Two of my former mentors, Ted and Nancy Sizer (he was a former head of Phillips Academy and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools), wrote a series of books about ethical education around the theme that the students are watching and learning from the adults in their lives all the time. Their teaching has led me to think carefully about how I live my life as Head of School and the values of the educational communities I have joined.
Schools are like people: They have personalities, which develop over time beginning with their founding. Brearley’s history is based on equity—the mission to provide girls with an education equal to the programs at the schools their fathers and brothers attended. In the late nineteenth century that was not only a novel thought, it was revolutionary. Prevailing wisdom held that a rigorous education would be detrimental to girls’ “fragile” constitutions, and even if they were able to rise to the challenge, people asked why. What is the purpose of girls going to college? Did society have room for women who were intellectuals?
Today, one hundred and thirty-four years later, we celebrate and cultivate the power of girls’ intellect and work to advance equity in all that we do at Brearley. But every day we confront an ongoing challenge as we witness our fellow citizens struggling to treat with respect and dignity those who identify differently by race, religion, politics, geography, nationality, sexuality, gender or socioeconomic class.
That we are called to learn the same lesson over and over illustrates the magnitude of this quandary. This past week's horrific acts of hate that killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and two African Americans in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, as well as the mailing of explosive devices to two former Presidents and other prominent Democrats are just the most recent examples. It takes work to make space in our lives for individuals or groups of people whom we perceive to be different, to identify what we have in common, to respect our differences, and to stand up to language or actions that are harmful to others. We are working hard at Brearley to encourage our students to be upstanders rather than bystanders, to lead, as I wrote in a previous Illuminations, by being active, engaged followers.
When adults in the community ask what we can do, I respond that we have a role to play, too. Gloria Steinem encourages us to look “in” to see how we as individuals can address the situation before we look “up” to a person in authority to solve the problem for us. One proactive step is to model good citizenship for our students. By enlarging our circle of concern, as urged by Richard Weissbourd, Director of Making Caring Common, an initiative of which the School is a member, we build empathy for those who fall outside our family or social groups. This begins here at Brearley.
Are we respectful of the views of others, do we listen to what they are saying? Do we speak with respect to everyone with whom we come in contact? Or is there a difference as to how the Head of School is addressed by community members compared to a teacher, or a member of Facilities or Security? And think about all the people with whom we interact each day. Do we model civility and respect as we pick up food for our family, a book at the library or make our way to and from school? How do we speak about other people with our children? This modeling shapes their values—the way they will treat others and the questions they will ask themselves about engaging with and supporting all citizens of this country and people around the world. We are never off duty in our role as parents and mentors.
I ask all members of the Brearley community to consider how we can make a difference in our students’ education by including in our circle of concern the fullness of humanity we encounter in our lives.
Last Thursday I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the most up-to-date renderings of the plans for our new building at 590 and for future renovations to 610 with Middle and Upper School students at Assembly. Their response to the beautiful new spaces was even more enthusiastic than we anticipated. They shrieked with joy when they saw the new science facilities, gym and auditorium at 590, as well as when they heard that the building would be air conditioned. They oohed and aahed when they saw some of the preliminary plans for 610’s new library, dining hall, theater and art studios that we will be working on over the next few years. I was gratified to see their ability to let their emotions flow in the moment, knowing that I had just spoken to them about a part of Prof. Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee that touched my heart and I'm sure those of many community members.
At the opening of the assembly, I had shared that although I hadn’t heard all of Dr. Ford’s testimony and that Judge Kavanaugh had yet to give his, I had noticed a quote from Dr. Ford that had been posted online. Dr. Ford, a well-respected professional in her field of psychology, had said that she had not spoken of the alleged assault for "a very long time" and that she had been "too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details." She recounted, "I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys.”
Having spent the past 35 years of my life working with students, I am familiar with the difficulty some children have telling their parents about things they’ve done or thought that might anger or disappoint them. In cases of sexual assault or abuse, the secrets often lie dormant from a learned fear that students who come forward may not be believed or may be blamed for the incident. I recall a conversation with one young woman after she had shared something that she knew her parents would disapprove of: “My parents will try to make me feel better, but they will never look at me the same. I’m not the same.” In this instance, as in others of varying levels of seriousness that my colleagues and I have responded to over the years, the results are almost always better than the young person imagines. Families rally through disappointment and concern. Unconditional love is tested and prevails. Families sometimes need help to talk things through and learn to live with the surprise and, yes, distress, but they deal with it and can become closer as a result. That closeness is a byproduct of helping the student grow accustomed to the fact that she is not the same, but she is still herself. Her life is changed, but with support from family and mentors, she is not alone in that new reality. She can and will grow strong.
As a teacher, I know that the best learning happens when students discover for themselves. Patience to allow the learning process to unfold is an essential quality in good teaching. However, in this case, I constantly find myself wanting to speed up the learning process to convince students that we—families, teachers and other trusted adults at school—will be there for them.
And so on Thursday, I also shared with them these thoughts:
I want to state clearly that if you are hurt in any way, there is no situation that you could find yourself in that should keep you from seeking help from any member of the faculty and staff. You are learning self-advocacy in the OWL program. In my mind, this skill is the most important aspect of the curriculum. Please reach out to your parents and/or us if you ever need help. Our most important responsibility is to keep you safe and healthy. We will listen, and we will help.
If you haven’t had a conversation like this with your child, please do. She needs you to give her permission to tell you about any experience that makes her question herself and her self-worth. We make the mistake of thinking our children know this about us, but they need reassurance that we will listen, believe them and be there for them.
We need more followers at Brearley! This was my opening comment to athletes and coaches at preseason 2018, and here is what I mean.
Who are the leaders who have most influenced your life? Your mind may focus on individuals who are leading or who have led major institutions. Our culture tends to highlight the accomplishments of direct leaders, those great women and men with titles and responsibilities who shape the events of the day. Direct leadership is an important form of leadership, but there are others that our students can learn from too.
Active followership is essential to any successful endeavor. It may seem odd to think about followers as leaders—after all, haven’t most of us been warned about being typecast as a follower? The word itself has a negative connotation; however, there is a growing body of scholarship on the importance of followership and, as a graduate and trustee of the National Outdoor Leadership School, I’ve seen firsthand how valuable this type of leadership is to the health and welfare of an expedition. Show me a highly successful direct leader, and chances are she is also an excellent follower.
What is active followership? This form of leadership asks members of the team to assume responsibility for the success of the project despite not being in the direct leadership role; to participate in the planning and implementation processes by asking questions, listening to other perspectives and offering solutions to problems. Active followers are engaged, attentive and alert. They put the group’s success before self-interest. When a final decision is made by the leader or by consensus, they get on board and support the direction. Active followers demonstrate good judgment as well. They do not go along with the group when the final decision is dangerous or harmful to others. In those situations, they dissent and stand firm in their convictions.
Active followership is an essential aspect of healthy communities. Students don’t need to wait until they are elected to a position to lead. As active followers, they show leadership every day. This experience is fundamental to future leadership and is powerful in and of itself.
As we begin this new school year together, I ask all of us to think about encouraging girls to be active followers. It is the core of good citizenship and at the heart of how we each choose to lead.
One of my greatest joys as Head of School is watching students do things they love. What is unique about this at Brearley is that loving something does not always indicate that the student has some particular talent in it or even that she expects to continue with it. Rather, trying something new and being part of a group effort are experiences that are especially valued in the Brearley community.
l was introduced to this distinct aspect of Brearley student life when I came for a visit in the spring of 2012, after I was appointed Head of School. I was spending the day at 610 when someone pulled me into the Common Room to watch the annual Middle School Talent Show. As I stood in the back and watched a young student sing a popular song, I thought, “Oh no! She’s just a beginner. The audience will surely make fun of her!” As she haltingly made her way through the piece, my alarm grew, yet none of the adults around me seemed to share my concern. Their heads were bobbing to the beat, as were the students’. As soon as the student finished her song, she stood and bowed with a wry smile. Her gesture was greeted with enthusiastic applause from peers and faculty alike. I was stunned. How wonderful! Where was I?!
Fast forward to my first Homecoming. I noticed that a junior who was a talented musician was playing on the field hockey team. During the warm-up, I could see that she was a novice. Understandably she didn’t see much playing time in the competition, but that didn’t seem to dampen her spirits. I sought her out afterward and asked why she chose to join the team so late in her Brearley career. She looked at me with surprise and explained that she loved being with her friends, singing songs on the bus and, simply, being part of the team. She had no idea how rare her decision was for an older student at rigorous academic school.
At a time when secondary school students can feel intense pressure to find their “passion” and create a robust and diverse portfolio of achievements for college, I appreciate that the culture at Brearley encourages girls to pursue activities that interest them, that connect them with others, that allow them to step out of their comfort zone and be part of the community. This tendency may seem out of step with the times, but it’s healthy for them and their peers. I’m not making the point that Brearley girls don’t have a portfolio to present when they apply to colleges and universities. They do. But their school years also include a balance of joining an activity with the purpose of having fun, forming friendships and, yes, enjoying being a teenager.
How would you answer the prompt: People feel most loved when….?
This question, asked of individuals aged 18-90 as the basis of a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, reveals a simple finding that can serve us all, especially in this holiday season.
“…Moments of positivity, like a kind word, cuddling of a child, receiving compassion, make people feel most loved,” says Dr. Zita Oravecz, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State and one of the study’s researchers. The study found that human interaction was a more significant expression of love than receiving presents and that connecting with others in person was rated more highly than when done online.
Our preoccupation with technology and the general business of our lives can make us feel as if we are not achieving, not doing what is expected of us, unless we are multitasking. But that behavior often pulls us out of the moment and into a quasi-existence with our loved ones.
Over winter break, I will be focused on giving the gift of presence. Being there for my family and friends, disconnecting from technology for long periods of the day and asking those who are with me to do the same. I plan to have a basket for devices in the kitchen, where my family, guests and I can check in when needed, but our phones will not reside in our pockets, distracting us from our moments of genuine connection.
I am also committed to engaging in more group activities rather than the parallel play that has become my recent practice—this means I will be staying up late playing the military board game, Risk, rather than settling into my reading chair with a favorite book, and likely skiing with my family instead of setting off on my own to snowshoe in the woods with our dog, Strider. We will clearly have to find a balance in how we spend our days—we all need a bit of alone time—but I know that we will benefit from these extended periods of personal interaction. Who knows, perhaps I will be able to last a few rounds of Risk. I understand the key is to hibernate on the edges of the board amassing troops while opponents weaken their armies in skirmishes across the globe. Australia, here I come!
With a wonderful two-week break ahead, I ask us all to consider giving the gift of presence. It is what we want and need to feel loved.
Reflections on: “This Year, Consider Giving Presence Instead of Presents,” Juli Fraga, NPR, December 9, 2017
Shooting hoops with abandon, diving for balls on the court and wrestling with opponents over those retrieved, Brearley Middle Schoolers exhibit all the energy and feistiness on the basketball court that anyone who teaches the age group loves. Yet, to develop the skills to play the game as strategically as their Upper School peers, they show no less passion. With fewer distractions at this time in their lives, 100% of their attention is dedicated to each minute of playing time. They are present in the moment, and the result is something to behold.
Standing on the sidelines of a recent Middle School B Team game, I marveled at the competitiveness and risk-taking that the girls showed. Sure there were some stamped feet when the shot missed the basket or the referee ruled against their beloved team, but those disappointments did not deter them from continuing their all-out commitment to the game. They whipped that ball around the court, sometimes completely missing the target, and ran end-to-end with the determination and speed that called to mind one’s favorite images from the Olympics. In fact, they played as if this were the most important game of their lives. It was their first this season.
I could not keep from smiling, and neither could anyone else who watched them, including their coaches, Ms. Henderson and Ms. Marchese, two of the most successful coaches of varsity sports in New York. We traded looks throughout the game that signaled our delight in watching this pure display of girls’ athletics.
As I walked home from the Field House that day, my mind drifted to how often middle school girls are described by the media in negative terms. As a society, I worry that we don’t see them as they are: full of passion and commitment and living in the moment. While there certainly are some “moments” that require intervention and are reminders to see beyond the individual or a single pursuit, there is also a valuable lesson to be learned by their elders to connect in the moment and play with all one’s heart.
Of all the many wonderful attributes of Brearley, its distinction as a school with one heartbeat—that passionate desire to learn—is what stands out to me. I've been in schools where adults and students can find alternative heartbeats to stake their claim. These are interesting places to be, and they play an important role in the educational landscape, but at Brearley there is no doubt that a love of learning captures our attention and points us in the same direction.
You may wonder how I arrived at this understanding: Brearley as a community with one heartbeat.
I caught a glimpse of it when I visited for my days of interviews and am still stunned by it when I visit classes. I listen to the students contribute so earnestly to what I would describe as a conversation more than a lesson, and I watch teachers guide them with prompts—some sent with just a lift of the eyebrow and others with more discernible gestures of encouragement. And yes, at moments I have felt the energy of intellectual curiosity spill over—students running away in the moment with a group activity or talking over a peer who may need a little more time to collect her thoughts. However, even here, there is a careful recycling of the exuberance into the learning endeavor—a reminder to wait one's turn, to listen to learn rather than to speak, to be thoughtful and to exhibit appropriate self-awareness and control.
Every year there are moments that surprise me, like Lower School Last Day two years ago when the students could not answer a question Ms. Zimmermann posed in front of a packed Assembly Hall. I noticed her furrowed brow, a little taken aback that the girls repeatedly missed the point of her inquiry. Finally, in a moment of jovial exasperation, she raised her arms over her head and exclaimed in her most stern voice, "All right, summer vacation is canceled. You all must return to school on Monday!" And then to my astonishment the students squealed with delight, cheered and hugged each other, so happy were they at the thought of returning to 610 rather than heading off to vacation.
Brearley is a most unusual place!
The heartbeat of learning extends beyond the classroom and the student/faculty relationship. One of the last times I was in the Assembly Hall was with parents for our first Beyond Diversity training for families, led by Glenn Singleton of Pacific Educational Group. There, too, I watched a passionate exchange of ideas among our community members. Listening to the parents' appreciation for their daughters’ extraordinary program and teachers at Brearley was heartwarming, and there were also comments shared about the challenges of being part of a diverse community and how parents need support in teaching children how to celebrate their common interests, like learning, as well as their diverse backgrounds. We recognize that being an intentionally diverse community provides a classroom unto itself—what I call the 6th course, a class we are enrolled in every day at Brearley.
There is a growing awareness among highly academic schools that students and adults need to be taught the skills to learn and work in a community as diverse as Brearley's. The faculty and staff have been focused intently on developing our individual cultural competency over the last few years, and I invite you to participate in the next Beyond Diversity workshop offered later this year. Please be on the lookout for information from Tanya Huelett, Director of Equity and Community Engagement, for dates for this program and others offered by the administration, P.A. and the Brearley, Chapin, Nightingale and Spence cohort that will help you raise your daughters as active, responsible citizens.
As a young professional, I had the privilege of learning from a number of excellent mentors. From them I grew to understand the responsibility that accompanies working at a school of great privilege, how to think broadly about institutional resources and intergenerational equity, how to manage institutional change and develop leaders, and perhaps most importantly, I grew to understand the significance of modeling the behavior I wanted to see in my students. I was fortunate, although I did not always think so at the time, that these mentors did not hesitate to bring to my attention how I could better model the kind of culture I hoped to create for my students. I learned quickly that while rules written in a handbook highlight the values of a community, students watch everything we, the adults, do—how we speak to and about one another, and how we speak to and about them and the world in which they live—and they take their cues of behavioral norms from us.
I find Brearley students particularly sensitive to the cues we send intentionally and unintentionally. In order to educate them to be active and responsible citizens, I ask us all to model in our own actions the values we seek to develop in our young people: respect—for self and others—compassion, empathy, a love of learning and openness to new ideas, a commitment to equity and, finally, the pursuit of truth and the toil necessary to find it.
Thank you for all your support. Let's have a great year!
Last summer the Parents League of New York asked me to contribute to the organization’s 50th anniversary publication of the Parents’ League Review, for which it unearthed from its archives a report of a conference held in 1914 on questions of “enduring interest”: What has the Home a right to demand of the School? What has the School a right to demand of the Home? The Review reprinted the views of the then administrators of three of its founding member schools, among them Brearley, each followed by the views of the school’s current head.
The Review was recently mailed to the League’s member families and schools. I am pleased to share my article here, and provide a link to the piece written by Sarah M. Dean, the Assistant Principal of Brearley in 1914.
A Mutually Beneficial Partnership
In 1914 the Parents League asked Brearley, as one of its founding member schools, to reflect on the home-school partnership. Assistant Principal Sarah M. Dean did so, responding to the query “What The School May Expect of the Home.” When she responded to a similar question in 1997, then Head of School Evelyn Halpert called for parents and schools to act as a team in the education of children. Today that mutually beneficial partnership forms the foundation of K-XII communities, where the relationship between family and school develops over the long term and supports students from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood. Whether reading to children well beyond the time that they can read to themselves or opening their minds and hearts to the wonderful and ever-increasing diversity of the city and world in which they live, families and schools, together, extend the learning process and circle of concern from schoolhouse to neighborhood and family and back again. While there are important boundaries that each constituency respects, the happiest students are those who are good matches for the school, and part of their “fit” is the family’s belief in the values of the institution.
I have always thought that the most successful schools admit communities as much as they do students. All students arrive at school, no matter the grade of entrance, with the skills, perspectives, talents and hope vested in them by all those who surround them, family being the most important influence. The great understanding between Home and School is that both parties extend their best effort to support the child as she makes her way through her early years of life. What do both constituencies need to be successful in this endeavor? I believe that in the end, they require the same things from one another.
Honesty is the foundation upon which the community stands. Schools, like people, must be honest about who they are, what they believe in and how they deliver on their promise. Families, in turn, must be honest about their child’s needs and goals as well as the inevitable challenges that they, like all families, face at some point in the course of the child’s education. Neither schools nor families are perfect, and acceptance of that imperfection is an essential part of an honest relationship. We are all better for recognizing mishaps in the normal course of life. To deny this reality is to deny being human and sends a message to the students that nothing less than perfection is acceptable.
Commitment to the school mission is fundamental to building strong relationships between schools and families. It is always challenging when a family has enrolled for some but not all aspects of an institution’s purpose. To pursue a school for its outstanding academic reputation, for example, with the intention of avoiding its commitment to diversity and inclusion may not lead to the optimum experience for either the family or the school. The current era of á la carte learning experiences, where families piece together a personalized co-curricular program for an individual child, can lead them to overlook the comprehensive nature of a mission statement and to feel disconnected from a key initiative that may not seem to directly address the personal growth of their child. Herein lies both the challenge and the opportunity to see the health of the whole community as inextricably linked to the health of each individual. Creating a shared focus on the common as well as the individual good strengthens the community; the relationship between Home and School; and the connection that the student feels to both, as well as to her peers, the broader community and, ultimately, to herself.
A sense of aspiration for the institution and its students, shared by Home and School, leads to significant progress. Change is not easy for any institution, especially not for those that have achieved success by traditional measures. However, change is a necessary part of any successful school. Assessing strengths and weaknesses and having the fortitude to address the weaknesses as well as celebrate the successes is a true sign of institutional strength. Change is not linear, and new modes of teaching and learning require time, professional development and the requisite experimentation. The best educational innovation is evolutionary. Holding on to pedagogy that works, despite the latest fad, and having the courage to try new approaches, assess their effectiveness and make further well-considered changes creates a culture of sustainable internal change led by those who work with the students and families: teachers, administrators and staff.
An example involving all three of these qualities can be seen in recent conversations about student use and, at times, misuse of technology. We trust that Home and School are on the same page when it comes to teaching and supervising digital citizenship in and out of school. However, social media and students’ use of it changes faster than most adults can process, and the finger-pointing can begin in earnest when students make poor decisions. “Who is responsible?” “How could it have been prevented?” “Can’t the school forbid certain students from using it both in school and at home?” “Shouldn’t parents supervise their children’s use of technology?”
Despite the irresistibly provocative nature of these questions, which can unnecessarily pit Home against School, it is helpful to consider the trust each has developed in the other based on honesty, commitment to mission and shared aspirations. Each generation has its own challenges, and the current one both greatly benefits from and struggles with technology. What kinds of limits placed on the use of social media at certain ages serve long-term goals of teaching students to think critically, to act with respect and integrity and to make good decisions? Does the School’s exerting its influence in the Home support parents’ relationships with their children? These are not easy questions to answer, but therein lies their relevance to our collective effort to educate our students. Each community will find its own balance between School and Home. Some communities will defer to parents, others will depend on the School and still others will find a blend of the two. Commitment to honest communication, institutional values and the best interests of the students, families and the School serves as guidepost to all such decisions.
I love the notion that a Brearley education unfolds over a lifetime. We are not only preparing our students for college or for careers. We want them to be good students and people, to revel in an intellectual challenge and lean into a moral dilemma, to make lifelong friends and to develop a sense of purpose in their lives. Only some of this will happen in the span of K-XII. This is as it should be, for the knowledge that they gain while with us will reveal itself in new ways throughout their lives. They will evolve, as did their education, from students to adults, and some to parents and mentors, when, at last, they become Home in partnership with the School.
This article first appeared in the 2017 issue of Parents League Review.
Brearley’s purpose, as described in the first sentence of the mission statement, is to challenge girls of adventurous intellect and diverse backgrounds to think critically and creatively and to prepare them for principled engagement in the world. This long-held precept, that an education exists both for the benefit of the individual and the society in which she lives, is what first attracted me to this community. But how do we accomplish this lofty goal of teaching our students to be active and responsible citizens? As I believe we have entered a new era of impassioned civic engagement, it is a question that has never been more important than now. Brearley’s excellence in teaching the liberal arts and critical thinking, in addition to encouraging a passionate exchange of ideas in and outside of class, are essential to this endeavor. Furthermore, it requires what I call the sixth course, the experience of living and learning in Brearley’s diverse community in a way that fosters inclusion and equity.
Brearley’s historic commitment to diversity and access has been recognized by the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, parents and alumnae as a key reason for the School’s distinction and why they chose this institution over others. The rich diversity of the Brearley community creates this sixth course, a dynamic classroom for the development of cultural competence, which is a vital component in our students’ preparation to be active, responsible citizens. But this course, like all courses, requires a curriculum, complete with a vocabulary, pedagogy and commitment of school resources. We want our students to do more than navigate an increasingly complex world with respect to diversity—we want them to lead!
Soon after I arrived, I asked the Board’s Student Life Task Force to focus on diversity. Out of that process, which included talking with representatives from all constituencies, we made the decision to create the position of Director of Equity and Service Learning, for which we hired Michelle Wonsley ’97 and made a long-term commitment to engage in diversity, inclusion and equity work.
The Administrative Council, Ms. Wonsley and I agreed that the community needed more than the typical series of speakers and break-out sessions on these topics. We wanted a program with a pedagogy that focuses on the personal as well as the institutional, engages all constituencies, is rooted in research and history, and raises awareness and creates change. These criteria led us to Glenn Singleton of the Pacific Educational Group and the Courageous Conversations curriculum that he co-developed.
Over the last year and a half, the community has been fully involved in this endeavor, which you will learn about in the faculty, student, alumnae and parent contributions that follow. Along with these vital community conversations, detailed in the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion 2016-2017 brochure, we have taken steps to enhance our outreach in the hiring of faculty and staff as well as in the recruitment of students. We are also revising our in-house professional development and programming for the Lower School Social Studies and Respect and Responsibility curricula and for Middle and Upper School Advisory. This is only the beginning.
For our efforts to succeed, this must be a community collaboration. No one person or group can do it alone. The power is in our collective ability to play many roles—teacher, student, storyteller, listener, leader and active follower—as we engage in courageous conversations. As Head of School, my responsibilities are both to establish diversity, equity and inclusion as a priority of the School and, like all other members of the community, participate in this critical initiative. As a Brearley education unfolds over a lifetime, so too does this work, which is continuously evolving and asks us all to model lifelong learning for one another and our students. The process is as important as the outcome.
Each era presents its own challenges and demands. Today, developing our students’ ability to understand and contribute positively to an increasingly diverse society is vital to their future success and the well being of the communities they will serve and lead. We are thrilled to share our progress with you.
This article also appears in the Winter 2017 Bulletin.
In this latest edition of Illuminations, Jane Fried shares highlights of her remarks at last night’s Benefit, a wonderful occasion at the historic main branch of the New York Public Library, attended by more than 700 members of the Brearley community.
For those of you who could not be with us and those for whom the acoustics of the grand, high-ceilinged Astor Hall made it difficult to hear the presentation, I hope you will enjoy these reflections.
Welcome to Celebrate Brearley: A Night at the New York Public Library! We gather as a community: parents, grandparents, alumnae (one from as far away as Utah), parents of alumnae, Trustees, faculty, staff and our special guests—the Class of 2017!
Tonight we celebrate a vital hub of our school community, the Brearley libraries. Like a bee hive, with industry and purpose, they offer every member of the community an opportunity to ponder, to probe, to provoke and to persist.
The function of libraries has changed over time. What were once quiet spaces for research and reflection have evolved into community centers offering access to worldwide collections, teaching digital literacy, featuring artists of the day and engaging new ways of thinking about age-old questions. We are in the New York Public Library, one of the world’s renowned institutions and the nation’s largest public library system. The mission of the Library, founded in 1895 during a period of great immigration to this country, was to provide a free library for all.
As stately as our surroundings are tonight, we all have a personal link to what this institution represents. Each of us can remember getting our first library card and carefully selecting books from the shelf that caught our attention. There were card catalogs back in my day and book bags rather than backpacks, but no matter the mode of book selection or transportation the exhilarating feeling of discovery through reading is the same. There is nothing better than a good book! Libraries also help us to uncover who we are, how we connect to others, what is important and what is true. In an interview about how libraries changed her life, Maya Angelou reflected:
Information is so important, and it must be open. Information helps you to see that you're not alone. That there's somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who've all longed and lost, who've all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you're not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.
The Brearley libraries provide a welcoming and warm environment for every person who comes through its doors, with both curricular programming and accessibility. The 30,000 volumes they hold include books, DVDs and audio books. Our four dedicated librarians, passionate about their work with students, host book clubs and author visits in addition to teaching 29 weekly library classes for K-VI and 230 flexibly scheduled research classes for VII-XII. In this Google-instantaneous world, the library is a haven, where students learn to slow down in order to search thoughtfully, to browse effectively, and to think and wonder with authenticity.
Thank you to our parent Benefit Co-Chairs Rima Khalil and Pam Selin, our Underwriting Co-Chairs and the entire Benefit Committee for making this gathering so memorable. A special shoutout to Ella Papanek ’17, whose illustration graced the front of the Benefit invitation and adorns the many signs in this room. Finally, a toast to all of you here tonight. Because of your generosity and support, I am pleased to announce that we have surpassed our fundraising goal, raising over $350,000!
Patience and Fortitude, the proud lions that stand sentry outside this majestic, iconic space, are also virtues that, along with Truth and Toil, Brearley’s community has always held dear. My sincere gratitude to each and every one of you.
Illuminations is an informal communication to parents, faculty and staff from the Head of School.
This past weekend, the Brearley Drama Department, cast and crew—joined by actors from public and independent schools across the city—presented Fiddler on the Roof, a powerful story of Jewish persecution and immigration to this country. As with all Brearley productions, audience members were thrilled by the talent on stage, the student-crafted sets and the period costumes. This musical also served as a reminder of Brearley's values of respect, openness, responsibility, resilience and generosity at a time when it is more important than ever to remember what we stand for as a diverse and inclusive school community. (Please click here for a New Yorker piece about the production, posted yesterday on the magazine’s website.)
I believe we have entered a new era of impassioned civic engagement. Students arrive at 610 each morning brimming with questions about current events in a way that we have not seen in many years. As we teach our young women to be active, responsible citizens, we ask them to use their critical thinking skills and the ideals of truth and toil to address their concerns boldly, yet thoughtfully and compassionately. And they are doing just that. Students are participating in protests in New York City and beyond and are discussing issues that concern them in classes, advisory and clubs. For example, students from Brearley’s Political Awareness Club expressed their strong desire to launch an inclusive initiative: in both small gatherings and perhaps also in larger assemblies, they hope to promote open and respectful dialogue by presenting the student body with the opportunity to talk with individuals who represent viewpoints from across the political spectrum. This is a dynamic learning moment for us all.
Open dialogue is just as vital in science, and later this week we will have the opportunity to see firsthand the School's commitment to scientific research and STEAM education through our annual Science Symposium and biennial B-STEAM. World-renowned speakers will be featured along with our student scientists and faculty. As peer-reviewed scientific research and innovation are core values of this nation, these upcoming events provide community members with a deep dive into the basic tenets of a free and open society. We hope you will join us and show your support for both Brearley's science program and students.
Together, we are Brearley. Every student, family, teacher, staff member and alumna belongs, and our strength lies in the rich diversity of the talent, background and perspective each of us shares with the community. Brearley is a beacon of excellence and opportunity. Like the eastern facade of 610 that breaks the wind off the river, let us always support one another, united in our belief in preparing our students for principled engagement in the world.
Illuminations is an informal communication to parents, faculty and staff from the Head of School. In this latest edition, Jane Fried shares highlights of her November 22, 2016, Thanksgiving Assembly speech to Middle and Upper School students.
When I look at you, I see intelligence and goodness, quirkiness and earnestness, diversity and purpose, commitment and defiance. I see everything that a community needs to be healthy and strong, to celebrate and to move forward.
It is rare to find this combination of qualities in one place. Brearley is not perfect, but there is an abundance of hope in this school, and for that I am thankful.
As you set off for the holiday, I offer some words of advice:
1. Please make time to talk to your relatives and family friends about their lives. Ask them to share stories about times that were trying for their family, their community or the nation and world and how they managed them. Stories of struggle are often hidden in families, but from them is how we ourselves learn to persevere and thrive.
I had the good fortune of knowing three of my grandparents and hearing a bit of their stories. I wish I had asked them more about their lives. My grandmother, who lived until she was 99, was a gifted storyteller and would regale me with the most exciting tales about her early life in an orphanage with her older sister. At the age of 12 she was released to her sister’s care, after giving assurance to the orphanage that she had a job in a button factory. It was only as I grew older that I realized how terribly challenging her childhood must have been, but her interest in her life and in mine conveyed a resilience and optimism that stick with me to this day, as does her saying, “Janey, you must remember that life is grand as long as you don’t weaken.” I hope that you, too, will uncover family stories that sustain you throughout your life.
2. Your generation is known for its civic activism. In high school, college and beyond, young people are making meaningful differences in the communities they serve. However, that engagement tends to occur outside the political process, in non-governmental organizations and through social entrepreneurship. While very good work is being done in this parallel model, it is creating a vacuum of talent in traditional government. This loss is compounded by the dearth of women and people of color who run for office. At this assembly, when we are giving thanks for our opportunities and to our community, I ask you to consider this underrepresentation in public service. The door may not be wide open, but the need for individuals with intelligence and goodness, quirkiness and earnestness, diversity and purpose, commitment and, yes, defiance is clear.
Last year I participated in a Q&A for the Winter 2016 issue of Connections Quarterly, a publication of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. I am pleased to share the Q&A here. --------------------------- Spotlight Preparing for Co-Ed Life After Single-Sex Education The Brearley School, New York
Q&A with Jane Foley Fried, Head of School at The Brearley School
The Brearley School is a college-preparatory day school located in New York City, with 710 students from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Brearley’s mission is to challenge girls to think critically and creatively, to be active, responsible citizens, and to encourage individuality and collaboration.
What made you decide you needed to go above and beyond to prepare your students for co-ed life outside of high school?
The Brearley School was founded in 1884 to prepare girls for college, and from the beginning Brearley offered an academic program equal to that of the best boys’ schools in the city. This was a revolutionary idea at a time when women were dependent on men for their livelihood. Higher education was considered by many at the time to be dangerous to a woman’s health and certainly her prospects for marriage. While we laugh at those beliefs today, we must recognize that girls still do not have equal access to education in many areas around the world.
What are you currently doing to prepare students for co-ed life? Can you share an activity or event that has been especially effective?
Given its historic focus on rigorous academic preparation, the School has long anticipated that its alumnae would go on to higher education and careers in the work place. The program, therefore, has a rich tradition of preparing students for success in a co-ed environment. Girls begin public speaking in kindergarten, alumnae speakers share their career and life experiences in weekly assemblies, older students take co-ed courses through our Interschool association, Junior and Senior Seminars feature topics ranging from self-care to self-advocacy, and Upper School students lead a Self-Government with a student-written Code of Conduct. We also have a balance of elected and appointed co-head positions, which ensures that more girls gain leadership experience. Beyond these programs, Senior Spring stands out as our most unique, transformative experience. After seniors complete their exams, which at Brearley take place once a year in March, they fashion a program for the remainder of the year that allows them to follow a passion or develop new skills and interests. While students see this opportunity as a gift for their hard work over the years, its goal is to help them engage in the world beyond Brearley and develop a sense of purpose before entering higher education. It is a mini-gap year, in a sense.
The programs the students design reflect their varied interests as well as their, our teachers’ and the city’s rich diversity. Many obtain internships or jobs in publishing houses, investment banks and research laboratories. Some teach alongside their mentors in our Lower and Middle Schools or volunteer at neighborhood programs; they shoot films, make art and write and produce plays. Last year one student created an oral history of alumnae, and another self-published a book on her peers’ perspectives on perfectionism. They also gravitate to short-term courses led by their teachers: Anglo-Saxon, Female Power in Film and How to Be Interested, to name a few. They come away from these experiences with wider intellectual curiosity and appetite for critical thinking, a strong work ethic and the confidence to apply and get a position, advocate for one’s viewpoint and engage with not only men but adults who are not their parents or teachers. Senior Spring is as much about “failure” as it is about success. In fact, failure can be a success of sorts in this program. More than one student in the required presentation at the end of the year has shared her realization that the area she chose to work in is not the path she intends to follow in the future.
Have you learned things over time that made you change your format? If so, what?
We added a weekly meeting to allow seniors to get together with their classmates during their final term. We also found that the experience is more meaningful if the girls take full ownership. We let them learn from their mistakes. It’s not about being perfect.
What is the most important message you want to give your women before they leave you?
As young women, they will have many opportunities in life, and those come with a lot of expectations. The path ahead is illuminated by purpose. An authentic pursuit of that goal will yield direction and success over a lifetime.
Do you feel like the discussions/activities you’ve had students engage in are transferable to most other schools?
Trusting seniors to be seniors is a worthwhile goal in preparing them for the responsibilities of college and life. It also gives students who have attended a single-sex school the opportunity to live, learn and work, in some cases, in a co-ed environment. It takes time to develop such a program, and the groundwork for a Senior Spring experience is laid over the high school years.
Have you had any confirmation or stories—either while a student is still at your school or after she left—to confirm that you’re on the right track?
We hear their stories in their presentations every year, and you can, too, by visiting our website to hear our students’ voices: http://www.brearley.org/Page/Videos
Illuminations is an informal communication to parents, faculty and staff from the Head of School. It is also posted on the Brearley website. In this latest edition, Jane Fried shares highlights of her September 8, 2016, Opening Assembly speech to the Upper and Middle Schools.
The bitter taste of adrenaline stung the back of my bone-dry throat and, instinctively, I jumped out of the paddle raft into mid-thigh chilly water of the Green River. Heart racing, I croaked, “Are we ready?” My fellow paddlers’ puzzled faces betrayed their concern for my welfare as well as theirs. Mid-stroke in the calm eddy above the rapid aptly named Hells Half Mile, they were as ready as they were going to be and needed me in the small boat. Our instructor calmly shouted over the deafening sound of the rushing water: “Jane, time to get in the boat.” My partner in the front of the raft nodded reassuringly, extended his hand which I grabbed, and together we hauled myself into the raft. Immediately, the instructor called, “Right back, left forward—HARD!”, and the raft swung out of the eddy.
As we paddled into the ferocious current, I thought of speaking to all of you at this first assembly. I admit that, at the time, I was also thinking about how I was going to make it back to you. But, seconds later, as the waves toppled over the bow, I knew I wanted to talk with you about fear, not fear of failure in the educational context, but how fear influences our actions and behavior, and how our community can help us contend with it.
First, you may want to know why I was on that river. Periodically I sign up for a National Outdoor Leadership School course for a bit of what I call nature’s “chiropractry.” I love being the head of the Brearley School; all of you in this room keep me on my toes and, more often than not, bring me more joy than I could have imagined possible in one’s vocation. That said, there are times when I feel I can learn how to be a better leader, especially when I am called to deal with the unexpected. With 712 students, over 200 faculty and staff and thousands of alumnae, I have come to expect the unexpected. Still, self-awareness and self-management, two cornerstones of SEL, are also essential skills in leadership and need to be learned and relearned throughout one’s life. Mother Nature provides an excellent classroom to deepen and test these skills. Ms. Chang, Mr. Karb, Ms. Bradley, Anna McDonald ’17 and Christine Yang ’17, who have also taken NOLS courses, the first four supported by the Horne Family Charitable Foundation, can attest to the wilderness’s ability to teach humility, teamwork and leadership.
And so, when in need of a leadership tune-up, I enroll in a course in the backcountry in a skill area in which I am not an expert. Being a novice in an activity reminds me how difficult it is to feel new, unaccomplished, nervous, at times embarrassed and, yes, scared. If I can keep my equanimity while experiencing all of these emotions, I know I’m making progress. Therefore, white water rafting on the Green River though the Lodore Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument, located on the border between Colorado and Utah, seemed to be just what I needed to prepare for the upcoming year. I enrolled in the course, ordered the river guide book ahead of time and meticulously studied the route.
With other menacingly named rapids like Upper and Lower Disaster Falls, I memorized the safe passageways through each and had options to consider. I was feeling confident and prepared until my fellow students and I arrived at the put-in to learn that the Park Service had increased the water flow 10x the normal level from Flaming Gorges Dam to help manage the snowmelt and the habitat of the razorback sucker fish. Who knew that the rare little fish would need so much water? To give you a sense of that volume, at a normal level, 1,000 basketballs would flow by a person on shore each second. Now, 10,000 were moving by us in that same blink of an eye.
In that moment, my beautifully drawn game plan evaporated into air. Rather than navigating a highly technical river, we would be managing the biggest and fastest water that anyone had seen in a long time. I could feel my fear rising as our instructors stressed the importance of carefully scouting each rapid and hitting the line (with the volume of water, there would be no time for correction): my breath quickened, my chest tightened and my concentration lagged. Each time we stopped to scout a new rapid, it seemed as if I heard only half of what the instructors told us and processed only half of that. I desperately wanted to volunteer for the much larger and safer oar rigs but gave way when I noticed that other students seemed more frightened than I was. Although not what I expected, the course offered me something invaluable: an opportunity to adjust my attitude and behavior to the environment, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, to learn in the moment and to appreciate fully that my actions had immediate consequences for my and others’ safety. What I did and how I behaved mattered, even though I was not feeling good about the situation.
Fear is a common experience in our lives and it can, like the rocks in the river, divert the path we choose. Sometimes it’s prudent to alter our route—no one wants to be marooned on a rock—but finding a level of comfort with fear reveals new ways of moving forward and an inner strength that is liberating.
Is there something you fear right now—the college process, a new class, making new friends, finding your place in a new school or division, or trying a new extracurricular activity? Have you felt fear when you have considered expressing a divergent view in a class or during a community discussion about race or gender? Fear is both common and individual. We all experience it but at different moments and in different ways.
How can we help one another contend with our fears? We can foster a community in which we challenge and support one another to engage with fear, one in which we encourage honesty and meet vulnerability with kindness, one in which we engage in courageous conversations about the complex diversity of our community. Shakespeare wrote, “Virtue is bold, and goodness is never fearful.” Let’s meet our fear with goodness. How do we do that?
Let’s go back to the master teacher in all of this: the River. Why did I get back in the raft? I wasn’t afraid of looking like a scaredy cat—I’d already done that when I slid out of the raft. It wasn’t peer pressure—I’m somewhat immune to that at my age. It was two things: my fellow student generously extended his hand, and I thankfully grabbed it. And that is what I ask of you.
I encourage you to be aware of your surroundings: your peers and the space you inhabit. And be a student of how your actions affect others.
Notice when others are in need and extend a hand to them. Notice when you are in need and accept the extended hand to you.
Fear is a poor motivator, but it does grab our attention and provoke us to look for support. Let us use goodness as our motivator here at Brearley. Let Brearley be the place where we extend the hand and pull one another into the raft.
Welcome, new and returning students, to the 2016-2017 school year!
Illuminations is an informal, periodic communication to parents, faculty and staff. We thought you might be interested to see the latest edition.
In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks, I wanted to share with you an excerpt of a letter I wrote to faculty and staff over the weekend. As educators, we are called to respond to our students’ needs during trying moments, while at the same time we attempt to make sense of events as they unfold. It is not an easy task, and each of us finds her/his own way of processing the news. It is a deeply human practice.
Above all, I believe it is important to keep in mind the purpose of our endeavor. We are educating girls to make a difference in the world, and, together with you, we teach them the skills and encourage them to do so. An aspirational mission, to be sure, it is also one of hope in our future and in humankind—and the essence of a liberal education.
I hope you enjoy reading it. ---------------------------------------------------------- (November 15, 2015 Message to the Faculty and Staff) How do we find our emotional footing in these turbulent moments? In addition to the support of family and friends, I thought I would offer an article that I have found helpful to re-read over the past 24 hours about our mission as educators. William Cronon's "Only Connect" discusses what it means to be a liberally educated person and the importance of deep connection in our lives. I believe that our goal at Brearley is to educate in knowledge and goodness. Our enterprise is worthy and meaningful to all the communities in which we and our alumnae live and work. As educators, we prepare our students for principled engagement with the world, a powerful antidote to these tragic events. For those of you who are not familiar with the article, I offer the final paragraph below and the full text as a link: https://mediafiles01.myschoolcdn.com/ftpimages/614/misc/misc_132557.pdf “And so I keep returning to those two words of E.M. Forster’s: ‘Only connect.’ I have said that they are as good an answer as any I know to the question of what it means to be a liberally educated person; but they are also an equally fine description of that most powerful and generous form of human connection we call love. I do not mean romantic or passionate love, but the love that lies at the heart of all the great religious faiths: not eros, but agape. Liberal education nurtures human freedom in the service of human community, which is to say that in the end it celebrates love. Whether we speak of our schools or our universities or ourselves, I hope we will hold fast to this as our constant practice, in the full depth and richness of its many meanings: Only connect.” In addition, I am including the link to a moving New Yorker piece that was posted online on November 14, written by Alex Schwartz '05. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/ghostly-paris
With deep appreciation for all you do for our students and the Brearley community and beyond.
Illuminations is an informal, periodic communication to parents, faculty and staff, and it is also posted on the Brearley website. We thought alumnae might be interested to see the latest edition with these highlights of the Opening Assembly speech Jane Foley Fried shared with the Upper and Middle Schools on September 10, 2015.
The Brearley School was a radical idea in the late 19th century and aspired to change society’s perceptions of girls and women. In a relatively short period of time, the School demonstrated that girls could equal, if not surpass, boys in the classroom. Well-prepared Brearley alumnae soon became pioneers in fields long dominated by men. But as there is still much work to do in fields of study and professions in which women are underrepresented, there is progress to be made on how girls and women see themselves. Research that I was involved with prior to coming to Brearley suggested that girls’ choices about courses or leadership positions were related to self-perception as much or more than their grades and test scores or other external assessments. In other words, their aspirations were not based, as one might imagine, on the potential or talent others saw in them, but rather the qualities they identified in themselves.
Ask any Brearley teacher and she or he will tell you that the best part of being at this school is the opportunity to work with you, the students. Your earnestness, integrity, love of learning, compassion and diverse backgrounds inspire us. We are here because you are the kind of students—the kind of people—we want to work with. But all of that is about how we see you and may not resonate 100 percent with how you see yourselves.
Over the past two years, students have sponsored works here that focus on the challenge of perfectionism at Brearley and beyond.
The first, in the spring of 2014, was a Dance Troupe performance entitled Effortless, choreographed by visiting artist Jane Comfort and accompanied by text written by Brearley students. It was a provocative piece, not only for the movement but for the students’ voices, which describe the dichotomies of being a young woman today. The students narrated in part:
Be loyal but not too clingy. Charming but not too charming. Busy but well rested. Perfect grades but modest. Get into the best school but still have a social life. Athletic but not muscular. Pretty with no make-up. It’s effortless. There’s no effort involved. It’s effortless.
So powerful was this performance, you could have heard a pin drop in the Assembly Hall.
And last year, as her senior project, Gwen Whidden ’15 created an interpretive portrait series of her classmates, which explored their perspectives on perfectionism, entitled Flawless, The Importance of Being Imperfect. Gwen’s goal was to debunk the myth of the perfect Brearley girl by sharing the stories of her classmates, who each came to the realization that perfection was unattainable and that its pursuit left them feeling empty—until they embraced who they were and the many contributions they made to their school, friends and family. It was another arresting, multi-textured piece of student work.
As those of you who have been here for a while know, I am a great believer in the power of storytelling. What was most interesting to me about the seniors’ stories in Flawless is that they saw talents in others that they did not see in themselves. Why is it so hard sometimes to see the good in ourselves?
Hermione Granger is a great example of a student whose perfectionism took too much control of her life. Although she was the strongest student in her year, Hermione expressed her constant fear of failure to the point of annoying everyone around her. Hermione fails a section of her Defense Against the Dark Arts exam because she cannot confront the idea of the boggart assuming the form of Professor McGonagall and informing her that she has failed all of her exams. Despite having mastered this boggart-banishing spell, Riddikulus, which would allow her to transform the image of Professor McGonagall into a humorous sight and finish it off with a hearty laugh, Hermione is paralyzed by her fear of being imperfect.
Perfectionistic tendencies can interfere with our achieving our goals. Perfectionism can make us preoccupied with a fear of failure, whereas healthy striving keeps our efforts and achievements in perspective.
While I don’t have any easy answers or charms for you, I have some questions for us to explore together over the coming years as we try to understand perfectionism and discover strategies to address its pervasiveness here and beyond.
I say together because I believe that many women struggle with the idea that their best effort is not good enough.
I knew this was an issue for me in 8th grade. It was common for public schools in the ’70s to make all students compete every spring in track and field events during an end-of-year field day. Throughout my childhood, I had raced against my neighborhood pal, who was always one step ahead of me. In our last year of middle school, a few boys and girls were invited to compete in the high school field day. Sure enough, my friend and I advanced to the finals of the 9th grade 100-yard dash. With about 3,000 students in the high school, I remember this being a very big deal for both of us.
Once the starter gun went off and I hit my stride, I looked to my right and saw that my friend, who had started the race with me, wasn’t there. I then did something that, to this day, I still can’t believe: I stopped. In front of hundreds of spectators and all those high school students, I slowed to a walk. I don’t remember making a decision to stop racing—it was an involuntary reflex. She wasn’t a step ahead of me, as I was conditioned to expect, and in response I stopped running. Unbelievable! Everyone thought I stopped because I was concerned that my friend, who had pulled out of the race with a strained muscle, was injured. Being embarrassed about the incident, I didn’t disabuse them of their notion. But it wasn’t true. I stopped because I was so focused on her being ahead of me that I could not fathom winning. Her speed wasn’t my biggest competition, I was my biggest competition. Later on, my friend admitted that she may have pulled out of the race because she feared I was going to beat her. What a pair we were! Although the perfectionist psychology is rarely in as bold relief as it was on that day, it is a challenge many of us will face at some point in our lives.
Although you may not be able to imagine doing something like I did (I still can’t imagine doing what I did), I have been an educator long enough to know that students do things all the time that they are embarrassed by and cannot explain: unkind messages posted on social media, lapses in academic integrity, deadlines missed. In most of these cases, students struggle to explain what they were thinking when they made a poor decision. Often the only thing they can describe is their fear that they were not going to meet expectations, either their own or others’. Any other consequence of their actions was beyond their ken.
Having observed this over the years, I believe that in moments when we shift from healthy striving to perfectionism, a space develops between who we are and how we behave. We separate from our true self. Only in hindsight can we see the error in judgment.
Responding to Gwen Whidden’s question about what advice she would give her younger self, one of her classmates offered, “Success—or what I perceive to be success—isn’t more important than happiness, and happiness doesn’t come only from success.”
But what if we could develop a model in which happiness and success are compatible? What if we could encourage levels of fearlessness and joy that match Brearley’s extraordinary academic program? What if we could help you define your own individual notions of success and happiness, and what kind of support you need to strive in healthy ways? These are questions we will answer together as we continue our work on our Strategic Plan, as we prepare you not only for life at Brearley but also for the purposeful lives you will lead after you complete your education.
As much as I admire you and am grateful for the contributions you will make over the year to this community, I am confident there are no perfect Brearley Girls. I am also confident that in establishing this school, attaining perfection was not in the purview of Samuel Brearley and the early founders. Theirs was a school with “an idea”—preparing girls for college in an era when rigorous intellectual training was thought by many to be a serious health risk for women. From the start, they admitted girls whose families were excluded from other New York City private schools. Their legacy—opening doors for girls and women—is why we are here today.
As we begin this year together as learners, let’s open doors by emphasizing the goodness in each other and the adventure of the endeavor. Let’s support our peers and those whom we mentor. Let’s seek healthy striving and happiness in our work as students and educators, rather than perfection. The more tightly we bond the notions of happiness and success, the stronger we will be—you as young women and Brearley as a community.
Thank you for being with us. Let’s have a great year.
Each year I look forward to the Upper School Assembly that features Self- Government speeches. Although the audience of Brearley students and faculty considers it completely normal that teams of girls stand confidently in front of the large group to share their well-considered platforms, I—having spent most of my career in coed schools, where boys dominate this type of leadership opportunity—marvel at our students’ clear voices, their compassionate agenda and their comedic timing. They know their constituency, love their school and convey their hopes and aspirations for creating a better Brearley with maturity, determination and humor. I love watching the assembly unfold in the most natural way and revel in our School’s tradition of nurturing leadership.
Brearley’s Self-Government is unique. Upper School students have their own Code of Conduct, which they updated last year. The Self-Government leaders took great interest in this project by soliciting ideas in Classes VIII-XII student-led town halls. They then revised their constitution to include core values similar to those in the Lower School and to expand the roles Upper School students play in the lives of all Brearley students. The influence of Self-Government extends well beyond Classes IX-XII to Middle and Lower School. It is exciting to see our oldest and wisest students eagerly taking on the mantle of leadership.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Self-Government platforms for the last two years have focused on cross-divisional activities that connect older and younger students. Borrowing again from Lower School, which divides students into houses named after former Heads of School, this year’s Self-Government has assigned Middle and Upper School students to these houses, thereby creating a K-XII model of sisterhood. In cross-divisional activities, the students have created House coats of arms illustrating the core values and also banners featuring colorful student handprints. Next year’s student leaders are keen to continue the House tradition.
Creating a stronger sense of a K-XII community is one of the goals of Brearley’s Strategic Vision. In this case, the initiative came from the students, who inspired the vision and are well on their way to opening doors between and among the divisions.
There is so much good that happens every day at Brearley. It is wonderful when our Upper School student leaders recognize new and compelling models in the Lower School and absorb those tried and true experiences as their own. It is heartwarming to see younger students learning from older girls and, in turn, older girls reconnecting with their younger selves through the little girls. We all can learn from one another.
At this year’s Self-Government Assembly, I thanked the candidates for their excellent speeches and for running for office. I also offered my perspective on the difference between “good” and “great” schools. Metaphorically, a good school is a little like an inchworm. The faculty moves along a path and pulls the students with them. However, great schools operate more like a “Slinky,” a toy many of us grew up with. The faculty creates an initiative, which propels the students forward and, in turn, the students inspire the faculty to move ahead, and so it continues.
I see the Slinky in action every day at Brearley. We energize each other as we build an even stronger community.
With thanks to Ashlyn Drake ’14 for her drawing of the Head’s Office.