Following are excerpts from the remarks I shared with 800 Needham faculty and staff at our annual back-to-school General Staff Meeting in August.
This summer I’ve enjoyed many long beach runs on the Cape, coastal Maine, and even Ireland. Long solitary trail or beach runs force me to think about my life and my career; running helps we work out some of my issues. (I do a lot of running!) Actually, this past spring and summer I’ve spent a lot of personal reflection on meaning and purpose. I don’t know, maybe once I turned 60 last fall I started to think more about my career and our work together in the schools.
Why do I do this work in schools? What drives me? I’ve started wondering more and more about the purpose of schooling and the experiences we provide for children and their families. It’s a question that has perplexed folks for as long as we can recall. Eleanor Roosevelt once observed: “What is the purpose of education? This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women.”
So what’s your purpose? Why are you here today in this space at this particular time? What is your why?
Probably most of you—all of you?—would say we are here to support children and their families and to provide them the best education possible. That’s true but it’s insufficient; I think there is more to it. I mean, why do we provide a good education and supportive environment? What’s the larger purpose? Why, indeed, did you come back to school?
What is your why?
I have to confess that while I contemplated my why, my purpose, during those long summer runs in the woods and on the beach, part of me felt anxious and uneasy. You see, screaming headlines and sobering news crowded my thoughts. Contemporary society seems steeped in myriad and complex problems, tragedies, and crises; these can be daunting and overwhelming. It almost feels hopeless and pessimistic. Perhaps it is not.
I have arrived at a place in my head and in my heart that offers an imperfect, incomplete, and, well, a personal response. In many ways, my “why” has been shaped by my experiences, and it has been informed by my family and my faith. It has been molded by the very real needs I perceive to exist in the community and the world. It reflects my interactions with you, and the impact I observe that your work makes on our students’ lives every day.
This is my “why,” and I’d like to share it:
I believe each student possesses unique and exceptional gifts which, properly nurtured, can bring wisdom, dignity, and joy to a weary world. Thus, we have a responsibility to empower young people to understand and develop their gifts in a way that builds character, creates opportunity, and inspires respect for others. I believe our work is an act of hope in the power, possibility, and promise of each child.
I see our work with children as the antidote for pessimism, chaos, and negativity. My “why” considers the promise and the youthful optimism and ingenuity of the students we are so fortunate and privileged to work with every day; my “why” can’t help but lean on the positive and creative power of the human spirit, despite all of our faults and failings as adults, to create value and beauty in our world.
I believe there is an urgency in our work with young people; a responsibility to help them assume their roles as citizens of this community and become caring stewards of this amazing planet Earth we call home.
I believe our work in the Needham Public Schools, at its core, is a deep expression of belief in and love for all human beings.
That’s my why. What’s your why?