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Messages from the SAIS President
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Notes from SAIS President Dr. Kirk Walker


The recent success of the New Horizons spacecraft is a testament to long-range planning as well as patience, persistence, and the ability to stay motivated over great stretches of time. The funding and planning took five years. The voyage to Pluto took a decade and the final leg to the Kuiper Belt took another three and a half years. Over 18 years from start to completion. At no point was success guaranteed; and along the way, adjustments had to be made continuously. For the scientists, their personal lives proceeded: births, marriages, illnesses, graduations, and a host of bodily changes. And for some of the researchers, the program’s success was achieved after their lifetime.

A recent study, conducted jointly by Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia, explored how individuals stay motivated when the goals may take years to complete. What they discovered is not surprising; people who sustain their motivation over a long period exhibit the following traits:

  • They are deeply interested in their work.
  • They are continually acquiring new skills and knowledge along the way.
  • They envision how their work will impact the future … for themselves, their profession, and their world.
  • They are “self-regulators”: they balance multiple goals, avoid distractions, keep emotions in check, are receptive to feedback, cope with failure, and rebound from disappointments.

Interestingly, every child who enters pre-school at four is also embarking on an 18-year educational voyage, not to space but to their future. Whether they remain motivated to complete the journey successfully will in many ways be a function of the goals they set. Most goals are short-term (like typical New Year’s resolutions), and many of those goals will suffer the same fate. In helping students set long-range goals and encouraging and fostering in them the necessary traits to prevail, schools play a key (perhaps, the key) role. In this season of “resolutions,” it may be worth remembering that the greatest resolutions/goals can take decades to achieve. Each student is a New Horizon. 



A sprig of holly was printed on the outside corner of the envelope. The front of the card said: “Season’s Greetings” and inside it read: “May the joys of the season be with you throughout the year.” A warm and thoughtful sentiment … and, of course, a politically correct one. But I asked myself: “What are the joys of the season?” Clearly, it is a special time in many countries, cultures, and faiths and is reflected in a variety of traditional activities, some spiritual but many distinctly secular. It is a time that calls forth our “better angels:” food banks fill, senior centers are visited, the often forgotten are remembered, and a sense of selflessness takes center stage. The Scrooge in us is transformed, and goodwill flows.  

Unfortunately, for many in our society, the “joys of the season” are often as fleeting as a New Year’s resolution. Instead of stretching across the year, they often dissolve with the arrival of the bank card statement.

But in your schools, fostering the joys of gratitude, kindness, respect, and service reside in your DNA. The values you celebrate are not dependent on a particular “season;” they are organic and ongoing. So instead, my card/wish for you says: “May the energy and excitement of the season remind you of the joys that you feel throughout the year.”

Peace be with you. 



I tend to see metaphors in everything. I was once an English teacher, and my assigned curriculum compelled me to teach (or try to teach) adolescents the concept. I learned the lesson, whether they did or not.

As I stood at the podium at our recent SAIS Annual Conference and looked across the room, I was struck by how that assemblage was a metaphor for the civil society we wish to create. Represented in that space was a wide range of missions, markets, demographics, facilities, programs, and resources. There were traditional schools and progressive ones, faith-based and secular ones; there were those that target the intellectually gifted and those that serve the developmentally challenged. And there were even those who operate in the same highly competitive arena.

What impressed me was the absence of power plays, the absence of “tribal” tensions. While everyone in that room represented a school with a distinct mission (“opinion,” if you will), no one felt the necessity to promote their mission to the detriment of others. In fact, what brought the room together were the values they shared (concern for students, an emphasis on learning, and attention to character development) and their common desire to improve. The collective energy was focused on continuous growth, on looking forward, and not on “one-upmanship.”

As I said at the conference, our students, our nation, and our world need our schools. In a world that can feel full of fear, you provide a sense of security, in a society that can feel aimless, you offer direction, and in a nation that can feel broken, you encourage healing.

To my earlier comment, I will now add: The spirit of respect and mutual appreciation exhibited at the conference serves as a model of civil society ... where differences are respected, and common ground is celebrated.



When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

                                                                                                              Fred (“Mister”) Rogers

At this point, I am confident that all of you have begun a new school year. I hope the start has been invigorating and positive. As we move beyond the opening assemblies and the initial enthusiasms, I would wish for all of you a social-emotional climate that was different from the one with which many of you wrestled last year. I would wish for a greater sense of unity and less divisiveness, for more kind words and fewer hateful ones, for more attempts at understanding and less empty rhetoric, for more arms reaching out than pulling back, for more focus on caring than on fearing. 

If I had the power to make these wishes come true, I would have already won Powerball a dozen times…at the very least. Sadly, I do not; and sadly, the atmosphere at the national and often local levels remains disturbingly the same. So, your challenge … and your calling … remain the same as well.

This year, when you (or your faculty and staff) stand in front of your students, you are addressing the future … of your school, your community, the nation, and, yes, the world. Your schools have traditionally been the incubators of leadership. Your graduates are well-trained and have an expectation to make a difference. And you and your faculties have been the cultivators. But you have always been much more. Now, it is more obvious and more critical. In an anxious world, you are the “helpers;” you are the guides; you are the sanctuary; you are the defenders of reason; you are the incubators of hope. 



Apart from the usual challenges that schools face during the course of the year, the past several weeks have presented a difficult decision for many heads of schools and trustees. The Parkland school shooting brought school violence and school safety back, once again, to the national stage. In some respects, the cumulative effect of so many incidents in the lives of our students (they are called the Columbine Generation) triggered both an outpouring of student response as well as a response from the adults who work with them.
But as with so many issues in our divisive world, nothing is ever as clear as it may appear. The letter that originated in New York gave rise to similar expressions in other parts of the country. Despite those letters’ attempts to find common ground, even the term “school safety” was felt by some of our constituents to be a catch phrase for an assault on the Constitution. This toxic environment made it once again a source of conflict within our schools and between heads and their boards. One head asked me what she should do: she felt personally compelled to sign a letter developed within her state; her board chair advised her against it because a major donor would be offended. Another head in a different state was encouraged by his chair to sign a similar letter, only later to have several trustees question the process by which such “clearly political pronouncements” were approved.
Whose voice speaks for the school community? Ideally, the trustees and the head of school find agreement on an issue. While it is probable that there may be many distinct voices in the board room and that some will be passionate ones, it is the hope that healthy debate can lead to a strong, single voice.  
On what basis should a decision to speak be made? Debra Wilson with NAIS recently reminded me of the one criteria that should underscore all decisions: Does this action or this statement or this endorsement reflect our core mission? That question and its answer continue to serve as our truest compass in turbulent times.



A young friend graduated from an independent school a couple of years ago. He was a diligent student with a strong moral compass. He finished with a high B average that included AP courses. He received a nice scholarship to a strong midsize college. He left home with high hopes and solid intentions. By the following spring, it was clear that he would not be returning for his sophomore year.
While I am sure that all of you know comparable stories, the good news is that they remain the exception. A near 100 percent of independent school graduates still attend college (even in the face of stiff competition), and significant numbers will complete their college studies in reasonably close to four years. By most criteria, the traditional system seems intact. Independent schools prepare their students for admission to the next level, helping them acquire the academic skills that will be expected. And along the way, a key component of marketing has always been the concept of “preparation” ... preparation for college or at least for college-preparatory schools. 
However, there has always been a disconnect between what you do to prepare your students and what colleges demand. Your schools provide environments where students can succeed; they offer a structured day, caring teachers, frequent feedback, regular communication with parents, an emphasis on character, a culture that encourages respect and effort, etc. Imagine the shock to a college freshman’s system.
It would be difficult, inappropriate, and not realistic to modify your programs to mirror all the distractions and temptations that your students will face when they graduate from your schools. Encouraging students to be conscientious about their studies and providing them with the tools to learn remain hallmarks of independent schools. What my friend was missing was a sense that he was responsible for his own learning. He was not a self-starter. I suspect that amid the steady flow of required high school assignments (designed to test his ability), he was too busy following directions to realize that he was supposed to establish his own. He only had to complete assignments on time to build a transcript that would admit him to a strong college. He was “prepared” to attend, but he was not “ready” to thrive in a very different environment.
Thankfully, he is an exception; but exceptions are sometimes worth considering. Colleges are changing quickly and dramatically. Increasingly more classes are online and require an even heightened level of self-discipline. In fact, the entire concept of college is evolving. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to possess a high degree of self-motivation and self-direction. In large measure, independent schools have historically defined what it meant to be college preparatory and built curricula to reflect that model. In this shifting educational landscape, it will fall, once again, to independent schools to lead the way in articulating what “college preparatory” will mean in the future.



The humor section of a local paper included the responses of fifth and sixth graders to questions on a science test. While many of them reflected some creativity, all of them clearly fell shy of what the teacher anticipated. But one caught my attention. In response to the question “What is vibration?”, the student answered: “A vibration is motion that doesn’t know which way it wants to go.”
For most of my lifetime, education reform in this country could be described as “vibration.” There are many reasons, although the constantly shifting values of the “culture wars” have no doubt played a significant role. Sadly, most educational innovation has too often become the “panacea du jour” and its potential has been co-opted by the market’s next big idea before its merits could be tested and realized.
Independent schools have generally been less buffeted by these crosswinds. Why? In some respects, independent schools are traditionists and slower to change. In some respects, they are free from the governmental mandates that flip with each administration. But I would contend that independent schools have remained focused because they are driven by their missions. While it may seem ironic to suggest, independent schools may be the best laboratories for educational reform and innovation. Any new idea or approach will have a greater chance for lasting success because it will emanate from a clear values base and direction, will be developed thoughtfully (sometimes glacially), and will be given the time to succeed. Those ideas and approaches will change lives … they will have intentional motion and not merely “vibration.”



Peace on earth, goodwill toward men …
Recently, I asked a colleague what he thought was the biggest threat to our schools. His response did not mention tax reform or shifting demographics or competition from online and hybrid alternatives. He said: “How do we encourage healthy civil discourse and intellectual inquiry without being perceived as having a social agenda in doing so.” His stark response echoed similar voices from other heads of school.
When I was a student, one of the chief objectives of an education was to acquire information, not just any information but the most reliable information, the most factual information. Our job as students was to purse the facts; hearsay and opinion were weak substitutes. If one of our teachers had called us “fact checkers,” we would have been complimented. Now, “fact checkers” are dismissed as political operatives, focused on supporting a position and not on finding truth. 
Unavoidably, our students (as well as their families and communities) swim in a sea of “facts” that are unverified and are often mere fictions promulgated for destructive reasons. Culturally, we choose sides, then pick our preferred source of “facts,” and dismiss all others as “fake.” We find ourselves engage in a contest of words, and the prize for the winners is the right to define “truth.”
As we escort one year out and another one in, let’s remind ourselves that search for truth is a noble goal, not a birthright, and that men and women of goodwill know that peace comes when those that disagree recognize their common journey and extend their hand in fellowship and respect.
 In this and in every season, your schools are instruments of that peace.



It was a great pleasure to see so many of you (a record 492 participants) at the SAIS Annual Conference. It was a wonderful opportunity for fellowship and for learning. The sessions were impressive, and so many of them were presented by you or your colleagues. Thank you.
Dr. Johnnetta Cole, one of the keynote speakers, shared in her address an oft-quoted African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. I think about our schools. Each of them are the product of countless hands and hearts. They are communities of individuals working together toward common goals. They go far when the mission, the board, head, faculty, and families “go together.” They struggled when one group tries to “go alone” or one individual gets too far ahead of the others.
Her words, however, resonated with me in another way. Assembled in Atlanta were 170 schools who pride themselves on their independence from each other. In many cases, representatives from one school were seated near representatives of schools with whom they compete, with whom they try to outrun. But in the moments when we come together, we are reminded of our shared concerns and our shared responsibilities. Despite our independence, we are reminded that we have and always have had the “calling” and the obligation to produce thoughtful citizens and tomorrow’s leaders. As we swim ever faster against an ever-stronger cultural current, it is important to take time to reassure ourselves that we are not alone.


The start of the school year is traditionally a hopeful time: new programs are unveiled; new faculty and staff are introduced; new students are welcomed. The halls once again resonate.
As this school year began, none of our schools would have anticipated dealing with torrential rains, hurricane force winds, extensive flooding, and displaced families. None of them would have anticipated the challenge of helping students grapple with yet another mass killing.
Though none anticipated these events, all of our schools have now been touched by grief, and school leaders are once again called to guide and to console. While few school leaders are typically trained in pastoral care, the times increasingly require it. Our communities rely on your strength as they rebuild their lives. Your schools are the safe harbor.  


“What did you do over the summer?”

When I was in elementary school, it was a ritual on the first day of classes for the teacher to ask what everyone had done over the summer. The answers were predictable: vacations, visits to relatives, camp attendance, and team participation. While a bit of listening to music, reading, or relaxing at a pool were thrown into the equation, summers were generally defined by activity (by “doing”). We learned many life lessons (a mixed bag) through our interactions with others outside the formal structures of school. We grew. 

If the question is still asked today (and I suspect that it is), the answers might be very similar. There would likely be more time spent mastering new video games or focusing on social media. But there would still be growth. Schools are change agents; they guide learning. But summers are when un-guided learning happens. Your students are transforming constantly. As they arrive at your doors, they will both be and feel different than when they left last spring. Coincidentally, you will too.

That is the joy and the challenge of each new school year. Together, we reinvent ourselves.  

Welcome once again to the future.


Anybody who works in a school knows that "March Madness" is merely a mild eccentricity when compared to "May Madness." May is the season of culminating activities: tournaments, concerts, plays, musicals, banquets, field days, picnics, class projects, end-of-year conferences, exams, award days, graduation, etc. Once, someone asked me if the school year was winding down. I replied that a school year doesn't "wind down;" it "winds up" tighter and tighter and then it stops (at least for 24 hours until the summer program begins).
May is also the season of speeches: a time when administrators, coaches, teachers, and student leaders seize the opportunity to share some final thoughts before the school year concludes and the audiences depart. Hearing (much less absorbing) so many words, compressed in such a short time frame, can challenge even the best attention span. Auditory system overload is an ever-present possibility.
But, as you know, that flood of voices is very important. Those key words and ideas that echo through every speech are powerful reminders of the year's accomplishments and are reflections of the sense of community that has been nurtured. Collectively those are the words and ideas that your graduates will carry forward and the ones that will continue to shape your school's future. Yes, May is hectic, and some days just "getting through the list" feels like success. But May is also a time of celebration when the school community reminds itself of its mission and the lives that have been changed. So, as the last speech concludes for yet another May, take a bow. You earned it.


If I ... can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge ... but do not have love, I am nothing. 
Love has been on my mind lately. While I have read numerous mission statements over the years, rarely have any of them mentioned the word love. But from my perspective, love is the unstated driver in all our schools. Love binds our communities; love of students motivates our faculties to give, and to give even more of themselves. And there is a good chance that it was love of others and the desire to serve that led each of you into education. 
I am thinking today about the school that recently lost an entire family in a plane crash. I could as easily be thinking about dozens of other tragic situations over the years. None of our schools are untouched by loss and sadness. But what all of us have also witnessed has been the outpouring of love from our communities: love that supports; love that heals; love that unites. We have all witnessed the power. Each time a crisis arises, our communities respond, not just within our individual schools but across the entire network of schools. Sometimes we provide physical assistance; sometimes we offer words of encouragement and the wisdom of experience (even through a listserv). But in any case, we never hesitate to reach out and to give of ourselves.
In fact, we are a web of caring (even loving) communities, and, moving forward, that may be our greatest value.



When educators assemble, as many did recently at the NAIS Conference, they often compare notes. There may be talk about new initiatives; but more often, the talk turns to recognition of shared concerns ... internal stresses and external threats. It is a complicated time for educators: expectations continue to rise whether resources do or not. And a new generation of parents with distinctive motivations has necessitated a re-evaluation of a host of school policies and practices.
These parents are true digital natives; and their children are second-generation. For them, the digital world is not a country to visit; it is their neighborhood. And the digital world is merely an extension of their physical one. In fact, they have documented and globally distributed hundreds (perhaps thousands) of moments in their lives. Their digital photos, tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, cellphone tracking, and voice message transcriptions are now part of an enormous database of collective memory. Their highs and lows, their good decisions and errors of judgement ... all on permanent and retrieval display.
Unlike digital memory, human memory is fallible and malleable; it can distort, reshape, and forget (which is often a blessing). But in the digital world, nothing is forgotten. A friend of mine will occasionally comment when someone (child, adolescent, or adult) makes an ill-advised choice or behaves badly: "No one wants to be remembered for his or her worst day." That is very true. However, in digital time, past actions remain inescapably present.  
Many schools are working hard to develop digital citizenship in their students by defining acceptable boundaries, and emphasizing appropriate etiquette and safety. For many of our students (even our youngest ones), their lives are already entwined in this web. Cautionary swim lessons can seem quaint to a generation who is already frolicking in the deep end.   
As educators, when we talk about our responsibility to prepare our students for the future, we focus on a host of skills: we emphasize the ability to ask questions, to identify and retrieve relevant information, and to utilize and shape data to solve problems; we emphasize their curiosity, innovation, perseverance, teamwork, etc. Perhaps, we should also help them to learn to live in a new reality: a world of unprecedented transparency, and a world where their past (their worst and best moments) will never be more than a click away. In such a world, the values we instill may well provide our students with the courage to face their past and their future. 




Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to tour the Holy Land. It was an amazing trip to a land so rich in history and culture ... and conflict. Even today, the tribes are numerous (Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, Jew, Muslim, Christian), and the combinations further complicate the situation (Israeli Muslims, Israeli Jews, Israeli Christians, Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and Jews, etc.) Each group harbors decades, if not centuries, of distrust and even hate for the others. 

"Blessed are the peacemakers..." But where are they? Sadly, they reside neither in the highest offices of government nor in the diplomatic corps. Treaties and mandates may stop the fighting and the bloodshed, but they do not stop or heal the hurt. The peacemakers must be those in the best position to change individual lives and in so doing to shape the future. 
As educators we have the opportunity and the responsibility to see that our society does not devolve into the chaos of history. For our students to be truly global citizens, they must be equally willing to understand the neighbor who supports a different political viewpoint as they are to understand the cultures that are continents away. If we don't help our students to understand that character is destiny, that questioning is the path to truth, that compromise is not a sign of weakness, that civility is the proper form of discourse, and that negativity rarely yields positive results, who will teach them? As educators in independent schools, we have the flexibility and freedom to respond. Rising to this challenge may yet be our finest calling. 




Almost five years ago, my younger brother decided to move to Alaska. At the time, he had a law practice in Tennessee and had only visited Alaska on a summer cruise. Up until his move, he had spent his entire life in the Southeast. Like many of your students, he attended independent schools K-12 and went to college in Virginia. In fact, he had never lived north of Charlottesville.
He told me that the reason for his move was because he thought it was time to re-invent himself and that Alaska was a good place to do it. "Living there," he said, "requires a large measure of self-reliance; you have to learn to solve problems on your own, to be creative, to be persistent; and the margin for survival (particularly in the winter) is considerably narrower than it is in the lower 48."
While I admire his "grit," I do not plan to relocate. But his reasoning continues to resonate. What was it in his background that gave him the confidence to take the leap? Do all of us need to re-invent ourselves periodically? Perhaps the word that we might use is "renewal." In either case, by throwing himself out of his comfort zone, my brother has learned to see the world and his life in refreshing ways. Few people will ever take the leap that he did, but the challenge of renewal remains real for all of us.
School administration is full-time; and even if you are not "at school," the school is in you. Once the year starts, it doesn't stop. Once the school year ends, the preparation for the next year begins. Even finding a time to think or talk about something unrelated to daily efforts is a challenge. The old expression "It is hard to change a tire at 60 miles per hour" is a very real description of an independent school educator's life. But if the tire doesn't get changed, a blowout or at least a flat is inevitable.
We don't all need to move to Alaska. But we do need distance from our work. We do need a fresh perspective to the life in front of us. There are, of course, many ways to refresh our outlook other than changing jobs or relocating; you could acquire a new hobby, backpack, practice meditation, etc. But another way is to spend time with colleagues away from daily pressures, thinking and discussing larger issues than those of the "the moment." With respect to this last suggestion, check your calendar. Look at the "renewal" opportunities available this spring and summer (from SAIS and others). Take the leap.




The day after the recent national elections, someone contacted me and asked if I had any advice about how schools might address student concerns in the aftermath of such a divisive election. On one level, the question puzzled me. Historically, there are numerous past elections that were equally (if not more) divisive. In fact, the Broadway hit Hamilton references one of our most vitriolic ones (and they didn't even have 24/7 media exposure then). The election of Andrew Jackson became so negative and so personal that many felt that the opposition's accusations hastened his wife's premature death. And of course, there is the election that precipitated the Civil War. Unfortunately, politics is often a "blood sport." There is much money and power at stake, and disinformation (or "fake news") is a staple of the political campaign toolbox.

This past election may seem atypical in recent memory, but it is not unique. And the campaign itself is merely a manifestation of much deeper societal issues ... issues that challenge students and educators every day and not just every four years. There are two that stand out for me:

  1.  Students swim in an ocean of unsubstantiated "information" every day. Some of it is unintentionally biased; some of it is deliberately distorted. How do we help students digest volumes of data and discern fact from various shades of fiction? (Edweek offered a recent article on this subject.)
  2.  On the national stage, reasoned discussion has been eclipsed by media posturing and name-calling. In the absence of high-profile role models, how do we teach students teamwork and the art of compromise? 

I do not have the answers to these questions. Or what answers I might have are incomplete. But I believe that the answers are in our schools, and I invite you to share them with me. After all, that is what teamwork means.



The 10th grade son of a friend recently contracted a rare virus that attacked his heart. In less than two weeks, he went from being a healthy adolescent to the number one person on the list for a heart transplant. His school community has enveloped him and his family in loving support. While the specifics of his situation may be unique, it is in many ways not unlike those moments that have occurred in virtually all of your schools. In some cases, it may have been a health-related challenge; and in others it may have been the toll of a natural disaster. Some had happy endings; some not as happy.

A favorite teacher of mine once said: "Teaching is kin to the ministry." And there are points in all school administrators' careers when they are called upon to provide pastoral care and comfort to their communities, when they are expected to know when to embrace, when to sit in quiet support, when to provide leadership and direction, and when to speak words of healing.

These are not skills that most learn in their educational training. Instead they learn how to plan, organize, gather data and make decisions, evaluate faculty and programs, raise money and build facilities, market their schools, establish budgets, and avoid legal liability. And effective leaders must continually sharpen and expand their understanding in all of these areas ... and more.

But in these very human moments of sadness and suffering, great leaders reveal their own humanity. At the deepest level, they draw strength and power from the values that called them to the profession: a genuine love of people and a commitment to serve others.

At the recent SAIS Annual Conference, so many of you were engaged in enhancing your ability to direct and improve your schools. I was impressed by your dedication to lifelong learning. But in conversations with you, I was even more impressed by the way that so many of you reflect those emotional values that will serve your schools so well in times of crises. You don't just manage; you care.
Thank you.



Fall is football season. But it is also conference season. A host of state, national, and special-interest conferences are scheduled. And every school will have such a richness of choices that they could "tailgate" every weekend at a different venue. What every school doesn't have is a richness of time. So decisions have to be made.

Arguably my opinion is biased, but it is the only one that I have. For well over a decade before I was an employee of SAIS, I was a regular participant at the SAIS conference. Why? The speakers were informative; the sessions were helpful; the focus was regional; and the size was large enough to be interesting but small enough to be manageable.

But the real reason was the community. Not all the schools were like mine; in fact some were very different. But they all somehow felt like family. Most of the people I met over the years were certainly bright and capable, but the thing that impressed me the most was that the overwhelming majority (who came from many states and a wide range of schools) all seemed to understand that it wasn't about them. It was about their mission, their students, their faculty, and their families. I was refreshed and inspired to be in the company of those people.

I look forward to seeing many of you at the SAIS Annual Conference, October 22-24 in Atlanta. It promises to be a great "game."



Over the past year, I had the privilege of visiting dozens of our member schools. In addition to receiving a tour of the campus and learning about the program, I had the pleasure of meeting many of the individuals who are making a critical difference in our schools.
I was impressed by the wide variety and range of schools in the SAIS family: from schools with 50 students to ones with thousands; from schools with budgets under $600,000 to those with budgets well over $30 million; from schools housed in a small building to others with campuses and facilities that rival those of many colleges; and from schools serving the developmentally delayed to schools offering programs designed to challenge the most gifted students. SAIS is a very big tent.
But what impressed me even more were the schools' similarities. Apart from the obvious differences of locations, demographics, and resources, it was apparent that all of them share certain key characteristics:  
  • Their missions guide them.
  • The well-being of students is a central focus.
  • Emphasis is placed on both academic and character development.
  • Best practices serve as a benchmark.
  • Continual improvement is a priority.
Beyond these common characteristics, all of them are actively pursuing ways to adjust their programs to the shifting desires of the marketplace, while still remaining true to their core missions. And all of them recognize the critical importance that thoughtful planning plays in the sustainability and health of an institution.
Wherever a school might be in this process, SAIS stands ready to assist. While our current accreditation process and our various programs have been designed to meet the immediate and emerging needs of our membership, we realize that new challenges require new approaches. Just as our current offerings have been enhanced and refined by the ongoing feedback of our members, we will continue to rely on your suggestions as we develop the next generation of programs.
Together we grow. 




When you have personally lived enough history, the past regularly reverberates into your present. As I watch the tragedies and conflicts that have seemed to dominate our national conversation this summer, I am reminded of another summer.             
In September of 1968, I was beginning my senior year of high school. And as we entered the classroom that fall, there was a sense of foreboding about the future direction of the country ... and the world. The previous months had clearly revealed a social and political system under stress. The Vietnam War was in its second decade, and U.S. Military presence was at its peak. Martin Luther King had been murdered by a white supremacist, triggering a series of deadly riots across the country. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was killed by a man who resented his position on the Middle East. Two months after that, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and ended that country's movement toward independence. And in that same month, protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned bloody as police and demonstrators clashed.
What was very apparent as we began our senior year was how much the hot wind of frustration and hate was blowing across the country. Calls for calm were often met with cynicism. Anger was the default response. Yeats' poem The Second Coming seemed to capture the turbulence of the time.
It would be years before our society would be able to regain a semblance of balance. And I cannot help but believe that education played the critical role in restoring that balance by helping all of us to reimagine a world where dialogue replaced violence, where understanding replaced fear, and where respect replaced prejudice. In the end, those may have been the most important lessons that our teachers taught us that year ... or any year.
It seems to me that regardless of what year it may be or what challenges the year may present, educators remain our greatest bridge builders to the future.
Thank you for the crucial work you do. It has never been more important.




When I was a head of school, people would often ask me: What do you do in the summer when the teachers and the students are gone? It was a reasonable question, but I couldn't help but smile. Heads of school know that the summers are not less busy ... just a different kind of busy. Thankfully, there may be fewer calls about "concerns", fewer personality conflicts (at least they are happening somewhere else), and fewer issues that demand immediate attention. 
The summers are about processing what happened and trying to determine how to keep it from happening again or making sure that it happens often in the future. Summers are about moving classrooms, re-configuring programs and people, new hires, new construction, and renovations while running camps and a host of other programs. Some summers feel like everything in the school is being taken apart and put back together ... in a space of a few weeks. Summers (like school years) are about growth ... just in a different key. 
What is too easily omitted from the summer schedule is a critical activity: the personal growth of the school's leaders. Too often the summer is a missed opportunity for sharing with colleagues, for getting some time away from the demands of today and the days ahead, and for exploring new ideas.  For leaders, the capacity to renew others is inextricably tied to their own self-renewal. So this summer, don't let the campus be the only thing refurbished and refreshed. Read a book, take a vacation, explore a new hobby, attend a workshop. The entire school community will be the beneficiary.




Several weeks ago, a friend from high school died suddenly. Within hours, an email exchange began among several dozen of our graduating class. We were stunned and saddened at the passing of this beloved individual as literally dozens in our class shared one tribute after another: each one more heartfelt than the last.
His death reminded us of our own mortality ... but it also reminded us of something else. After several days, the topic of the emails shifted from expressions of grief for our departed friend and to shared thoughts about our times together as a class, our shared adventures, the way that our alma mater had shaped our lives, and the kinship that we still felt for each other after all of these years (47 to be exact).
My experience is not unique, but it speaks to the profound impact that schools can have on defining and enhancing community. We teach skills (many designed to last a lifetime) ... but we also bond lives together. And those bonds become powerful lessons taught and re-taught for decades.
In this commencement season, I have no doubt that your graduating classes have been well-prepared for the next step in their journey. And I have no doubt that most of them are grateful for your efforts. What they do not yet realize is that your school has given them a gift that they may not fully appreciate for another 47 years.
Well done.




The lead article on succession planning is a good reminder to all of us (regardless of our age) that at some point we will be "succeeded."  And the responsibility for how "successful" that transition will be resides not just with the trustees but also with the HOS. 


The years ahead will see a growing number of current HOS reach retirement age as the "boomers" finally graduate. Who will take their place represents both an opportunity and a challenge. The role of HOS has become increasingly complex. It is no longer sufficient to be an academic leader ... although it is still required. Today's HOS must also be financially and legally savvy, a strategic planner, a facilities manager, a great communicator, a media spokesperson, a personnel negotiator, an expert problem solver, etc. 


Many of the retiring, long-term heads acquired many of these skills "on-the-job" as their roles became more complicated and their responsibilities more diverse. How will the next generation of school leaders acquire these skills before they are thrust into situations which demand them?


SAIS recognizes this problem and is expanding its leadership training options. But standing heads can also do much to train and mentor their administrative team. One HOS, with whom I recently spoke, holds a leadership training workshop for his team annually. He acknowledged that often the preparation results in their assuming larger leadership roles elsewhere. But in spite of that, he insisted: "We are in the business of growth. We seek to give our students the confidence and skills to move beyond our campus. Shouldn't we be called to do the same for our staff?"


Well said, my friend.




A quick review of the various listservs sponsored by SAIS provides an interesting snapshot of the concerns of day-to-day operations. One contributor asks about the appropriate grade for school-sponsored dances. Another wonders about cellphone policies; another about athletic cut policies. Ideas are traded about whether or not to have bells between classes, about whether to initiate a school uniform, and about graduation ceremonies.  
I was initially struck by the similarities from school to school and by how positive this exchange of ideas can be. I was also impressed by the attention paid to each phase of operations. I was reminded that decisions made and actions taken in schools have meaning and consequences. Each of them has the power either to support the school's mission or to represent a deviation from it. In the course of a school day, week, or year, everything potentially matters. The schedule makes a statement ... as does the dress code, the traditions, the ceremonies, the curricula, the choice of extracurricular offerings, grading practices, etc. 
Conversations about strategic thinking usually revolve around discussions about the future: what will need to be done in five to ten years and what will be needed to accomplish it? But the truth is that educators (whether they are in the classroom or in the conference room) are making decisions every day which carry strategic significance. Today's decisions impact today's students, and those students represent a more powerful future for the school than the generations that have yet to be admitted. 
In mission-driven schools, there is no decision (however trivial it may appear) that is not an opportunity to reflect that mission. Freedom to be intentional is both the strength and the daily challenge of independent schools. I applaud your attention to detail.





In this issue we recognize and congratulate the recipients of this year's Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grants. As was the case last year, the review committee faced a difficult challenge selecting from a host of impressive applications.
When the SAIS Board of Trustees created the grants two years ago, they wanted to emphasize the important role that collaboration needs to play in independent schools. It is widely understood that the ability to collaborate is an essential skill that today's students need to possess. And effective collaborations can also involve many other critical skills: communication, creative thinking, flexibility, teamwork, etc.
Progress is being made. Schools are finding ways to provide more opportunities for student collaboration in their classrooms and are developing strategies for evaluating student progress in this area.
Ironically, while schools may feel that the skill is vitally important for their students, those same institutions find it is often a challenge to develop their own abilities to collaborate with other institutions ... particularly other schools that may be primarily perceived as competitors. Independent schools, by their nature, are "independent" with their own unique missions and visions. They often prefer to "go it alone;" and though they may encourage students to "play well with others," their own efforts resemble "parallel play" at best. Like countries and political parties, schools may have difficulty working together. But in a world of limited resources and marketing challenges, collaborations may be the most cost-efficient ways to introduce new programs or to expand existing ones. Working with another school or with a local agency can potentially reap exponentially greater benefits than what a single school can achieve on its own.  
At times, it makes sense for independent schools to be interdependent as well.




Several years ago, a friend told me that he thought that independent schools were "counter cultural." As a child of the '60s, I was at first puzzled by his remark. My college roommate was one of the celebrants at Woodstock; and though he was a graduate of a prestigious Northeastern preparatory school, I did not equate his behavior at that concert with the aspirations of his alma mater.

Times change, cultures shift, and so do definitions. And after reflection, I realized how true my friend's comment was.

In many ways, independent schools are swimming against a cultural current. And the current seems to be getting stronger. The disintegration of the family structure, the ebbing influence of religious institutions, and the pervasive influence of pop culture continue to define the world of Generation Z. In this milieu, the role of the school has never been more critical, nor have the demands placed on the schools ever been more extensive. For one-third of the day, five-sevenths of the week, three-fourths of the year, for 13 to 17 years, schools are the great and only common denominator for our youth, and therefore, our nation's future.

Thankfully, in a culture that seems increasingly divisive, your schools emphasize teamwork. Where distrust and anger seem sadly commonplace, you emphasize hope and respect. In a culture that is often quick to judge, you encourage patience and understanding. In a culture of the superficial, you offer depth. And in a world of sound bite exchanges, you embrace thoughtful debate. As odd as it may sound, you are "counter cultural."

I am confident that most (if not all) of you became educators because you believed that teaching students to think and to care was the best way to enhance their lives and to make the world better. It was and still is. As we begin 2016, keep swimming.




When I was young (I was once…really), there was a toy store in town that had a big sign announcing how many shopping days until Christmas. In those days, many businesses were closed on Sundays (“blue laws”), so it required some calculation on my part to determine how many days were truly left until Christmas. In any case, I remember the sense of anticipation, the feeling that every day that passed brought me closer to that event. My energies were focused on the future, not on the present. 

The big day would arrive and quickly pass; and within a week, the sign at the toy store would start the countdown all over again.  School calendars are a lot like that. We anticipate the beginning of school. We then mark the days until the first play or game or holiday, until the second semester, until the next play or game or holiday, until summer … And without thinking much about it, the days, months, and years pass quickly. By the time we reach one event, we are already looking toward the next. The “countdown” keeps resetting.

This time of year, the calendar is crammed with both professional and personal activities ... a long list that we are "checking twice." It is so easy to focus on getting to the end of that list and on meeting all of our upcoming responsibilities that we forget to appreciate the joy and excitement surrounding us.
So in a mindful spirit, let's pause, take a deep breath … or two … or three if needed. Let’s enjoy the gift of the present and celebrate the blessings of our calling.
Peace be with you in this special season.



Our thanks to all of you who attended the annual conference ... more than 300 of you representing 165 schools in 12 states, plus Canada and Mexico. Hopefully, you found it to be informative,  engaging, and enjoyable. If you have not already, I encourage you to complete the post-conference survey. Your thoughts will be very helpful to us in planning the 2016 event. 

One of the keynote speakers commented that while the SAIS conference is a large one, it retains the feel of a small one. From my perspective, that is a real positive and a nice reflection of the wonderful work the staff (particularly Lori and Anna) do in creating that sense of smallness. It is my hope that however large (in numbers) the conference may become, it will continue to feel like a family reunion ... preferably the reunion of a family that gets along well with each other. 
As we gathered together, I was reminded of what a special group was assembled in that place: women and men not only devoted to education but also devoted to a vision of education that embraces the whole learner. However, I was also reminded of the challenges that all of our schools share in varying degrees: admissions, fundraising, governance, financial sustainability, strategic planning, etc. Since our association's goal is to support you in your mission, we remain committed to helping each of our member schools address these challenges. In a climate where governments are increasingly interested in regulating schools, we are committed to protecting our independence. In a field where teachers, administrators, and schools tend to operate in isolation, we are committed to connecting professionals for mutual benefit. And finally, in the rapidly changing world of research, we are committed to keeping you informed about the latest findings and trends. 
It is just what families do for each other.



I hope that your school year has started smoothly and that you are enjoying the spirit of community. As students, parents, faculty, and staff return to our campuses, we are reminded that we are more than academic institutions; we truly are communities bound by our commitments to change lives and build futures. It is also the case that these communities are busy places ... very busy. I am confident that your days are already filled with classes, faculty meetings, assemblies, field trips, staff meetings, athletic contests, trustee meetings, parents' nights, alum gatherings, and more meetings. Racing (often ricocheting) between the demands on your time, it can be a challenge to set aside moments for personal reflection and professional renewal.

Nevertheless, I hope that you will take the time to join the SAIS community for our 2015 Annual Conference, October 17-19, in Atlanta. It will be an excellent opportunity to learn from each other and from various experts in a wide variety of sessions, as well as a wonderful time to renew our associations with colleagues and friends. In addition to the impressive slate of conference speakers and presenters, I would also like to extend a special invitation to our heads of school and their board members for the Board/Head Retreat on October 17, which will be led by our long-time friend and colleague, Pat Bassett.
I look forward to our time together.



For those of us in education, the new year starts in August and not in January. Now is the time of our new beginnings. Now is the time that we make our resolutions. Now is the time filled with expectation and excitement. Now is the time when all things are possible (at least until the first grading period). As in past years, we offer our guidance and encouragement to incoming students and cautiously hope for their enthusiastic response. That uncertainty is the challenge of change.
Late summer is our January, and our god Janus looks backward and forward too. Reflecting on the year past, the joys and the sadness, the dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled, we look forward to the promise of a new year and to the opportunity to equip the next generation for the future - and what an interesting future it will be.
For me it is a sobering thought that no student currently in an independent school has ever lived in a world without cell phones, social networking, search engines, and online shopping. For them, Google has always been a verb. For them, watching pictures of Pluto sent from a small satellite millions of miles away is just another item in today's news. The pace of change is staggering.
And we are also agents of that change. We want our students not only to adapt to change but also to understand, anticipate, manage, and shape the inevitable change that swirls around them. As educators, that is our gift to their future; that is our resolution for their new year.
It is also a time of change at SAIS. During my first week as president, the board began the development of a five-year strategic plan which you will be hearing about soon. Like you, I am excited about the year ahead and the challenges and opportunities that await.
To the work all of us are called to do, welcome back.









Our thanks to all of you 


Calendar more
Winter Conference
January 27-29 | Franklin, TN
SAIS Academic Support Conference, SAIS Athletic Directors Conference, MISBO-SAIS Auxiliary Programs Conference & MISBO-SAIS Finance Institute.

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