolved into what I have included below. Initially, I did this simply as a means to articulate what is most important in my work in a school. I had been at Asheville School for a decade before making this move, and I realized that I needed to do something more than “dead reckon” my way into a new school. I had no intention at first of sharing what I wrote–it was me talking to me about the essential components of school work as I saw it. I was giving myself advice.

When I finished that first draft, I realized that I wanted the bullet-points to apply not only to me but also to the people with whom I work. It is in that spirit that I offer them here. Sometime toward the end of the summer, I will revise these again, and when we gather for our first faculty meeting at Westminster in advance of the 2012-2013 school year, I will hand them out to the High School faculty.

Compass Points–


  • Trust the mission and commit to the school’s vision statement.
  • Strive to be a school that deserves the huge investment we ask others to make in it.
  • Earn the credibility we need to be a great school by handling parents, students, alums, friends of the school, and guests with respect, professionalism, promptness, and kindness.
  • Be purposeful. We should be able to articulate and support the actions we take, and all those actions should take into consideration the needs of students first.
  • Avoid trying to be all things to all people, and the things we choose to do we should do well.
  • Support the fundamental direction of the school.  Schools cannot operate well and certainly cannot be great if the professionals on the payroll act and speak at cross-purposes. It is OK to disagree, as well as desired and expected that people will voice their ideas and concerns in a thoughtful way; however, once a decision is made, I expect us to behave in a professional and supportive manner.
  • Take pride in the programs in which you work, keeping in mind that success in one facet of the job does not give one license to participate less in the other facets of the job.
  • Return phone calls and emails in a timely fashion.
  • Communicate with colleagues, parents, and students ahead of problem.  Be proactive.


  • Serve the best interest of the child first.
  • Combine nurture and high expectations. The best educators reveal their commitment to students not only through a thousand and one warm interactions with young people each day, but also through high expectations for each student’s positive engagement in the school community and for each student’s dedication to achievement. A school should strive to enrich its students by asking students to enrich both the school community and the larger community of which the school is a part.  This balance between demand and nurture is common to great schools. 
  • Meet and often exceed the expectations we hold for students regarding school rules, as well as civility and character.  If we are going to ask students to meet these standards, we must be willing to do the same.
  • Return papers, quizzes and tests in a timely fashion and meet grading deadlines.
  • Enforce school expectations and rules.  Beyond the specific rules, I have two basic expectations for students: a) avoid endangering self, property or others; b) avoid diminishing, disenfranchising, or humiliating others.  To create a community that understands these expectations as shared values takes the work of adults working thoughtfully with students.
  • Be present in the life of the school.  It is not possible to “just teach.”

Good Conversation and Chick-fil-A: Class of 2012 Lunches with the Principal

Besides simply a desire to get know Westminster’s Class of 2012 better, I want our seniors to help us see the way forward in our school. Good conversation and Chick-fil-A seem like the way to go!  

Next week I will host eight to ten seniors in my office for the first of a series of lunches. I will schedule such gatherings until seniors stop signing up or until everyone has a chance to come. With over 200 seniors this may take awhile. The agenda will not be to debrief the litany of accolades and complaints associated with their individual experiences as students at Westminster. Instead I have some questions for them. While the list will inevitably change and the discussions will likely stray, this is what I am leaning toward:

  • What will change in the world in the next twenty years?
  • How should schools respond?
  • What is sacred in our school?
  • What will be the defining characteristics of the school to which you will want to send your kids?
  • What would you preserve at Westminster?
  • What would you change now?
  • What would you like to see different at Westminster in 5-10 years?
  • When did you find learning so interesting at Westminster that paying attention was easy?
  • Describe a moment at Westminster where an interaction with a teacher or student fundamentally changed your mind about something?
  • What would be the best changes we could make to Westminster so that school becomes more engaging and relevant?

This list is lifted with only the school name changed from my former boss, Scott Looney, who is Head of Hawken School in Cleveland, OH. Scott has hosted lunches like this since he started in the job six years ago, and while I was there, I never ceased to be impressed with the quality of the insight these students provided him. Additionally, I was amazed at the extent to which that insight informed our leadership team as we discussed significant moves we were making in the school.

These students played a significant role in helping us create and refine our vocabulary regarding change in the school. As a result, Scott’s meetings with them allowed us to create a way of speaking to the larger community about the significant steps we were taking as a school that was rich with language that made us more understandable to the community not less. These conversations gave us the best case for the work we were doing in the school, and in turn we were able to make that case back out in the community in a more compelling way. While I do not know what will be the specific outcome of the lunches I will host at Westminster, I have no doubt I will learn a lot, and that what I learn will inform how we move ahead.

I plan to show the students some sort of video as a catalyst for the conversation, and I have linked a couple of possibilities below, both of which are TED Talks by Sir Ken Robinson.  If you have suggestions for additional questions or for 5 to 10 minute YouTube videos or TED Talk excerpts I  might use to get things going, please use the comment section below to provide your good counsel.

Sir Ken Robinson TED Talk 2006: Schools Kill Creativity (watch from about the 3:30 minute mark to about the 12 minute mark..actually watch the whole thing but I would likely only show this section)

Sir Ken Robinson TED Talk 2010: Bring On the Learning Revolution! (I will struggle and likely fail to narrow this down successfully to something shorter than the whole)

“Aligning Schedule with Mission”: The Chance to do a Presentation on the Hawken Schedule

View from the University of Chicago Club where I presented with Dave Gillespie today (Photo: Ross Peters via iPhone)

Excited enough that I am writing with my elbows pinched to my sides and my laptop angled awkwardly and wedged on my knees, I am flying back to Atlanta from Chicago where I had a great experience this morning speaking at the MSBP Heads Meeting about the Hawken Upper School Schedule—its genesis and its initial implementation.  I was Upper School Director Hawken for the last four years, moving this summer to Atlanta to become High School Principal of The Westminster Schools, so the presentation was a chance to catch-up briefly with and to present with one of my favorite colleagues—Dave Gillespie, Hawken’s Director of Information Management and Research.

Whenever I have had the opportunity to speak about our work at Hawken, I am reminded of the remarkably difficult work of transformative change in school, and even more I am reminded of the benefits of being resolute enough to get to the other side of creating a Progress Culture.  (I have written several times recently about the idea of Progress Culture here and here).  Saying that Hawken has become a Progress Culture is not to say that the work is done—quite to the contrary, the work is just beginning, but they are positioned to meet the challenges ahead, and there are outstanding people there making it happen.

At Hawken, there were two key levers that reflected our desire to make the school’s language (the Purpose, Promise and Principles) live vitally.  First, the school created an urban campus, The Gries Center, in University Circle.  It is a lovely mansion on Magnolia Street, which now has seven beautiful and fully decked out classrooms in the cultural heart of Cleveland.  That project deserves a thorough description, and I will not attempt do that here; however, it is necessary to mention that its creation was borne of a commitment to provide our students opportunities to “make Cleveland and the larger world extensions of our campus.”  The second lever was the schedule.

Our presentation this morning was entitled “Aligning Schedule With Mission.”  As we were in the process of imagining a new schedule in 2009 and 2010, “aligning schedule with mission” was exactly our goal, and we were cognizant of this truth on a daily basis.  There are several topics regarding our work in those couple of years that I am certain I will write about at some point, such as The Importance of Community Foreshadowing, The Role of Professional Development, The Importance of Reinvesting in Student Culture in Moments of Transformative Curricular Change, and Answering the Frequently Asked Questions not only Correctly but Well—I am certain that is only a partial list.  At this moment, however, I think what is most relevant is that at Hawken, we recognized that the schedule we had, that we felt beholden to, no longer suited the goals we wanted to meet and the vision toward which we wanted to move the school.  We wanted to dream bigger.  The schedule as it stood was handcuffing the learning experiences we could provide our students, particularly in the context of the specific language the school had created.  We believed that we could do better for our students and for the communities to which they will lend their voices. Today offered a chance to reflect on the fact that the school has gone a long way in doing exactly that.

Time to fold the Mac Pro up, we are about to head down to Atlanta…