Friday, August 31, 2012

"Better. Today" - My new student orientation remarks

Below is a copy of the script I wrote to help me deliver my remarks at our recent New Student Orientation program.  In full disclosure, I did not say these verbatim.  This is the script I wrote as part of my preparation.

I do not read scripts when I speak at gatherings.

(August 30, 2012)

Good morning and thank you for attending our middle school orientation program.

Normally, I prepare only a brief statement about the coming year.  In that statement, I usually go over a few new initiatives, encourage you to ask plenty of questions, and then introduce the faculty with whom your child is going to work this year.  However, as I read through my Google Reader this morning around 5:15, I came across an article that spoke so deeply to me that I had to change my direction and share with you some important insights into how we feel about you, your child, and the nature of success in middle school.

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson is the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School.  She has published two books fairly recently that I highly recommend.  They are Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and 9 Things Successful People Do Differently.  I strongly recommend both to anyone interested in understanding the science behind motivation, achievement, and goal attainment.  Dr. Halvorson also blogs frequently on her personal blog and for The Harvard Business Review.  Her new book, Focus: Use Different Ways Of Seeing The World To Power Success and Influence is due out in April, 2013.

I mention Dr. Halvorson because it is an article she published in her blog titled The Surprising Secret to Selling You that prompted the thoughts I want to share with you today.  Basically, the article summarizes a number of research projects which all suggest that we are much more interested in “The Next Big Thing” than we are in “The Biggest Thing.”  In other words, we overwhelmingly value POTENTIAL over PAST RESULTS.

The article points to a few specific studies.  One study explained that artists who are labelled the next big artist sell many more paintings than those who already have established reputations. Another demonstrated a comedian whose Facebook page that labelled him the next best stand-up was given many more”likes” than the page describing him as currently the best.  A third study asked subjects to act as general managers of an NBA team and determine how much they would pay for the sixth year of a fictitious player.  One group had 5 years of statistics based on actual results.  The other group had 5 years of PROJECTED statistics.  Overwhelmingly, the group with the projected stats were willing to pay much more for year 6.  They clearly valued the potential.

In many ways, I am not surprised by the power of potential.  After all, I have to believe it was the only reason Mrs. Roddy said, “Yes.”

Dr. Halvorson’s article, while not written specifically for education, does, in my opinion, have strong implications for school - especially middle school.

In my role as Division Head, I see quite a few admissions folders.  Each is packed with records of grades past, teacher recommendations, test scores, and essays.  It is a portfolio of you, as a student, from your earliest experiences to the most recent.  It is a record of your past.  These records are your “stats.”

I am responsible, then, for taking these records and forming an opinion about your ability to perform well.  In essence, I try to gauge your potential.

Your file is not who you are, but rather, it is what has brought you to this point.  What matters is not what is in the file.  What matters is what you will do now.  The file is done.  You are here.  What is your potential?

The challenge to us, as teachers and parents, is that you are the only one who can answer that question.  Sure, we can encourage you, support you, and have an opinion of you; but only YOU can decide your potential.  You are the expert on you and we need your expertise to help you achieve the potential you seek for yourself.

Discovering your potential is an exercise in finding and pushing your limits.  Success is found in a similar way.  It takes effort, willpower, resilience, perseverance, and grit.  Notice I said nothing about grades, honor rolls, test scores, or IQ.  Those are important and have their place, but alone cannot consistently find success nor discover potential.

Having the right attitude and mindset is important if you want to access the benefits of such an approach to success.  You must begin to think in terms of not necessarily being the best, but in terms of being better.  There was an ad not too long ago.  I think it was for Chevrolet, but I am not sure, that claimed, “The best get better.”  I agree, but too often in middle school we focus on “better” as something that will happen “down the road” such as better for high school, better for college, better next semester, etc.  I say too often because while we certainly care about your future, it is easy to forget that your future also includes tomorrow or even later today.

At the top of my notes for this past week’s faculty meetings, I wrote the words, “Better. Today.”  I believe that mantra is a powerful one for middle school.  Your job is to not just focus on being better, but on being better today.  In time, the sum of all your “better todays” will be better preparation for high school, college, and beyond.  But for now, let’s have a better sixth, seventh, or eighth grade.

The mantra “Better. Today” also applies to specific programmatic and organizational items.

Our Experiential Challenge Program transforms our former Discovery Week into a yearlong conversation and adventure into the meaning of virtue, teamwork, responsibility, and leadership.  We are “better today” to address the social and emotional needs of our students.

This year, you will being each day with your advisor and do so for double the time you had with them last year.  Our advisory program is a critical piece of your experience in middle school and we are, structurally, “better today” to support your middle school journey.

Academically, this year we see the return of the middle school theatre production as part of an adjusted creative arts curriculum.  That adjustment allows you, for the first time, to have more choice in your arts discovery.  We are also moving to a semester system in creative arts and adding more time to the week for this program.  In addition, the technology offerings are more focused than ever before and speak directly to the skills you need to navigate the digital world.  We are “better today” to inspire you academically.

You will see a few new faces this year on the faculty.  Wakefield School is an attractive place for professional educators.  Many candidates expressed interest in filling the three open spots in middle school.  When going through the process of evaluating candidates, it is not always clear who the best candidate is, but it does become more clear who the better candidate is.  The better one is not only a master of their discipline, but also the one whose care for students and desire to serve on a faculty team that is dedicated to the developmental needs of middle school is obvious and genuine.  Those are the candidates we invite to join us and who return for another year to lead you.  We are “better today” to guide your learning.

I believe that Wakeifeld School is the better choice.  All of us in this room have made that choice.  We continuously work to live that mantra, “Better. Today.”

Now, it is your turn.

What will you do today to get better?

What will you do today to help someone else get better?

What will you do today to help us, Wakefield School, get better?

If you need some simple suggestions, I have three.  These are part of my own personal guide for the year and I encourage and invite you (students, parents, and teachers) to join me with these goals.

1.  Remember that the standard for satisfaction is not perfection.

None of us are perfect.  None of us can be.  To hold someone to an impossible standard is a waste of time and is destined to create disappointment, anger, and anxiety.  This is middle school.  You are 11, 12, and 13 years old.  You are growing and developing daily.  Your standard of satisfaction should be based upon effort, resilience, persistence, will power, and grit.  Did you truly give your best effort?  How did you do?  What will you do differently  next time?  What will you do the same?  Those answers should form the foundation of your satisfaction.

2.  Have a “zero” policy.

I did not say a zero tolerance policy.  A “zero” policy simply is a statement about what you do not want to happen and a clear procedure to address the issue if it does happen.  In my advisory group this year, 7th grade boys, I have a “zero ‘U’ policy” for effort reports.  If one of my advisees receives a “U” in effort, I will contact the teacher who issued the “U”, designed a plan for the advisee to fix the “U”, and held a conversation with the advisee about the plan.  All of this done before the end of the next full school day.

Finally, #3, take a moment each day to either praise someone for doing something well or to thank someone who helped you get better that day.

In my desk, I found a stack of “praise notes” left over from years ago.  They had been buried under four years of paper and needed rescuing.  So, I decided I would write one every day.  In order to facilitate this habit, I refuse to put the stack of notes back in a drawer.  They now live on my desk right next to my computer.  My self-imposed rule is that I cannot go home until I write that day’s note.  We often forget to thank or recognize others, take time each day to do so.

With the opening of this program, we semi-officially start the 2012-2013 school year.  I am very eager to get started and, as always, appreciative of your decision to join us.

Thank you.

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