Headmaster’s Weekly Message
Thoughts from Chapel, the Academy’s morning assembly in historic Fuller Hall

Some of the most powerful and satisfying professional development experiences I have had in over 35 years in education have come as the result of my work with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accreditation process. Whether as a Visiting Committee member, an Assistant Chair, a Chair, or as a Commissioner on the Association's Commission on Independent Schools, I have learned (and adopted) some of the best practices in education and met some of the finest educators in the world.

The NEASC accreditation process aims at continual school improvement through a rigorous and comprehensive self-study and peer review followed by a review and recommendation by a NEASC Commissioner. The whole process, if done well, takes years to complete. It is inclusive, intensive, and insightful; as exhausting as it is exhaustive, the process involves all constituencies in a school community and helps set the school's direction for the next five years. For this reason, NEASC accreditation is the coin of the realm when determining school quality around the world, and I am proud to say that we recently received a letter from the Association's Commission on Independent Schools granting us Continued Accreditation.

The experience of having a third party come in to evaluate whether you are doing all you say you are and all you can or should be doing is uncomfortable even in the best of situations. I, for one, am always asking myself if I was as thorough, as forthcoming, or as articulate as I could be or if I missed something. However, once the Visiting Committee—the one visiting us comprised 15 members—is on campus for their three-day visit, all you can do is wait to see what they say.

In our case, the results were stellar. In fact, one sentence in the Commission's accreditation letter reads, "The Academy is a sterling example for other independent schools and town academies." The Visiting Committee commended us for dozens of things throughout the report, and at the end, focused on 13 Major Commendations—the most Major Commendations I have ever seen in my 16-year experience with the Commission. They commended virtually every aspect of the school: our mission and core values, our approach to the Self-Study process, the dedication of our faculty and staff, our beautiful campus, our comprehensive and diverse programming designed to reach, inspire, and prepare all learners, our emphasis on relationships, our fiscal strength and management, and our supportive Board of Trustees—just to name a few. Many schools receive Major Commendations like these, but few, if any, receive praise for all of these aspects at once.

In addition, five other Major Commendations caught my attention as truly unique to the Academy:

1. Harmony within a diverse community—The Visiting Committee was impressed by the degree to which our students appreciated the diversity or our community, the diverse opportunities available to them, and the extent to which the school supports the growth of every student regardless of background, ability, or interest.

2. Community-wide commitment to the Academy's public purpose—The Visiting Committee noted our open admissions policy, our broad programming, special services, and numerous supports that helps every student to be known, nurtured, and inspired

3. Hilltopper pride and enthusiasm—The Visiting Committee praised the "enormously positive culture and climate" which is combined with an openness and aspiration for future growth

4. Vigilant protection of the Academy's independence—The Visiting Committee was here during a particularly tumultuous time in our defense of independent education and was impressed by how tenacious we are in defending not only our independence, but that of other schools as well

5. Widespread understanding of the Academy's inextricable link to the welfare of the town and the region—The Visiting Committee not only saw how much the Academy's success depended on the health and well-being of the local community, but they also noted how much the Academy is committed to helping the local community stay strong and vibrant socially, culturally, and economically.

These Major Commendations are particularly meaningful to me, not just because they are unique in my experience of NEASC reports, but more importantly because they echo what could otherwise be seen as nice slogans:

  • 52 Towns, 24 Countries, 17 States, One Community;
  • Known—Grown—Inspired;
  • Love Those the Most Who Need It the Most;
  • We Are Hilltoppers;
  • A Proud Tradition, A Bright Future;
  • We Can Make a World of Difference; and
  • Leave This Place Better Than You Found It.

The fact that the Committee saw us living out these messages makes me prouder than anything else. It's easy to pay lip service to platitudes, but when outsiders see you living out your beliefs to such an extent that they make them Major Commendations, that is a degree of community-wide integrity worth celebrating.

The Major Recommendations and the dozens of recommendations sprinkled throughout the report will guide our way into the future. Two of the Major Recommendations deal with overarching initiatives—developing a new version of our strategic plan and moving away from a "narrative of complexity" toward some simple themes as we define our five-year vision. Two others deal with discussions of natural tensions within independent schools—autonomy versus consistency and transparency versus confidentiality. The final Major Recommendation is actually a commendation in disguise—recommending that we build upon the excellent work and abundant opportunities we have to further celebrate diversity and develop a global perspective.

Already Faculty and Staff Focus Groups are working on many of these recommendations and others that arose during the self-study process, and the Trustees have taken up the two dealing with the narrative of complexity and strategic planning. The action plans that come out of these discussions, especially the strategic planning discussion, will undoubtedly involve multiple constituencies in our community, and judging by the impressive work and energy shown during the accreditation process over the past three years, I have no doubt that the results will be impressive as well.

We should all be proud to have received Continued Accreditation by NEASC; to be recognized with 13 Major Commendations is an accomplishment to be celebrated. Looking forward, we are excited to work toward continued improvement based on the recommendations given, and much of this work has already begun. All in all, we have much for which to be thankful, and I am particularly thankful for the support and shared effort demonstrated by all in our community. Congratulations to all!

While students were on February Break, after helping host a series of alumni events in Florida, I went to Baltimore to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools. While there, I saw a video that I thought would speak to many in our school community. The video, "Leadership Lessons from a Dancing Guy", was the last part of a session run by futurist and curricular innovator Charles Fadel. Fadel didn't create the video; he simply used it to make a point about leadership and followership. In the video, which you can find by simply googling the title above, a shirtless dancing guy is grooving to the music at an outdoor concert (I'm told the band is Disco Biscuit). After a minute or so, this animated artiste is joined by another guy—the first follower—who joins in and invites his friends to come. One friend does, and then another, and a movement is born. By the time the three-minute video ends, dozens of people—I think it might even be over 100—have joined in.

The creator of the video, Michael Hughes, points out four leadership lessons as he narrates the scene:

1. If you are a version of the shirtless dancing guy out there doing your thing, nurture your first followers and treat them as equals;

2. Be public and easy to follow;

3. Leadership is overvalued, and followership is just as important;

4. And finally, if you choose to follow, do so courageously and show others how to follow too.

The video offers other leadership lessons besides those pointed out by the narrator. For example, the dancing guy was not intending to lead or exercise power or control over others; he was simply doing what felt right and following his passion. His movement was open to all; there was no entry requirement(other than having a kindred spirit), and therefore it was diverse and able to grow rapidly. Likewise, his followers were not constrained to act exactly as the dancing guy did; they were able to be themselves and celebrate and build upon their diversity. Finally, some simply joined because they wanted to be in the "in crowd", showing the power of positive peer pressure.

We have strong and effective leaders among our faculty, staff, and student body, and these lessons resonated with many of them; however, not everyone is willing or able to be a leader. Many people in our community are most naturally good followers. I thought this was an important message to deliver on International Women's Day, a day when we celebrate the myriad contributions of women—economically, socially, politically—both as key leaders and key followers in our world. Too many times, history has been dominated by the "great man theory", which highlights the accomplishments of one person—usually a man—who is praised as being the leader, as the primary or maybe even sole driver of change or achievement. I am keenly aware of the fallacy of this perspective as exactly half of those in leadership here (and slightly more than half of our employees overall) are women—all of whom make great things happen in our community.

As I reflected on the lessons of the dancing guy, I was reminded of other lessons, specifically about followership. My favorite description of this comes from Coach Keith Grabowski, a football coach at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. According to Coach Grabowski, There are six levels of being a follower. The first three—Rebellion, Malicious Obedience (making the movement all about you and your status), and Willing Compliance (the level that results from positive peer pressure, going along just to belong)—are marked by some degree of selfishness.

The last three levels of followership are the ones to be cultivated. The first, Cheerful Cooperation, leads people to recognize the good in a movement or organization and commit to it. The next, Heartfelt Commitment, deepens that commitment and allows people to discover their best selves through engaging in actions that help sustain the organization or movement. The final level of followership is Creative Excellence in which a person commits not only to helping the movement or organization continue, but to helping improve it and making it more beneficial for others, thereby helping others be their best selves. This is the most selfless form of followership.

As often happens, an announcement made after my Chapel Talk made my message much more real and pertinent. Colwell Center Director Glenn Ehrean announced that Dr. Rowena Xiaoqing He, an Assistant Professor of History at St. Michael's College, would be speaking about her book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, on Thursday night in the Stuart Black Box Theater. Dr. He, a former professor at Harvard and Wellesley, has been an undaunted truth-teller about the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, an event for which she was present as a young protestor. Her story and the stories she tells of other student leaders and their loved ones exemplified the call and consequences of following one's passion as a leader or being a courageous follower committed to social change.

Dr. He told of her transformation from a young woman who chose to lie in order to avoid arrest or other reprisals (an act she describes as cowardly now) into a strong and resilient spokesperson for the struggle for democracy in China. Her story involved the purging of the media, the removal of journalists and editors who reported on the massacre, the rewriting of historical accounts of the massacre, and the arrest of dissident leaders which marked the rise of nationalism and patriotic education in China. This government campaign depicted the news of the massacre as the misinformation spread by a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" of people who "collaborated with hostile overseas forces" with "evil motives", playing into the hands of "the shallowness and bias of most Western media." Dr. He, and others, like the Tiananmen Mothers (women whose children were killed during the massacre), have overcome the fear of being portrayed as "selfish people who don't care about China's reputation in the world" and have worked to make sure the truth of the massacre is known. They have had to endure protests by Chinese university students at public events, brutal attacks on social media, and the pain of being banned from returning to China (Dr. He was not even allowed to return to visit her grandmother before she died).

Dr. He, and the women like her, continue to stand up for human rights. As she said as she closed her talk,

We cannot allow human rights to be sacrificed for material gain or national success... The massacre in Tiananmen Square planted seeds of fire—a fire that will spark a new beginning. However, for this new beginning to lead to peace and reconciliation, there has to first be truth. Without truth, there can be no peace, there can be no reconciliation.

I cannot think of any better example of passionate leadership, courageous followership, or of the contributions of women around the world than Dr. He and the women who continue to tell the story of what really happened on June 4, 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square. I hope our community—and the world—attentively listens to this story and learns from it.

In retrospect, the video of the shirtless dancing guy is a light-hearted, almost glib, depiction of what it means to lead and what it means to follow. There was not much at risk for the Disco Biscuit fan as he busted his moves in public—maybe a little ridicule, if that. However, as our young people take the lessons of leadership and followership into the world beyond the Academy and into adulthood, they will be faced with real consequences, some of them serious. I'm thankful for the example of Dr. He and all of the leaders and selfless followers like her who can teach us the way to courageous expression and creative excellence.

By all accounts, this year's Winter Carnival was another huge success (despite the lack of snow for sculptures), providing positive energy to beat the winter blahs and proving once again what matters in school communities. Though I was not able to see much of Winter Carnival as I am away on a fundraising and alumni tour, I was able to catch glimpses of this community spirit before I left and through images captured throughout the competitions.

Winter Carnival is our annual intra-class competition during which students from all four classes face off in a host of events, ranging from sledding and snowshoe races to pancake eating and ping pong. Each class creates a mural, a skit, and a dance, and each year has a theme chosen by the student body. This year's theme—Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavors—offered lots of room for creative expression. The Freshmen chose Neopolitan Dynamite, the Sophomores chose 'Smores, the Juniors chose Late Night Snack, and the Seniors chose The Tonight Dough. The skits were the first look at the classes' unique take on these themes, and they did not disappoint, highlighted by Trey Alercio's impersonation of Napoleon Dynamite.

The two emcees of the Winter Carnival Chapel, John Lovett and Florian Rexhepi, added their own creative flair, making up new Ben and Jerry's flavors (with the help of the marketing department) based on Academy faculty. They displayed the new pint containers for English Department Chair and Steinbeck fan Steve Jolliffe (Peanut Butter and Grapes of Wrath Jelly: An America Classic), Language Department Chair and Springsteen fan Ellen Meranze (Bruce's Bride Brittle: So Sweet It Will Make You Sing (off-key), and one that depicted my son John and my battle as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader during LI Chapel (MMM...Strong You Are Sondae: Han-made with Chewie chocolate chunks, USDA Organa berries, Jabba beans, Kenobi oil, and imported Bantha milk). My own flavor, Lovett's Wonderful White Shirt Whimsy: It's Plain Vanilla Every Day, was also a crowd favorite. Former faculty members Tim Lyon and Kyle Connolly returned (Tim via video) to add their own twists: Tim creating a song based on the flavors, and Kyle joining the senior skit. And our dance team showed their creativity in a high-energy high-quality routine. Chapel ended with a special video appearance by Jerry Greenfield who wished everyone a great Winter Carnival.

The student (and faculty) creativity that is on display is one of my favorite parts of this yearly tradition. And, as we tell students every year, participation is key. Winter carnival gives everyone a chance to get involved, whether as a spectator at the girls' basketball game on Thursday night, as a participant in any of the athletic, artistic, and non-athletic/non-artistic activities (paper airplane throwing, log sawing), or simply cheering on one's class. The more a class participates, the more fun they have.

This year, however, my favorite part of Winter Carnival was seeing students enjoying each other's company, creativity, and encouragement, regardless of what class they were in. The Winter Carnival Court exemplified this spirit as they came from across the spectrum of our student body, bridging day-dorm, athlete-artist-scholar, and domestic-international differences: King Ishyaka (Shaka) Katarebe from Rwanda, Queen Lauren Green from Waterford, Prince Ian Clough from Barnet, Princess Victoria Gates from St. Johnsbury, Duke Colby Bourgeois from St. Johnsbury, and Duchess Jasmine Wood from St. Johnsbury. These days spent together in good spirits and friendly competition, celebrating what unites us, help lift our spirits and strengthen our community. It is times like these that when we become our best selves.

Chapel is held each morning at Fuller Hall—a long-standing tradition at the Academy.

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