By Dan Lang
Head of Middle School
Dear Middle School Families,
Welcome to October! The change of month carries more meaning than just the turn of a page on the calendar. On the practical side, it is time to locate your Parker outerwear for colder mornings; daylight is shortening and the yearly shift from summer to the new school year is complete. Part of my routine as we move into the main sequence of the year is to reflect on the foundational beliefs held in our mission, values, and vision for students.
Intentionally reviewing these “North Star” items gives me not only a sense of pride in all that we are doing well, but the “fire in the belly” to keep pursuing excellence at an even higher level. As our values state, at Parker, there is “no limit to better.” In my own experience (and somewhat ironically), mature organizations–more than the brand new–tend to benefit greater from reflection on what makes them unique. A certain level of deep understanding and unspoken expectation grows within mature organizations year after year until it reaches a point where mission, values, and vision are so deeply part of the organizational DNA that excellence is simply a natural result of daily function. Excellence as a natural outcome of organizational life is certainly an item for celebration, and also worthy of deeper understanding.
Author and TED presenter Simon Sinek encourages leaders to routinely explore the what, why, and how of the excellence within an organization. Another favorite leadership author of mine, Andy Stanley, phrases the idea somewhat more colloquially: “if you don’t know why something’s working, you won’t know how to fix it when it’s not.”
At Parker, academic excellence and high standards are so ubiquitous that they have become the “floor” of all we do. When speaking with families who are considering Parker, I am now in the habit of “sequencing our DNA” and explicitly stating what for most of us has become so routine that we truly experience it in the same manner that we experience the floor. We know academic excellence is there, we are confident as we take our next figurative step that the “floor” of academic excellence is present. We know that through our scope and sequence efforts, our colleagues have swept and polished to prepare a smooth journey for our students.
The value of “students first” leads us beyond academic excellence. In fact, for our current families and those who are looking to Parker in the future, academic excellence is the common denominator of all schools like Parker. “Students First” leads us beyond the academic floor, to create and sustain a school where the beauty of art and music, the benefit of physical fitness, and a curiosity for the world are part of our curriculum. Colonel Parker’s values lead us today as we guide novice learners past simple “knowing” of content towards “doing.” Our values require that we lead and support our students to build the foundations of a good life. A life that demands not only knowledge, but also skill, curiosity, empathy, a heart for service to others, and a sense of responsibility to each other and the broader world.
At Parker, we guide students toward academic excellence and–with no less sense of urgency or importance–toward a life of social and emotional well-being. Advisory and life skills programming that do not receive a grade in the traditional sense, are essential to the development of the whole child. Projects that require students to work together in a team over a longer period of time and to present a product that gives evidence to broad learning rather than just a grade provides our students the opportunity to learn deeply not only in the content knowledge of their courses but in the skills of a good life. Skills that are inherently valuable for living in our interconnected and interdependent world, and practically reflect the working world in which they will participate in the future.
In 1920, the faculty of Francis W. Parker School in Chicago published Studies in Education. From the section titled “Special Values in Parker School Experience: Alumni Impressions” we continue to be guided for our students today by the words of a Parker Alumnus then:
Training in self-command, in my opinion, is what the Parker School most richly contributes to its pupils and to their power of being good citizens. I do not mean merely self-control, for that is essentially negative: I mean self-command in doing, even more than in not doing. Such self-command includes the power to see what ought to be done, to devise the means of doing, and to have the force, courage, and persistence to do and to continue to do until the end is accomplished. Such self-command is not only a moral quality it is also intellectual.
Training that develops self-command is so subtle that it is difficult to explain the means by which the Parker School accomplished it. We were taught to see the value of our study and to make ourselves study without being compelled. In every matter of discipline, we were not made to do or not to do; we were brought to see the wisdom or the rightness of doing or not doing and to command ourselves to do or not to do. Thus we were helped to want whatever was right, to think out for ourselves what the right was, and to be able to bring ourselves to live up to our own thinking.
For those of us working at a different Parker, half a country away geographically, and almost one hundred years away temporally, our vision for students is consistent with the words of this alumnus. How fortunate we are when our alumni today share similar reflections. Reflections that mention nothing of grade point averages or test scores; reflections that instead focus on the formation of good citizens, well prepared to make a meaningful difference in the world.
Thank you for checking out all we do here “in the Middle.”