"What We Preach (and Practicing It)" by Assistant Head of School and Head of Middle School John Gifford
I feel like people have been asking me since the first week of school: “So, you countin’ down the days?”
I have a sabbatical coming up starting in January. It is an almost embarrassingly generous gift that Nobles is able to offer faculty who have been plugging away for a long time. I should, on a daily basis, light incense and praise the members of the Board of Trustees who decided to start the program in the early 1980s. They were the ones who started the endowed fund which makes this opportunity available for a small group of Nobles faculty members each year.
While there are very few restrictions on how faculty are to use the time, the faculty work hard to treat the time with the respect it deserves. We know full well that there are very few professions that allow for this extraordinary gift of time. For years I have had some ideas of how I’d take advantage of the time. Over the Thanksgiving break I took some time to think about my goals more deeply and completely.
I decided to write down a list of all the tasks I’d like to complete and experiences I wanted to have. But I wanted to push myself to make sure that I was living up to the same goals and values that we preach to students in the Middle School. The ideas that we focus on in the Middle School don’t have an expiration stamp. In fact, I know there are times when I and my colleagues do more preaching than practicing.
The only reason I’m sharing bits and pieces of my long list below, is to reaffirm with members of the community what it is that we most value at Nobles and in the Middle School. Oh, and I figure it might also hold me accountable. If you know some of what I hope to do, you might ask me whether I got it done!
Community principle: “Be good to each other.”
Sabbatical item #1: Return, with my family, to South Africa.
We talk to students about not just tolerating each other, but being good to each other. It can hard. Middle school students are still developing empathy skills and there are impulsive and annoying behaviors that can be hard to endure. But the Middle School works better (and is better) when people are being charitable to each other. And while some come to magnanimous behavior more easily than others, it is always a conscious decision to be good.
My wife, Laurie, got me, and therefore Nobles involved in South Africa. She taught there, in a simple school in the Limpopo Province, for two years just as Apartheid was collapsing. She returned to the States, saw some service travel that I was doing with Nobles students in Santiago, Chile and insisted that we start something in South Africa. Twenty years later more than 200 students have gone and we have forged lasting relationships with two worthy South Africa organizations. I want to continue helping the St. Brendan’s School and the Kliptown Youth Program. They have been so good to me, I want to show my children their generosity and try to return the favor.
There are so many other ways that I hope to “be good”. For example, #23. Write notes to old friends. You can’t imagine the good friends that I have lost touch with. I want to reconnect with friends from college and high school and remind them how much I appreciate them.
Oh, and I need to be really good to my family. My wife and children for sure, but also my siblings and my mother. At times, I have a way of investing myself in my Nobles work and it seems like family is more likely to take the brunt of my neglect when things are at a fevered pitch on campus.
Community principle: “Middle School is a wonderful time to fail.”
Sabbatical item #13: Work on that book idea.
Are we just cruel? We ask middle school students to take risks when they are at their most risk-averse stage in life. At a time when they just want to blend in, we want them to throw all care to the wind and expose themselves as vulnerable and different. But we do this not to have them experience the failure alone. As a parent once told me, “I’m only interested in my child’s failures if they are followed up by success.” Of course. That is the point. We learn much more through failure than through success. We only sort of understand what we did right when we are successful, but we have a clear idea of what needs to change when we fail. In turn, that understanding should allow the young person to handle similar situations better the next time they (inevitably) arise.
But there is also an equally important lesson derived from failure; the understanding that life goes on. I believe that the often mentioned “grit” that some people have are the direct result of the failures, small and large, that be move beyond. Life is an ongoing process of figuring out what you are good at and what you want to get better at. There is nothing more important than understanding that it will take resilience and effort, after the inevitable potholes, to move on. There is no more important lesson than understanding that with perseverance and faith, no failure will be a dead end.
It isn’t just the Middle School years when we can learn from failure. I have no business writing a book. But I have a couple ideas for one. I’m sure it won’t end well, but I’m also sure that I’ll learn something from the process and I’ll survive after I have failed.
Community principle: “Be Honest.”
Sabbatical item #38: Write a parent’s newsletter piece about MS values and my sabbatical.
OK. True: I only came up with 37 items on my list and I just now added #38 above. But putting these ideas out in the public is an act of (attempting) to keep me honest. It is like sharing New Year’s resolutions. I have great faith that no one will remember what I have set out to do, but I do have the nagging concern that one of you will…and you’ll ask me about it later. I might be held accountable, so this piece is a way of being honest with myself.
When we talk about honesty in the Middle School, honesty with one’s self is often less considered. It is easy and obvious to focus on academic honesty or not lying to others, but lying to one’s self is a more hidden and subtle deception. It is, however, no less pernicious. Self-deception makes us fabricate comfort with our own failings or slothfulness. It allows us to procrastinate when there is an important task to be done. It allows us to justify a poor performance after the fact. I should know: I have a great deal of experience.
But now I have my list. I have my goals and I have my determination to try to live by the values that we press Nobles students to live by.
Oh, and, I have not been counting down the days. I’m starting to get excited about the ability to choose how I spend my time, but I love my work. I’ll miss my colleagues and the Nobles students a great deal. I’m looking forward greeting everyone, with renewed energy, in the fall of 2016.