Jan 102018
 

The inspiration board in the main office faculty and staff kitchen lines up with this resolution for 2018 – and Hillbrook’s theme of the year!

I was talking with a parent a little over a month ago, right after drop off. She was a bit harried, having just launched each child into the day. She sighed, and said, “I’m glad people don’t see me at home with my children. I’m nowhere near the parent that I want to be.” She went on to describe the conflicts she was having with her elementary-aged children, the controlled chaos of morning and bedtime routines, the difficulty of getting to school on time, the desire to be patient and present for her children and yet the challenge, in the moment, to achieve that goal.

I reassured her that she was not alone, and added that, on a personal level, I often felt the same way. “Be kind to yourself,” I noted, “You are doing the best you can. That counts for a lot.” She smiled and, later in the day, actually thanked me for my comment. She noted that she often feels like she is not doing enough, and it was helpful to have her feelings validated and to know that she was not alone in facing these challenges.

I thought of the conversation this past week as I was reflecting on the start of the new year. While I’m not someone who typically generates a lengthy list of resolutions, I do find myself each year thinking about what one or two things I hope to focus on in the year ahead. Thinking back on this conversation, I found myself drawn to the interrelated themes of judgment and empathy.

Contemporary society is awash with judgment. While judgmental impulses are nothing new (the term Puritanical exists for a reason!), social media has created a space that exacerbates this human tendency. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms all too often use likes and retweets to reward vindictiveness, clever retorts, and the celebration of people’s mistakes, inadequacies, failures, and downfalls. The tone can be nasty and mean-spirited, and there is a re-creation of the worst of classic playground behavior. Just like with the playground bully, the rush to judge and taunt often seems to be driven by fear and insecurity.

Judgmental behaviors, particularly snap judgments, are often in opposition to the empathy we encourage our children to practice. Walking in another person’s shoes requires us to withhold judgment and to strive to understand what a person is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Unlike the fear and insecurity underlying judgment, empathy is driven by hope and possibility. Empathy is usually harder than judgment, it requires us to slow down, to stop making assumptions, to listen, and to seek understanding.

Returning to the conversation I had with the parent, I was struck by how judgmental behavior impacts how we think about ourselves as parents. Our fear of other people’s opinions, particularly around something that feels as personal as parenting, can lead us to a place of self-doubt. Furthermore, our fear and insecurity about what our children will be like when they grow up, the classic, “How will my failure to do _____ ruin my child’s life,” can leave us feeling overwhelmed and discouraged.  

So, for 2018, I encourage each of you to stop judging yourself. Give yourself credit for being the best version of you that you can be at any given moment. Our children are resilient, and they will survive our imperfect parenting.

Then, apply this same thinking to those around you. Fight the urge to judge another child’s behavior, to criticize someone else’s parenting style, to become exasperated with your child’s inability to get something done. Take a deep breath, ask questions, seek to understand.

Choose hope and possibility, not fear and judgment. That’s my resolution for 2018.

Aug 282017
 

With Jackson (’19) and Lily (’16) – the Silver family’s first day at Hillbrook School.

I first noticed the trend a few years ago. Every August, my Facebook feed starts to fill up with back-to-school photos. Children, often holding brand-new backpacks and dressed in shiny, new school outfits, smile at cameras. The looks vary, some stand proudy with big, broad, confident smiles, others slouch slightly, more understated, lips closed, only the corners of their mouths slightly upturned. Ages and stages can often be determined by tell-tale signs – missing teeth, braces, hairstyles. In families with multiple children, the interactions between the peers are often telling, as is the absence of one or more siblings from a photo or the emergence of multiple first-day photos, a reminder that someone has moved on to a new stage of their lives – high school or even college.

What is missing from my feed, for the most part, are the adults – parents, grandparents, teachers – who are also preparing for their entry to the school year. I love to imagine my feed filling up with photos that capture the complexity of adult feelings. A parent, smiling bravely, as they watch their 4 or 5-year-old enter the junior kindergarten or kindergarten classroom for the first time. Another parent, smiling gratefully, as they watch their 4th grader run onto campus, signalling the end of summer and the return to normalcy and routine that a school year brings. A different parent looking somewhat torn – a mix of pride, excitement, and a twinge of sorrow, as they watch their 8th grader enter Hillbrook for their “final first day.” A teacher, closing their eyes and taking a deep breath, as they eagerly – and yet undoubtedly with a bit of nerves – anticipate the arrival of their students.

The images, whether literal or just in my imagination, are reminders of the promise of a new school year. Each time I see one on the Facebook feed my stomach flutters slightly, as I feel my own mixture of anticipation, excitement, and nerves that comes along with the start of a school year. Nine years into my tenure at Hillbrook, 25 years into my career as an educator, and many, many, many years after my own first day of school in kindergarten, I remain drawn to the possibility that a school year offers. I embrace the opportunity to take on a beginner’s mindset, to view the school with the fresh perspective gained from a summer away, and to try to see the school through the eyes of the many children, families, and teachers who are experiencing Hillbrook for the very first time.

Last year, the night before the first day of a school, a memory popped up on my Facebook feed. It was the first day of school, 2009, my very first day as the Head of Hillbrook School. I was standing behind Lily, who was 7 and entering 2nd grade, and Jackson, who was 5 and entering JK. Piper, not pictured, was still four years away from her first day. All three of us look excited and just a touch terrified at the prospect of the day ahead. So much has happened since that day, and yet the things that drew me to Hillbrook – a strong community, an extraordinary educational program, a belief in the possibility and promise of childhood – remain as strong as they were on that day. Indeed, the ensuring years have only deepened my sense of appreciation and connection to Hillbrook and its community. Hillbrook is and has always been an extraordinary place for children and adults.

Whether you are new to our community or returning for your second, tenth, or twentieth year, I encourage each of you to embrace the promise of the new year. Please join me, the 8th grade co-heads, more than 350 students, our dynamic and talented faculty and staff, and parents of all ages at Flag on Wednesday morning. I can’t wait to see you.

Mar 172017
 

gratitudeI had the opportunity to hear Brené Brown at the recent NAIS National Conference in Baltimore. Author of several books, including bestsellers Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, Brown has garnered a great deal of attention by speaking to the powerful role that shame and vulnerability play in our lives, and how we need to understand and lean into those feelings if we are ever going to be able to be courageous and do great things.

Brown is a gifted and humorous speaker, and she managed to be simultaneously disarming, funny, and thought-provoking, as she challenged each of us to think about how our fear of being vulnerable leads to misunderstanding. It takes courage to speak our truth, particularly to those closest to us, she noted. She told a story of a morning swim with her husband that quickly devolved into a fight when the two of them failed to understand what the other was thinking. She encouraged us to develop facility with the phrase, “The story I am telling in my head…,” as a way to open conversation with another person and help them understand what you are thinking and, in the process, often help to reveal the misunderstanding at the core of the conflict.

I quickly thought of the many misunderstandings I had with people, especially my own family members, as I leapt up the ladder of inference and became frustrated, judgmental, and angry instead of opening myself up to a real conversation and a search for understanding. I thought of a recent situation in which one of my children came to me to ask if we could get a subscription to Adobe Photoshop. I looked up from my computer, and immediately, angrily, and, let’s be clear, irrationally launched into a mini-tirade about how all my children ever do is ask for things and want more. I was tired of their sense of entitlement and their never-ending need for things. I then turned back to what I was doing, shutting the conversation down.

Later, with the benefit of time and perspective, I went back to said child and asked them to tell me more. It turns out, that this child had already figured out a way to pay for this service by canceling another service we had, and was not simply asking for something more. I sheepishly listened and we worked out an arrangement that, in the end, actually highlighted the importance of financial management and this child’s growing awareness that “money does not grow on trees.”

It was definitely a low point as a parent, and one that I’m not proud of in the least. I could make a number of excuses, but if I’m being brutally honest (ie, fully vulnerable) and if I play out “the story in my head”, the question triggered complex feelings from my own childhood about money, an underlying fear that careless expenditures of money would have long-term consequences, coupled with shame about any type of conspicuous consumption. The latter undoubtedly traces all the way back to a purchase in 7th grade of an expensive pair of Vuarnet sunglasses with money I had earned through yard work and babysitting, a purchase that my parents viewed with a combination of disgust and disappointment. In retrospect, I now recognize their feeling – it was discomfort with the privilege I had (the ability to purchase a pair of Vuarnet sunglasses) combined with a larger fear that I would not recognize my privilege and would simply become entitled.

Brené Brown beautifully addressed this concept when she talked about her own efforts to ensure her children were not entitled. She distinguished between privilege – unearned access to resources  – and entitlement – expectations of access to resources. The key to keeping the one – privilege – from becoming the other – entitlement? Understanding and gratitude.

As a parent, how do we do this? I think it is important to explicitly name the privileges your children have, as well as helping them see how privilege varies across different communities. It is important for children to recognize, for example, that within the Hillbrook community, different families have different types of privilege, whether due to differences in socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. At the same time, even with those differences, it is helpful for our children to recognize the privilege that all Hillbrook children have simply by being students at the school, namely, access to an educational experience that the vast majority of children throughout the Bay Area and around the world do not have.

And how do we teach gratitude? To my mind, the best way to teach that is by modeling it for your own children and by showing your own gratitude for the things and experiences you find valuable. I regularly tell my children about how grateful I am to be part of this community, how grateful I am to live in such an extraordinarily beautiful area, and how grateful I am to have the freedom and the opportunities that I have had throughout my life.

For additional exploration  you might check out the following:

Nov 082016
 

 

perspective“To the middle, run to the middle,” I yelled from the sidelines to one of the players on the U9 girls soccer team I’m helping to coach. As her teammate dribbled down the sideline and prepared to send a cross to the middle of the field in the front of the goal, the player turned around and ran back toward the center circle – the middle of the field. I started to yell and then, simply, stopped. After the ball went out of bounds, I called the girl over to the sideline and tried, as best I could, to explain what I had meant. She had a big smile on her face and nodded enthusiastically, and yet I could tell she wasn’t following me. “Just play hard, try to get the ball, and have fun,” I said as I sent her back out on the field.

Coaching 7 and 8 year old girls this Fall has been humbling. I find myself trying to balance the need to teach the difficult and technical skills of soccer – controlling the ball with your feet and other parts of your body, passing to a teammate, receiving a pass from a teammate, shooting – with the need to teach basic game sense and understanding of strategy. My co-coaches and I have tried to structure practices so the children are touching the ball all the time, not standing around in lines, and thus they are focusing on moving and developing a feel for the ball. We have also tried to provide some basic understanding of the game so that when we get on the field, they are not just chasing the ball. While the former has been successful – the girls are touching the ball a lot in practice – the latter has been harder. We have been the masters of the swarm much of the season, although there have been moments of passing and spacing these past few weeks that provide hope.

For context, soccer was my favorite sport growing up, and I remain a passionate fan of professional soccer. I also coached older players – high school junior varsity and varsity soccer teams – for a number of years earlier in my career. To be clear, no one is going to invite me to coach a top soccer team anytime soon, and yet I probably know more than your average AYSO soccer coach.  

Coaching this team has reminded me of a few important lessons that apply to parenting and school.

First, controlling children is not the same as teaching children. Soccer is complex and fluid, and it is not possible to create a script and simply direct children around the field. I can yell to the girls to get to the middle, and yet so many things can make that difficult, from the challenge of controlling the ball to the abstract nature of the flow of the game. The fundamental beauty of soccer to me is that it is a player’s game, not a coach’s game. Just like in parenting our children, we ultimately need to sit back and let them control their own game.

Which leads to the second lesson – I need to understand the children I have in front of me and meet them where they are. A quick review of the Yardsticks developmental continuum that we often share with parents reminds me that 7 and 8 year olds can “Listen well but may not always remember what they’ve heard,” and that they “may give up when things are hard.” It also notes, that they are “full of energy, play hard, work quickly, and tire easily.”  Wondering about the different shapes and sizes of children out there? Well, not surprisingly, they “may have a growth spurt.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have a “limited attention span, and short exercise breaks help concentration.” I’m no longer coaching high school varsity players, nor do I necessarily want to be – but that’s a column for a different day.

Which leads to the final lesson – I should not be measuring success by whether we win or lose the game. I will admit that I am competitive (probably more competitive than I sometimes want to admit) and there have been moments where I’ve been enthusiastically directing the girls on the field and getting pulled into the competitive nature of the moment. “Go, go, go,” I’m yelling from the sideline. And then I look over and see the three girls who are sitting on the sideline with me doing cartwheels. Perspective is important.

Next week, two excellent speakers will be visiting the area as part of the Common Ground speaker series – Richard Weissbroud and Frank Bruni. Both have written interesting books, Weissbroud’s book The Parents We Mean To Be focused on parenting and children’s moral and emotional development, while Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be challenges students and parents to rethink how they view the college experience. The two will be delivering separate talks – Weissbroud at Nueva on Tuesday, November 15 and Bruni at Bellarmine on Wednesday, November 16. In addition, the two will be part of a joint discussion, moderated by Denise Clark Pope, on Tuesday, November 15 at Menlo School. For those who don’t know, Denise Clark Pope is impressive in her own right, as the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students and the founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit that challenges parents and schools to redefine the meaning of success.

While Weissbroud and Bruni are not talking about soccer, the lessons that I have been reminded of in coaching 7 and 8 year-old girls are not too dissimilar from the lessons they are exploring, albeit in the context of older children. For those who are new to the Hillbrook community, we were one of the founding schools of Common Ground more than 10 years ago and the group continues to bring extraordinary speakers to help all of us – parents, teachers, and coaches – work with our students and children.

A final note about the team. A few weeks back, I found myself at 8:15 am on a Saturday morning with ten eager girls dressed and ready to play an 8:30 am soccer game. The only problem? The other team wasn’t there. The rainy weather had created confusion about whether or not we could use the field and thus the other team did not show. Our team’s other coach and I talked and then we talked with a few other parents. What should we do? “The parents should play the kids,” one child said enthusiastically. We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Why not?” One hour later, a number of us collapsed on the sideline, big smiles on our faces, as we completed perhaps the best sixty minutes of the season. A parent smiled at me and said, “You know what? This is what they are going to remember.”

Apr 272016
 

To my mind, there may be no more quintessentially Hillbrook artifact than the white shirt. We have often envisioned an ad which would show a white shirt with a series of stains – a touch of red paint on the front, a dash of Epicurean lunch on the collar, mud stains up the back from running across campus, a bit of whiteboard marker on the sleeve. At the bottom of the ad might be a tagline like, “Got dirt?” or “Evidence of an Extraordinary Education,” and perhaps in really small letters at the bottom, “Bleach and Spray n Wash not included.”

What is it that I love so much about the white shirt?

It tells our story. At Hillbrook, we believe that a good day is a day in which children embrace the messiness of learning. Every morning fresh white shirts arrive on campus, ready to take on the challenge of a Hillbrook day. By 9:30 am shirts look a bit more frayed – perhaps a hand absent-mindedly wiped on the shirt as a student wrestles with a complicated math problem on a white board table or a bit of dirt on the sleeve from efforts to build an artificial hand in science class. By noon, multiple stains have started to emerge, evidence of specialist and elective classes, a few well-traveled trips across campus, a bite of lunch, and an intense game of gaga ball in the Middle School or digging in the sandbox on the JK-2 playground. By the end of the day, the clean white shirt has been replaced by a dirty, stretched out, off-white shirt that bears only a passing resemblance to its early morning facsimile. One glance as a parent at your child’s white shirt at 3:30 pm tells you that it has been another active, engaging, fully-lived day at school.

As the person who typically does laundry in our house, I am well-aware of the increasingly daunting challenge over the course of the year to restore the white shirt to its original splendor. After several months, even bleach and Spray n Wash have a limited impact.

Thus, it is with genuinely mixed emotions – a bit of sadness AND untold relief – that I share that we have decided to add navy blue shirts to the uniform next year. The decision comes as a result of a two-year effort by the Student Council to expand the possibilities for the student uniform. Through conversation with the Student Council, we learned that students really wanted the navy blue shirt option. As we sought out perspectives from adults in our community, we were not surprised to learn that parents were equally eager to have a new option, one that wouldn’t get quite so dirty day in and day out. Thus, with only a bit of hesitation, we have embraced the change and we will be adding the navy blue shirt option to the mix next year. White shirts are still allowed. In addition, we will likely implement a specific uniform for concerts and all-school pictures, most likely the white shirt, so all students will want to have at least one white shirt in the mix.

So, as students arrive on campus next year, I will be greeted by a new sight – a sea of white AND navy blue shirts. It will be a small, but significant, change, for no longer will I necessarily be able to tell what type of day it has been for each child by reviewing the shirts at carpool. And, yet, I know that regardless of the shirts, the Hillbrook experience will not change. Each day will continue to be a day a joyful learning, filled with all of the excitement, challenge, and, yes, messiness, that we all know is the result of an extraordinary education.

Mar 232016
 

Sunday morning, my family and I were digging in the earth, pulling weeds and preparing a small area of land in the backyard for a garden. For the first time in several years, we decided that we would clean up a space and plant some vegetables. It was a beautiful morning, with the sun shining and a cool breeze, and it didn’t take long for me to lose myself in thought.

I thought about the 8th graders, a group of young adults who I have watched grow through the years as both Head of School and parent. This time of year finds our 8th graders looking ahead, anxiously and enthusiastically making decisions about where to go for high school, while also simultaneously embracing their moment as the proverbial kings of the Hillbrook hill, the oldest students at school and the leaders on campus. As has been true every year, our 8th graders did extremely well in the high school application process, earning spots at all of the top high schools in the Bay Area as well as several leading boarding schools. The process of declaring where you are going to high school signals a major transitional moment for these young people, one that is bittersweet for both students and adults. Knowing where you are going next year makes the end of 8th grade feel decidedly more real for everyone.

Digging in the dirt, I had a vague recollection of hearing Sir Ken Robinson speak about gardening as a metaphor for childhood development and learning several years ago. A quick Google search later in the afternoon took me to this short clip:

In this short piece, Robinson contrasts the traditional industrial model of education – the notion that children are educated through a linear and predictable pathway akin to the factory-line production of a car – with an agricultural model, that views teachers as gardeners and children as plants. As Robinson notes, “You don’t stick the roots on and paint the petals and attach the leaves. The plant grows itself. What you do is provide the conditions.” In the same way, as a school, we don’t make the children bloom and grow – we create the conditions that allow them to become the best version of themselves.

Tonight our 8th graders will have a chance to blossom and shine, as they take the stage for the first of two productions of Once Upon a Mattress. For those of us who have known them for years – whether as parents or teachers, coaches or staff members, we will marvel at the extraordinary young people they have become. We will cheer for them as they show us what happens when young children are raised in an environment that emphasizes risk taking, kindness, curiosity, and a focus on being your best. We will celebrate their collective achievement, not necessarily any one actor or actress, for what is most noteworthy about the 8th grade musical every year is how a group of students – most of whom have little to no formal acting training – come together to produce a show that is professional and delightful. The musical itself is a celebration of the learning process, a public demonstration of the qualities that our 8th graders have developed along their Hillbrook journey – asking questions, working together, talking and listening, solving problems, and making things better.

Heeding the words of Sir Ken Robinson, we will also hopefully remember that these two shows are just one moment in a lifetime of moments in which these young people will blossom and shine. They are a confident, creative, and impressive group of young people – and, yet, they are still only 13 and 14 years old. There is much growing and much to life that lies ahead for each of them. As Sir Ken Robinson noted, good gardeners create the conditions for plants to grow, recognizing and honoring the unique needs of each plant at different moments throughout the life cycle. Learning is something that we engage throughout our lives, not just when we are young, and our 8th graders should be no exception.

Sir Ken Robinson’s words are also a reminder to all of us – educators and parents – that ultimately our children’s journeys are something we share and support, not control. We cannot add the petals and attach the roots – we can only guide them and love them unconditionally. We can celebrate with they reach the top of a mountain, and console them when they fall, but their successes and their challenges are ultimately theirs, not ours.

This summer, with the right care and attention, my family and I will be able to watch our garden flower and grow. Each beautiful blossom will remind me of the community at Hillbrook, the conditions we are creating in an effort to allow all children to reach their highest individual potential in school and in life. Each blossom will also remind me that my work as a parent and an educator is vital to the success of children, and yet, in the end, children grow and bloom in their own unique way and at their own unique pace.