During a recent visit to an Episcopal school, I happened upon a history of the school that had been written on the occasion of its centennial. What impressed me more than its beautiful layout and glossy photos was its candid prose. This was no public relations piece, but a frank history that addressed the totality of the school’s incarnate life as a community: the triumphs and crises, good times and hard times, growth and change. It is a wonderful and compelling story.
Such a balanced and comprehensive storytelling stands in contrast to the more common tendency to present our school as only and ever perfect, an image that dominates alumni magazines, newsletters to parents, inspirational talks by school heads, and admissions tours. It struck me that there are dangers to perpetuating such a uniformly rosy picture.
If we are not careful, we can come to believe in our own perfection. Complacency can replace self-reflection. We may inadvertently send the message that this is the only permissible way to speak about the school. We can become defensive in the face of criticism, even constructive criticism which, lacking a healthy forum, then goes underground to feed what Michael Thompson calls a school’s “dominant negative story:” the school is too rigorous or not rigorous enough, serves this kind of child and not that, has parents who are overly enfranchised or disenfranchised, or is good at x or but terrible at y.
Speaking and living in these two extremes, one only positive and one only negative, leaves little space for a healthy, open, and balanced understanding of the school, its accumulated history, and the lived experience of those in it.
The wonderful centennial history I encountered reminded me that there is another way to speak about our schools. This “middle way” gives schools permission to talk forthrightly about who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. It encourages schools to communicate about areas they are working to strengthen, new problems they are working to solve, and new realities they are working to address alongside the triumphs and successes. By addressing the totality of the school’s story and lived reality, schools communicate that theirs is a dynamic, self-reflective, learning organization. They can earn trust by telling the truth, and create ways for others to do the same. It is difficult work that requires courage and confidence.
So, what’s your story?