The Power of Disagreement

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend an event where Governor Charlie Baker was speaking. It was a fantastic event, and it is always such a pleasure to hear the Governor speak about the state of the Commonwealth and our society. During the discussion, I could not help but be encouraged by a story he shared from his childhood that has shaped his view on debate, disagreement, and decision-making.

Governor Baker shared that his mother was a registered Democrat, and his father was a registered Republican. In his house, while growing up, his parents often engaged in conversations and disagreements on a number of issues. As he reflected on growing up in a household that embraced debate, I want to share two important ideas that resonated with me and are relevant for our students.

First, Governor Baker talked about the idea of surrounding oneself with the best minds regardless of their party affiliation and encouraging debate. He empathized the difference between intellectual disagreement and malicious disagreement. It was a critical distinction. The purpose of debate is not to tear another person down, but to deepen one’s own understanding, as well as the other person’s.

The point he shared was about how his parents and family friends were able to enter into strong arguments over politics, but it never impacted their relationships. By not entering a discussion with malicious intent, they knew that the arguments was about ideas.

Governor Baker’s words ring true if we are to live up to our mission of “develop[ing] life long learners who are informed, engaged, and ethical citizens and leaders in our diverse world.” We must continue our work with students so that they can engage in authentic discussions about what they are learning, the issues in our own community, and current events.

In recent conversations with ninth grade students, it was clear that they want to be a part of intellectual debate. They want to engage in conversations about our world and to dive deeper into the issues. They also shared that they believed the Brimmer community was one that was welcoming of all diversity–race, ethnicity, religious, identity, and intellectual.

We need to continue to teach students to engage in these discussions in order to learn and not to create conflict. In this way, like Governor Baker’s parents and family friends, respectful debate can lead to stronger personal relationships and deeper understanding, instead of creating wedges between people.

The Architects of Our Future

Opening Convocation Speech, September 2016. 

Good Morning! The theme, Build the Future, is more than just a theme to be talked about in formal conversations or by the adults in the school, it is a way for us to shape our thinking and learning. As students you do not need to wait to be the builders and designers of our future world, when you leave this morning’s convocation you have the opportunity to take an active role in the process.

16 years ago today, I was a brand new teacher sitting with a far more experienced one brainstorming an experiment to run on the first day of class. Mrs. Pordes, who was also the Associate Head of School, asked me one simple question: “What do you think we should do.”

Still lacking confidence and not wanting to make a mistake or sound foolish, I replied how most people trying to avoid failure would: “They are all good options, which experiment do you think we should do?”

That answer did not go over very well with Mrs. Pordes. She slowly raised her head up and looked me directly in the eyes. I had the overwhelming feeling that a student would have if they had just been sent to her office and dreading the fact that she was going to call their parents. The longer I sat there not answering her question, the more my nerves grew. The silence was probably only a few seconds, but it felt like 20 minutes. Finally she broke the silence and said to me, “I already know what I think; I asked to hear your thoughts.”

She continued with a piece of advice that I have kept with me throughout my professional career: “To be successful you need to go out on a limb and share your ideas. You can’t always take a backseat. Sometimes you will have better ideas than others times, but you need to put yourself out there and take some risks.”

Every day at Brimmer you will experience thousands of moments. Most will pass by without being noticed, but on occasion, you will be struck by a particular interaction, observation, or action that will have a profound impact on the way you see yourself and how you choose to pursue your life. For me, the moment happened in my meeting with Mrs. Pordes. Instead of being content with not being wrong and being afraid of failure, I chose to immerse myself in my career, taking risks and not fearing missteps.

It would be easy to only focus on the successes in your life, but successes are not the only instances that have a deep impact on you. Often failures are what you remember and carry with you. How you view failure is crucial- does it define your limits? Or does failure serve as place from which to grow.

The most successful leaders choose the latter. They understand that failures are moments to learn from, to grow from, and envision a new future. Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Oprah, Walt Disney, Indira Ghandi, the list goes on. These are all people who define their success through their failure. They believe that failure is not something to fear, but to embrace as an opportunity to grow.

Stephen Covey, the best-selling author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said that leadership is a choice, not a position. It is an action. So this year, I am challenging you.

Our world needs young leaders who are actively working to make a difference. So, don’t just sit back and be consumers of information. Be creators. Be active participants in the world and strive to make a difference- no matter how big or small. Some days you will take a risk and you will fail miserably. Other days those risks will pay-off. But in the moments of attempting something new and stretching yourself, you will be setting yourself up for future success. And, if you do this, you will be the architects of a future you built.

Celebrating Our Diversity

Like many, over the past forty-eight hours I have struggled over the election results. My first thoughts were how did we get here and how do I explain the results to my four and half year old? His understanding of Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton was that Trump said mean things and did not apologize, whereas Clinton made mistakes and said she was sorry. So, as we explained who won the election he was obviously confused. In his world, we value respect and taking responsibility and not the use of “mean words”.

After trying to explain to my son the results, I left the house Wednesday morning still struggling with what to say at our Upper School Morning Meeting. How do we make sense of this to our students? While I still do not have all the answers to this question, and I’m not sure I ever will, I wanted to share the thoughts I gave to the Brimmer Upper School.

In 1796 George Washington stepped down from the Presidency marking the first peaceful transition of power to a unrelated person in Modern History. Washington easily could have stayed on for another term but understood what would be one of his final nation-building responsibilities- establishing the transition of Presidential power. This idea has been a hallmark of our democracy for the last two hundred twenty years. A peaceful transition is how other modern democracies model for their government election processes.

In four years, just about everyone in this room will have an opportunity to vote in the next Presidential election.That being said, understanding the nature of our democracy does not offer much solace for those that are in shock over the Presidential election results. Intellectually the importance of transition makes sense, but emotionally this change doesn’t, due to the nature of the campaigns. This election was filled with hate and hurtful words from conservatives and liberals. No one was immune from divisiveness engulfed us. But President-Elect Trump has come to symbolize those intense feelings and words that have many of our diverse students, faculty, and staff feeling uneasy about what this means for them. What this means for the future our country?

Now, I want to share a short personal story. This year, when I began at Brimmer, I was transitioning from a school that had little diversity. One reason I came to Brimmer was because I wanted to be in a place that was more diverse, but I wasn’t prepared for the impact that this aspect of Brimmer has had on me. At our school we celebrate our diversity and each morning I wake up inspired to come to a place that has such a rich cultural, ethnic, religious, and gender diversity. Celebrating diversity is part of what makes this school a special place.

So, when I think about the past year, I remember a lot of arguing and yelling about what people thought was most important. Whether it was Bernie, Trump, Clinton, Cruz, Rubio…the list goes on. There was a lot of talking but there was not very much listening. People were willing to shout their values at the top of their lungs, but found it difficult to open their ears to the underlying fears of each side. As a community we can respond to this election by continuing to create a powerful, thriving diverse community that is engaged in dialogue. We know that being diverse is not easy. Putting together so many different people with a wide range of values and experiences takes work. A lot of work. In many ways, it is easier not to be diverse. But easier does not mean more valuable. We don’t want to settle for easy. The desire to be diverse challenges us to think about what is necessary to live in a society that respects all voices, takes responsibility for its actions, shows kindness even in the most difficult situations, and remains honest. 

So how do we respond to the divisiveness that has come out of this election? We respond by building the community we desire for the country here at Brimmer. This is going to require us to be upstanders. We cannot allow the hate and disdain to permeate our community and build walls between us. We are going to need to stand up for those people whose voices may be silenced. We need to support each other and not create more fear. The subtleties of our words and actions can have a powerful impact on our community and we must work to be supportive. If we do this, we can begin to heal. We can be an example for how to build community, instead of creating divisions. Over the next few hours, days, weeks, and months- be there for each other. I know that this will create the light that will shine through the darkness that has come from our divided nation.

Today, I cannot think of a better way to honor the memories of our Veterans. To honor their sacrifice for protecting the United States and the world. Our veterans do not represent a single political party. Rather they come together from all different backgrounds to to preserve the freedoms we know in our country and to protect those around the world that cannot stand up for themselves. I cannot think of a better way to move forward, then as coming together as upstanders celebrating our diversity and standing up for those that need our help.