In the past few years, I’ve only ever spent a few brief minutes at Parent Night discussing policy changes, but because this year we updated three policies which are significant components of the School’s culture, I thought it best to share some thoughts and the reasoning behind those changes. These are the remarks I made to the student body at the beginning of the year, and then to their parents, as we seek to shift the conversations away from policy towards an appreciation for what it means to be accountable for one's choices.
The change which received the least fanfare, but is certainly significant in its own right, is our updated grading structure. We decided to change the structure of how we recorded grades because of what we noticed about the student experience and the data we saw, as well as trying to match more closely with what we value as educators.
Growth and effort
As teachers and administrators, we could feel the frenetic nature of the end of each quarter. Over and over, we would hear anxiety-ridden statements like, “I've got to get my grade up," or, "I can't fail this test because it's going to tank my grade."
Nine weeks can move quite quickly for students and teachers, and it creates periods towards the end of that time frame in which there is a lot of anxiety. We also had some convincing data which showed not only were students stressed, but they were not making good decisions. We looked at some reasons why this was occurring, and looked to alter some of the structures in place which may support these less than desired outcomes. For example, the transcripts which we send to colleges have not (and will not) include quarter grades, so having the finality associated with a quarter grade did not really serve a greater purpose for us.
We’re hopeful this will allow our students to recognize that we want them to show growth over time, and to sustain their effort. Those are two key aspects of being a student which we have discussed for years, but now our grading structure helps support that even more. Having a longer timeframe, 18 weeks instead of nine, will allow our students’ grades to reflect that growth a little more effectively. At the same time, if a student hasn’t put in the work for most of the semester, it will be harder to significantly improve their grade right at the end, because there will be more work accumulated to that point.
Students and parents will still get progress reports and updates at the same intervals as they have in the past. At what had previously been the mid-quarter, students will now receive a progress report. What has previously been the first quarter grade will now be a mid-semester report. Students will still know where they stand, and while it’s a very small change logistically, we’re excited about how it can impact the climate of the Upper School and continue to raise our expectations for our students’ work in the classroom.
One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes... and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.
I shared this quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt with our students on the first day when we discussed changes to the dress code. I enjoy analyzing quotes. In fact, I share quotes at every faculty meeting for us to reflect on as a group. I like to think about the things that other people say and how the context in which they said those words is similar or different to my own. This quotation describes leadership, and the necessity of a leader to own her decisions and choices. You can think and say what you would like to be true; your choices and actions demonstrate what is actually true.
It may seem odd to associate this with our dress code, but it promotes a philosophy that was created in large part by our student leaders when they began engaging with this work two years ago.
Leadership is a word which gets thrown around quite often, and what the word means and how it is reflected in the lives of our students can vary greatly from one person to the next, but the philosophy behind the dress code updates, very clearly stated, is that our students are leaders of a K-12 school. As the oldest students, there is a responsibility that comes along with that, and when students make choices every morning, we want that on their minds.
We also wanted to examine ways in which we could help promote school spirit. I love our school. It's one of the reasons I wear one of my Randolph polo shirts every Friday – I want people to know I'm supporting whatever happens to be going on at school. I wear Randolph shirts around town because I want people to ask me about the school. I love the school, and I want our students to be proud to love it, too.
You can be a leader by demonstrating pride in your achievements and the achievements of others, and in supporting them in their endeavors. Our dress code is going to help foster that amongst the student body, and I’m excited about how that might impact the culture on a daily basis.
The third part of it is about relationships. We didn't want to have policies in place which could create animosity between students, between teachers and students, or between teachers and teachers. We don't want to have structures in place which could jeopardize those relationships because that's such an important part of what we do – If it's not the most important part, it's right up there.
We looked for ways to instill that into the philosophy about the dress code, because it's something that impacts us every day. But, again, referring to the discussion about leadership, it also comes down to choices, and understanding that the choices we make impact our relationships with others. We don’t want to strain those relationships – we want to build them more deeply.
Those three themes—leadership, school spirit, and relationships—were the drivers for updating our dress code, but that last theme would carry over to our new expectations regarding cell phone use, too.
When the updated cell phone policy was released, students would ask me something along the lines of, “Why would you do this? We thought you liked us!”
In reality, a large part of our thinking is based in research. There is a growing body of research which describes the way in which our interaction with our phones impacts our relationships with others, our ability to concentrate, and even certain physiological responses we have.
It’s also important to be careful to understand some of the research, which isn’t shared as publicly, or to examine the greater context of the studies. For example, the article in The Atlantic about whether smartphones have destroyed a generation, pulls from data which supports a particular claim, but there’s more to it than that.
There is research that shows that high school seniors are essentially as happy, or unhappy, depending on your view, as they’ve been for the past 20 years. While that same study shows that students who don’t use social media are more likely to be happy, it also shows that those students are also more likely to be unhappy than students who report using social media in any capacity. According to this research, on average, students who use social media are no more or less happy in a measurable way than students who do not use social media.
We are learning more and more about the impact of our social media use every day, so it’s challenging to make larger generalizations that don’t take our specific context into account.
Our context and our community are grounded in relationships, and that is really the main reason for why we’ve adjusted our expectations surrounding cell phone use in the Upper School.
When I think about that young teacher who started working here in 2008, I think about my interview visit from the previous spring. After just a short time on campus, it was obvious that this place was different.
The biggest reason was the sense of community, that sense of everyone knowing each other, and everyone supporting each other. That's incredibly special, and it’s not something I had to this extent when I was in high school. It's also not something I've experienced at every place I've worked, but it's really ingrained in the culture here, and it's something that we embrace.
But it's also something about which we have to be really purposeful. We can't just assume it's going to be there – We have to do things that actively try to embrace that part of who we are.
People often ask me whether or not I miss teaching now that I’m a division head, and it’s a quick response in the affirmative. Part of that stems from my love of history and the joy of engaging with students around the material, but most of it is because of the experiences I shared with students and fellow teachers, in informal moments with kids and colleagues where I would learn about them, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears, and any number of elements of their personalities which helped me understand them and myself at a greater level.
There is something profound about being in the same place at the same time with a group of people and sharing an experience. What we as a school are saying is that we're going to place an incredibly high value on that. We are going to focus on each other. We are going to focus on these moments.
We're going to laugh together. We're going to give each other advice. We're going to shave our heads to show our support for someone else’s fight. We're going to learn about each other’s' interests and support each other’s passions. We're going to meet new people and welcome them into our community. We're going to support each other in everything that we do.
Many of these moments happen because we build them into our schedule for the year. We call them “rally points,” and those are really special times for the school. What we're going to focus on is maximizing the time that our students have to invest in each other.
As the great American philosopher Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” While I don’t know that I would suggest modeling the vast majority of one’s approach to school on Ferris Bueller, I do think there is wisdom in those words. We want to look around, appreciate what we have around us, and invest in each other. We are fortunate to be a part of this community, and we want to make sure we're being intentional about fostering those relationships, old and new, and make the most of our time together.