Discipline Without Dialogue

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“Discipline without dialogue is crowd control.” My former boss at two different schools gave me these wise words of advice. Phil Riley is a West Point graduate and was a retired colonel when he became superintendent of New York Military Academy in 1993. Phil and another old friend, Steve Lifrak, helped to start the Cadet Counseling Center at the United States Military Academy. Phil and Steve are both masterful counselors and have helped generations of students (and adults) grow and learn through deep meaningful dialogue. Last I checked, Phil was working as a Senior Benefits Liaison for the Wounded Warrior Project. Steve and I recently reconnected on Facebook.

I think both Phil and Steve would be proud of what we do at Pinewood. A lot of the work of our counseling staff and administration falls in one of two categories: student achievement and conflict resolution. It is the latter topic that has captured much of our attention as of late.

Pinewood is a family and family members can treat each other poorly. Sometimes we are rude and insensitive, exercising what could be examples of bullying behavior. We do not have physical fights. Thefts are few and far between. On-campus drug or alcohol use is an anomaly. People violate the Honor Code on occasion by cheating or copying assignments. Most of what we do is manage conflict between people who generally get along.

That is what is tough when dealing with young people. Today’s best friend is tomorrow’s mortal enemy and then best friend again the following day. Social media and technology have only made this more difficult as kids send hateful messages from home in the evening and then see each other the next day during homeroom. Conflict between young people will always exist. A real test of a good school is the staff’s willingness to engage and work towards resolution. Our work is not just triage, trying to simply get kids back to class so we can focus on other issues. We typically dig deeper at Pinewood working to create long-term healing and lasting solutions.

Independent schools, unlike their public school counterparts, should have time and space to do this important work. We do not deal with many of the other issues challenging bigger schools. We typically do not deal with violence, weapons scares, or many of the other ills facing the public schools. We enjoy strong relationships with interested, engaged parents. As independent schools, we are asked to prove our value proposition. In short, the need to prove that our product is worth the price. Beyond the highest quality teachers and extraordinary college admissions results, it is our intent to help children grow through and beyond conflict. I believe that this is an obvious difference, part of the Pinewood difference.

Our approach is to focus on finding solutions and helping young people develop the tools to resolve conflict. John Murphy, a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas and author of the book Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools shares, “Many students are surprised to learn that they are doing something right, and they become more hopeful and energized when they realize that they already have what it takes to turn things around.” We want to help our young people learn “what it takes”.

I often hear some parents talk about moving their children to bigger public schools to avoid peer conflict or because they want their son or daughter to be exposed to the “real world”. While these goals are noble ones, there is also an associated risk. You see, the real world is sometimes an ugly place and our hardworking counterparts in the public sector may not have the time to truly help your child resolve a conflict with a peer or navigate the complicated college admissions process. As American boxing great Joe Louis said, “You can run, but you cannot hide.” No school community is immune to the phenomenon of gossip or catty behavior.

At Pinewood, we will continue to embrace the opportunity to create deep dialogue when students have conflict. Our mission is clear, “…Pinewood is dedicated to excellence in the intellectual, physical, ethical, and social development of its students, families, faculty and staff.” It is not easy work, but we are fully committed. We do not always get it right, but we are resolved to help all members of our community grow.

Making the Most of It

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The one constant in life is time. We think there is more. It flies by. We waste it. All of the above. Perhaps no period of the year creates more reflection about time than the New Year. How many of us have committed to a new set of resolutions after the holiday? Some of these promises include:

  • Improve physical well-being: eat healthy food, lose weight, exercise more, drink less alcohol, quit smoking, get rid of old bad habits
  • Improve mental well-being: think positive, laugh more often, enjoy life
  • Improve finances: get out of debt save money, make small investments
  • Volunteer to help others, practice life skills, use civic virtue, give to charity, volunteer to work part-time in a charity organization
  • Get along better with people, improve social skills, enhance social intelligence
  • Spend quality time with family members
  • Pray more, be closer to God, be more spiritual

These are all important promises. I make many of them each year. However, I am curious as to where this practice of making resolutions at the New Year started. Some initial research shows that making annual resolutions is rooted in ancient history. The Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus for whom the month of January is named. The knights of the Medieval Era took the “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry. 

This tradition has many other religious parallels. During Judaism’s New Year, Rosh Hashanah, through the High Holidays and culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), one is to reflect upon one’s wrongdoings over the year and both seek and offer forgiveness. People can act similarly during the Christian liturgical season of Lent, although the motive behind this holiday is more of sacrifice than of responsibility. In fact, the practice of New Year’s resolutions came, in part, from the Lenten sacrifices. The concept, regardless of creed, is to reflect upon self-improvement annually.

Self improvement is a most noble goal for any time of the year. For those of us that work in schools, the New Year is also a time to step-up our planning for the next year. Hiring and curriculum plans. Annual calendar. Potential changes in the daily schedule. Working with our Board of Trustees to set tuition for the following year. Although these tasks could seem perfunctory to some, they are actually rooted in a core value of continuous improvement. Schools that always strive to be better tomorrow have an unbending resolve to provide the very best year after year. That takes commitment and time.

With only a few months standing between now and graduation in May, we need to make the most of the time we have to do this important work. For our students, the second semester is also a chance to refocus and to do their best. For our teachers, the second semester creates an opportunity to raise the bar – the chance to dive more deeply into complex concepts and ideas. For all of us, the lack of time is not an adequate excuse. It is an opportunity. Now is the time to re-energize and re-commit to our mission. Let’s make the most of it. Happy New Year to All!

 

 

Forever West

 

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I remember the personable, charismatic middle schooler sitting on the couch outside his mother’s office. He was not unlike many faculty kids, who often did their homework in the shadows of the day long after their peers went home. My almost daily interactions with he and his brother were beyond polite. Few young people seemed to be as genuinely interested in the lives of others, particularly adults. He engaged fully, always. West was bright; he loved discourse and discussion.

When I heard of West’s death as a senior in college, my mind immediately turned to the immeasurable pain and despair associated with such an event. You see, West took his own life a week ago. His depression got the best of him and for some unfathomable reason, he could take life no longer. This week has been a flash of events including four trips to our state capital of Columbia. It has been a cavalcade of emotions from my own son’s swearing in ceremony as a member of the South Carolina Bar, to some poignant moments with West’s family, his funeral at Trinity Cathedral, a second funeral of the beloved wife of one of our teachers, and last night’s state football championship.

Most importantly, I continue to think of West and how our society supports mental health and depression. What is it about the pressures of today’s world that result in such a level of despair and sadness for so many? With my own daughter in college, I cannot help to worry that life is so uncertain – so scary – that young people are more prone to depression and perhaps even suicide.

Having served as a College and Guidance Counselor for many years, I think back to my practice and the students I served. In a multitude of planning sessions with students we would talk about school size, location, and potential majors. Financial aid, scholarships, and career planning were also always topics for discussion. I now worry that we need to be equally focused on health services and counseling support. College and universities have led the way in many facets of student development, but are they leading the way in combating what seems to be a rise in student depression and suicide?

A September 2014 article by Amy Novotney published in the American Psychological Association newsletter highlights that about one-third of U.S. college students had difficulty functioning in the previous 12 months due to depression, and almost half said they felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year, according to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, which examined data from 125,000 students from more than 150 colleges and universities.

Other statistics are alarming: More than 30 percent of students who seek services for mental health issues report that they have seriously considered attempting suicide at some point in their lives, up from about 24 percent in 2010, says Pennsylvania State University psychologist Ben Locke, PhD, who directs the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), an organization that gathers college mental health data from more than 263 college and university counseling or mental health centers. (Novotney)

It is somewhat reassuring to know that colleges are working hard to step up services and attempts to understand why this generation seems to be so prone to feelings of depression. Researchers are examining the effect of mental health on how prepared students are for learning and exploring innovative ways to expand services and work with faculty to embed mental wellness messages in the classroom, says Louise Douce, PhD, special assistant to the vice president of student life at Ohio State University.

“For students to be able to learn at their peak capacity, they need to be physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually well,” says Douce. “Students who struggle are more likely to drop out of school, but by providing services for their anxiety, depression and relationship issues, we can help them manage these issues, focus on their academics and learn new ways to be in the world.”

My hope is that all students, moving forward, can get help if they experience feelings of dread and sadness. It is more important than whether or not they can get their school work done. It is for some, continuing to live. The statistics are terrifying, but the help does exist on college campuses. For parents sending their kids to college, it is worth finding out how your child can receive help if needed.

I will never see West again, but he will always have a place in my mind and heart. For now, please join me in prayer for a family and school community that lost one of their own to the darkness of depression.

Arts for All

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According to Harvard University scholars Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, art education should be universally supported. This is not because of an optimistic sentiment that classes in painting, dance and music improve pupils’ math and reading skills and standardized test scores. In a fascinating new study, these researchers focused on the exclusive benefits accrued through dedicated, direct study in visual and performing arts. In short, the “Arts” on their own merit are important for everyone. In fact, that is what we believe at Pinewood.

When students who take art also generally do well in school, Ms. Winner and her co-researchers say, this may be because academically strong schools tend to have strong arts programs, or because families who value academic achievement also value achievement in the arts.

It is indeed a complicated puzzle with proof of little causality. Much of what we do in education is searching for the links between activity and achievement. Whether or not taking art classes equal better academics, being on the team will yield a scholarship, playing the oboe will guarantee admission to an Ivy League institution are still matters of conjecture.

Life is indeed more simple than that. Art is beautiful. Music is magical. Dance is joyous. Theater is stimulating. Participating in the arts in school can affect achievement and opportunity, but in deeper ways. Schools should require, if possible, both depth and breadth of arts education. Guidance counselors should encourage young people to pursue degree programs in the creative world. The opportunities are out there.

Our lives are not only lines of binary codes and mathematical formulas. Knowing how to express, to be creative, to imagine – all lead to a life that is truly art. A life that is powerful. It was Marcel Proust that said, “Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees.”

So Much to Learn – So Little Time

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The start of school is a time of unbridled enthusiasm.  Now that we are on the verge of our 4th week of school, the reality of time begins to settle in.  What seemed like a lifetime of days in front of us, now starts to feel as if it is moving too fast.  The events of the day fly by, each one of them with such great potential for growth.

Working in a school like Pinewood is a blessing.  Our students are super young people, the faculty are committed and positive professionals, and our parents supportive and dedicated.  To be here and be operating outside of the norms of the Pinewood family is rare.  Pinewood has found something special in this small corner of South Carolina.

There is always so much to learn.  We as teachers are focused on insuring that this generation is prepared for the world that awaits them.  With each day comes a plethora of lessons, concepts, and skills to be shared.  In the classroom, we are working to understand measuring an angle, the rhythm of poetry, the scientific method, the conjugation of verbs for Spanish, and what the events of the Civil War mean today.  In my own Financial Literacy class, we spent Friday learning to balance a checkbook.  There is truly no shortage of information and curriculum.  We are a school first and foremost; that is our primary charge.

Beyond the academic work, a real responsibility begins – teaching character and citizenship.  Watching our middle and high school students last Friday at our 9/11 Ceremony reminds me that knowing how to participate in a democratic society as a responsible human being has an important place in today’s schools.  Our kids were fantastic during the service, punctuated with every one of them passing through a line to shake the hands of service men & women and first responders.  9/11 is a painful day for me in a multitude of ways.  My memories of that day are powerful, having worked in the World Trade Center during my 20s.

Commemorating events like 9/11 or Veterans Day will hopefully remind future generations that we live in a fragile place and time.  It reminds them that our country stands for something unique and powerful.  This is their country and will be their country when we are gone.  For our over 30 international students, their participation helps to reinforce the value of their American educational experience and why the USA still is the greatest country in the world.  Yes, we have our share of problems.  However, spend five minutes with a student from China and you will begin to understand the subtext behind their desire to attend an American high school or university.

In the small amount of time we share together at school we will continue to help them learn what it means to be good citizens and protectors of the rights and responsibilities granted to us as Americans.  We will also continue to focus on the importance of civility in our work and daily interactions.  To quote my friend Anne T. Weston, “if one of our young people graduate from here not being a good person, we have failed.”  Dr. Weston was speaking about a certain Episcopal school in Columbia, but the message is universal for all great independent schools.

There is so much to learn and so little time.  Pinewood remembers.

Take your punishment like a man, Tom Brady!

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When I was in elementary school, I got in trouble for throwing a piece of gum across the playground. My crime was not littering or chewing gum, but the fact that the gum landed in the hair of one of my female classmates. The result of my misdeed was an early dismissal that day and a very serious talking-to from the principal. Although I never had the intent to hit this poor girl in the head, I was punished nevertheless. I remember protesting for a moment to my parents, who told me to “take my punishment like a man.”  I think I was 9 years old.

People make mistakes, and one of the ways we help them learn is through consequences. My former Head of School Phil Riley once told me that “Discipline without dialogue is crowd control.”  Phil is a wise man, a West Point graduate, and one of the founders of the Cadet Advising program at the Academy. I have come to agree with that sentiment on a great many levels, but when did dialogue become negotiation? I am sure that anyone working in schools has found themselves at least once “negotiating” with parents or students about consequences or punishments. It seems as if, for some, the days of accepting your punishment are gone. While I do not think we do everything right in independent schools, we do care about each child and prescribe consequences after considerable thought. Concerns over a permanent record or reputation have created a platform for schools to be questioned all too often. This phenomenon could partially be explained through the example being set by the pre and post Super Bowl exploits of Patriots QB Tom Brady.

Now, a multiple game suspension does seem a bit much compared to charges of domestic battery or drug use and there is no question that professional sports cares deeply about cheating. I am a lifelong New York Jets fan, and a Tom Brady suspension may actually give my beloved J-E-T-S a reasonable shot. However, this post is not about football. It is about setting the example and taking your punishment, which is far more a character building exercise than a millionaire wasting money to challenge the consequences or the method of appeal.

How can our young people of today learn the lesson that there are consequences for your actions if their role models refuse to accept it? There have been other times in my life that I have made mistakes and I was asked or required to make amends. Each and every time, bar none, I was stronger from the experience. This is one way that we can learn right from wrong. My suspicion is that Mr. Brady’s concern over his “perfect” legacy far outweighs his sense of personal responsibility. Much like another sports icon, Roger Clemens, he refuses to accept that he was complicit and might want to appeal his appeal in real court.

Despite the negative behaviors, there are many positive examples to consider from professional sports. Writer Young Kim in an April 2012 article of New University, the online newspaper of the University of California at Irvine, does a fine job at discussing this subject. You will find the link below. He quotes NBA great and former US Senator, Bill Bradley, “Sports is a metaphor for overcoming obstacles and achieving against great odds. Athletes, in times of difficulty, can be important role models.” Kim also goes on to identify people like NBA star Tim Duncan and footballer Tim Tebow as possessing what he calls the necessary qualities or disciplines to be good role models. I am not sure where accepting personal responsibility falls exactly in the author’s reasoning, but it has to be considered as an important element of character. One of my favorite quotes of all time comes to us from Dale Carnegie, “When you lay an egg, sit back and admire it.” One discipline that Mr. Kim did not have on his list is the Discipline of Accepting Responsibility and I think it needs to be there.

Look, we all make mistakes, and we should accept responsibility – whether we intended to make a bad decision or not. How can we ask the next generation to learn this important lesson if their heroes do not? This is an additional challenge for each of us as parents and educators. Together we can do it, but it takes a commitment to dialogue and the acceptance of our humanity – the humanity that makes us imperfect. And that is okay. Our character is truly measured during difficult times and Tom Brady, I am watching to see if you measure up.

Young Kim Article about Role Models

Why Independent Schools?

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Pinewood Prep is located in an area with good schools. In fact, public schools provide some stiff competition for us. There is great pride in Summerville, South Carolina. People love their teachers and their teams. Sports are very important. One of the strongest school brands I have ever seen is Summerville High School and the Green Wave. Home, up until yesterday, of the most successful football coach at any level (He retired). The district continues to grow as our county has fast become a mammoth suburb of Charleston and a real destination. I love the mix of both camaraderie and competition. The town is good to us as we at Pinewood work to be good stewards and supporters of our community. While it is not always easy, our “town and gown” relationship continues to grow.
Because we compete for students with our public school counterparts, I often think of those differentiating factors between the two educational systems. Certainly at the top of our list are safety, class size, family atmosphere, and opportunities for engagement. However, I find that we often need to better educate our community about other tangible differences. What does make an independent school different? Well, here goes…
There are five essential freedoms that make independent schools distinctive and strong:
  • The freedom to define their own mission (why they exist, whom they serve).
  • The freedom to regulate admissions (admitting only those students appropriate to the mission).
  • The freedom to define teacher credentials.
  • The freedom to teach what the teachers decide is important (free from Common Core, state curricular, textbook, and testing mandates).
  • The freedom to operate without monies from government or outside controlling groups.
Independent schools allow parents and children to decide what they want from a school, and then find a school that has a mission – the school’s philosophy, values and approach to teaching – that meets those needs.
A report from the U.S. Department of Education found, among other things, that:
  • On average, independent schools have smaller enrollments, smaller average class sizes, and lower student/teacher ratios than public schools.
  • Independent school students generally perform better than their public school counterparts on standardized achievement tests.
  • Independent high schools typically have more demanding graduation requirements than do public high schools.
  • Independent school students qualify for state scholarships at a higher rate than their public school counterparts.
  • Graduates of independent high schools have on average completed more advanced courses than public school graduates in science, mathematics, and foreign languages.
  • Independent school students are more likely than public school students to complete a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

I am blessed to be the Head of School at Pinewood. It is an outstanding independent school with a rich tradition located in a neat part of the world. Pinewood represents one of many outstanding educational choices for people in this region. I am clearly biased (of course) as are our parents, students, teachers, and alumni. In fact, in 2014-2015, Pinewood was voted the region’s best private school by both Lowcountry Parent Magazine and the Summerville Journal Scene. Yes, I know how the balloting process works and it is essentially a popularity contest. That’s really okay. If our extended Pinewood family thought highly enough of their distinctive independent school experience here to take the time to vote for us – that is just fine. We are thankful for the recognition and humbled by the support. A vote for Pinewood is a vote for independent school education, which is also different from some “private” education. Some of those differences can be found above as well.