The gift of a roadworthy education

Posted by James Rainey - 02 September, 2016

I gave a version of these remarks at our 2016 Back-to-School evening programs:

So if you understand what a science teacher does, or an English teacher, or a college counselor, or a softball coach, but you’re not exactly sure what a Head of School does, you are in good company.

dreamAt our Opening Convocation ceremony, George, a kindergarten student and a member of Randolph’s Class of 2029, asked, “What is your job?” The best answer I could come up with was, “My job is to encourage our school to dream.”


My job is to encourage our school to dream.

That encouragement took the form this past summer of asking our entire K-12 faculty to watch a TED talk by Will Richardson, a former teacher who has become a popular blogger, Tweeter, and commentator on American education. As they viewed the video, our teachers used an online form to register their agreement or disagreement with Mr. Richardson’s statements in real time.

There were several statements that elicited nearly unanimous praise. Our faculty loved it, for example, when Mr. Richardson said that “the best learning that we do happens when it's for a real purpose, when it has relevance in our lives.” They also loved it when he said that “productive learning… engenders wanting to learn more” and that “the things that we've learned most powerfully and deeply are the things that we want to learn more about.”

RichardsonBut our faculty were divided by some of Mr. Richardson’s other statements – his claim, for example, that worksheets of the kind required of his son in a chemistry class were a waste of time: unproductive of learning and irrelevant to his interests. Some of our teachers defended the teaching of subject-area knowledge as a necessary first-step toward the understanding of more difficult concepts. Others argued that the application of basic subject-area knowledge, through hands-on activities such as labs, reinforces its importance and cements it in students’ long-term memory, to build from throughout their lives. Still, some Randolph teachers acknowledged the challenge of teaching basic subject-area content in ways that capture student interest – and stick.

This kind of conversation – which we have often at Randolph – is a kind of “dreaming”, because it exemplifies our incessant drive to get better at serving the needs of your children. In this case, as in so many in life, thoughtful people can disagree, but we are committed to respectful and constructive disagreement, and to working together in a spirit of shared endeavor and partnership.

Partnership is a theme of ours at Randolph this year, and it includes our partnership with you. You might recall in the letter that I sent to you a few weeks ago my acknowledgment that “growing up is hard work, as is parenting, and as is teaching,” and my appeal to you to “let us partner in this hard work together, with mutual trust and glad hearts.” A Randolph parent once observed to me, in discussing the points of conflict that inevitably arise as children grow up in our school, that because our families pay a Mercedes price, they expect a Mercedes experience.

I thought long and hard about that analogy, until one day I happened to look over at my own children and realize that I had a Datsun with chronic starter issues on my hands, as well as what would appear to be a late-model Yugo. Because no child was ever a luxury car – and, for that matter, no child ever arrived with an owner’s manual or a warranty. But I can promise you this: we are dedicated at Randolph to equipping whatever model child you have for the road ahead – even when there are hairpin turns and unexpected construction delays – just as we are dedicated to servicing them with the finest pit crews we can possibly assemble.

And remember that there are other cars on the road. In a recent New Yorker article titled “What Happens When We Decide Everyone Else Is a Narcissist,” Jia Tolentino writes, “If ‘toxic self-absorption’ is indeed the new American disease, then it will be important to remember that no one has immunity.”

We are partnered with each of you and all of you toward the advancement of your children and our school community. Partnership is of the essence to your investment in us, and to our investment in your children. It is the gift that we both can give.

We are excited to unveil our new Strategic Plan this fall following its formal approval by the Board of Trustees in the coming weeks. The Plan is headlined by our “2020 Vision,” an aspirational statement of purpose to guide us through the next several years that focuses on providing individualized and powerful learning and growth experiences different not merely in degree but in kind from what your children could find anywhere else in our region – and doing so within a constantly challenging and rewarding program of curricular and extracurricular offerings.

2020 talksI look forward to sharing more information with you about the Strategic Plan as the year unfolds. One of the primary ways I will do this is through a series of “2020 Talks” that I will host every few weeks between now and May. There is a registration link for these gatherings on our website. Please sign up – and invite a friend – so that you can learn more about our aspirations as a school and as a community. In between these talks, I will share my thoughts and observations about our work at Randolph in particular and the broader American educational landscape in general via this blog.

5 QuestionsAnd while I am shamelessly plugging myself, I would also ask that you encourage your children to participate in my elective “5 Questions” Canvas course, which adapts current events articles into ACT and SAT reading passages with plenty of mathematical and scientific emphases folded in. It’s a great way for your children to be informed, to acquaint themselves with good writing, and to practice for the college admissions tests that they will soon encounter – and some of them will even get to enjoy some of my famous chocolate-chip pancakes in the bargain.

There is no more valuable gift that I can give to my children than an education of this caliber, a foundation this strong.

valuableWe are promoting a celebratory social media campaign this year under the hashtag #whyRandolph. After listening to my remarks and your children’s teachers’ words to you this evening, I hope that you will leave this evening with a better sense of #whyRandolph for you and your family.

A #whyRandolph of my own, with which I will conclude, is simply this: Because there is no more valuable gift that I can give to my children than an education of this caliber, a foundation this strong.

I hope that you share this sentiment of privilege with me. You get to do this for your child. It is a joy to be part of an enterprise so focused on excellence, and on love of young people.


Topics: School Culture, learning, mission, strategic plan, Head of School, Datsun, Effort, Jia Tolentino, Mercedes, parent partnership, privilege, 2020 Vision, TED, #whyRandolph, Will Richardson

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