Minding our Buckets: Partnering Grace, Understanding, and Patience

in Fall 2023 by

Each new school year ushers in a wave of possibilities, challenges, and opportunities. At Park’s Upper Division Back to School Night on September 21, Ken Rogers, Upper Division Head, shared his insights and wisdom about the year ahead, offering a unique perspective on the shared experiences of parents, teachers, and students. 

Yesterday, I was chatting with a colleague and we were sharing about when we transitioned from being younger than most of our parent population to being older than many in our parent population–it is a transition that is just shy of a full blown existential “where did the time go” crisis. Upon further reflection, I also spent time later that day recognizing that, in addition to the ever so slight cosmetic changes, my 30+ years have come with some wisdom and a certainty about what has been and will be true every single school year.

What those 30+ years in education have taught me is that what you’re really here for tonight are the stars of the evening…your child’s teachers. I’ll try to get you on your way shortly…

All those years in independent school education have taught me that tonight is also a moment for us to have an opportunity for shared reflection and consideration as we rush headlong into another school year. As Robert Evans and Michael Thompson share in their book Hopes and Fears: Working with Today’s Independent School Parents, Back to School Night is also an opportunity to help parents anticipate developmental guideposts that we see as normal but may be a source of worry for parents and guardians.

Finally, my years of experience with middle school children, faculty, and parents/guardians have given me the confidence to know that as sure as the sun shines, the following will happen this year in our student population:

We will have… 

  • Fights that started as horseplay (My grandma used to say, “The trouble with trouble is that it usually starts out as fun.”)
  • Changing dynamics in friend groups, friendships will start and many will end, and most will need help navigating and moving beyond that change
  • Children who misuse technology
  • Academic struggles of every sort
  • Kids who lie and cheat– not as flaws in character, but out of panic for not having a strategy for when the academic pressure may be too much
  • Kids who use words capriciously as weapons or are ignorant of their meaning or impact

We will have failure, mistakes, hurt feelings.  Moments of great anxiety, sadness, anger, disappointment–and that’s just when we can’t go outside for recess. We’ll have poor communication, misunderstandings, and unmet expectations. We’ll have to say sorry, repair, and restore.

And at the same time, there is so much more great stuff: well-executed plays on the field and stage, new friendships, proud performances, the start of a club or initiative, and fun and play wherever we can fit it in. Trips that encourage awe, appreciation, and independence. Teacher conversations that encourage reflection on behavior and making better choices. Advisory opportunities to know one another better. Visits to my office where students realize I actually have toys, candy, and a place to visit for support and advice, or a place to confidently proclaim: “I have an idea!” or “You know what Park should do?” Performance opportunities in the arts, athletics, and academic contests that demand their best in front of authentic audiences. And the inevitable year-end celebration of graduation where pride, sweetness, anticipation, and hope pack the tent as we send our eighth graders off to their next chapters at schools for which they are well-prepared and absolutely ready in every sense of the word.

For the faculty this year, I know we will have teachers with complicated family realities, health challenges, and the like. Early career teachers who know y’all can be a tough crowd sometimes. Mid-career and more experienced professionals (like teachers nationwide) who wonder if the demands of time and emotion, occasional meanness, and keeping pace with trends in curriculum and instructional best practices continue to be worth it.

And yet, to a person, they are working hard, they love and live for your child getting an “aha” of discovery, of watching them try something new and persist or perform with excellence. They spend time away from their own families to develop professionally, to take your children on meaningful trips, and to speak warmly and proudly about their program as they will briefly tonight. I am proud of the warmth and expertise of my team…because their fuel is the success of your children and our program.

Speaking of program, in addition to being your child’s teachers, the faculty is engaged in the work of program review and implementation of recommendations. Just yesterday all faculty gathered to begin work on the Academic Committee or this year’s slate of Review Committees. The Academic Committee is working on implementing the 25 recommendations of last year’s review committees who researched and made recommendations regarding math, writing, use of data, school-to-home communication, and professional growth. Our new review teams will research and make recommendations in the areas of sexuality/health education, artificial intelligence, DEI in the academic program, service learning, and exploring learning management systems.

I am honored to be leading this extensive process of continuous program review with the members of Park’s Program Leadership Team: Pamela Penna, Tina Fox, Alile Eldridge, and Scott Young.

And what does my experience tell me about your work as parents and guardians? As a fellow parent–of a senior this year, I know parenting will continue to be one of the most demanding, deeply meaningful, and powerful things you have ever done. The requirements will continue to interrupt your plans, activate your anxiety, and challenge your confidence. There will continue to be moments when you ask the questions: “Will this change? Are they supposed to be this way? Is it only our kid who is having this problem?” It will continue to elicit feelings of joy, protection, and overwhelm that…according to my 84 year old mother…will never go away. And similar to teaching…there will be moments of significant satisfaction and gratitude–sometimes for just enduring–that make all the effort and care worth it. 

We are all–students, faculty, and parents or guardians, working pretty hard and doing the best we can to make school happen for the children. And thus, every year requires a fresh dose of grace, understanding, and patience.

Additionally, every year we have several new program elements, initiatives, and opportunities that we pilot. One I am most excited about is Tuesday Talks. It creates an opportunity to support our principles of DEI, SEL, and academic excellence without feeling overtly curricular and allows our students to hear from a diverse collection of voices of people who work at Park. I rolled it out on September 12 in Morning Meeting and I focused on a quote by Viktor Frankl:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

What I shared with students is that the pause is a pretty big deal. Yes, as Frankl says, we find our growth and our freedom, we can also find humility. Patience. Gratitude. The short connections that extend kindness, care, grace, worth. The reflection on consequences and impact that leads to insight, repair, and changed behavior rather than resentment and justification.The words to understand, heal, and build. The empathy that opens our eyes to see each other’s humanity and choose a better way of being.

A different way of capturing that “pausing first”– and hopefully is a more portable metaphor – is what my grandfather once said to me. Growing up in rural Virginia, we would often visit my grandparents, who lived in what my dad called “the sticks.” I would join them for chores, and one day Grandad was burning a pile of brush and trash. I remember one time he got real teacher-y with me and he said, “Look, Ken, when you are dealing with a fire, you best mind your bucket.” He saw the confused look on my face and clarified, “The outcome of a fire depends a whole lot on what is inside the bucket you bring to the fire…water or gasoline.” The story that followed made clear how he learned that very important lesson. Let’s just say it finally explained why his favorite work shed was a pile of charcoal rubble in the corner of the field. 

So this year, let us share the wisdom and experience we have gained, let us practice the pause, let us manage the worry with care, and magnify the wonderful moments grand and small that confirm our reasons for being here, and finally, let’s “mind our buckets,” so that we can pursue being a safe, joyous place of humans growing together in community, yet another year. 

Have a wonderful evening and a great school year. We are so glad you and your children are here. 

Thank you.