Shadows Prove the Sunshine

Every new year brings with it renewed excitement, resolutions for change or improvement, and hope for the future.  Additionally, the transition to a new year brings reflection, as we look back on lessons learned from the previous year.  For me, recent life-lessons have been profound and impactful.  

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Joseph and Perrin Hall

On the day after Thanksgiving, our son Joseph lost his wife Perrin after a six and one half-year battle with kidney cancer. And while there are memories that will be etched in my heart and mind forever, I have been touched by three significant lessons that are certainly worth sharing.

First and foremost, I will carry four words and a picture of Perrin with me that will inspire, sustain and support me in life’s difficult moments.  For those of you who did not know Perrin, she maintained a level of joy in the face of adversity that was, and remains, inspirational.  She summed this sense of joy by saying that the “shadows prove the sunshine.”  I remember the first time I heard her say that; I stopped in my tracks.  Perrin was determined not to let the shadow of cancer control her outlook on life.  Rather, her life was lived to the fullest, with joy and in faith, in a way that allowed the light to dominate the shadows.  How often the most simple truth, one often overlooked, offers a life-changing perspective.

Second, I opened a letter this past week from retired Walker teacher, Mrs. Dixie Bowden, for whom “Bowden Library” is named, who shared words of comfort for those of us enduring the shadows:

In a remote region of Tibet, the farewell that someone gives another is “May there be a road.” In that land where snow slides, rock slides, and cave-ins are abundant, in that land where roads are casually made and bridges are often hung from ropes, the wish – “May there be a road” takes on new significance.  Surely we have highways, but metaphorically, life sometimes seems like Frost’s “pathless wood.”  We move blindly at times, not knowing where to go next, but the love of God and of friends and family sustains us, shields us from the pain of mudslides and collapses, and comforts us in the loss of those we love.

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Larry Alvin

Finally, it is, as Dixie notes, the love, support and comfort of friends and family that sustains us.  Over and over during the past six years, even as recently as this week as we mourn the loss of longtime Walker employee Larry Alvin, I have seen the Walker community reach out and carry those who are hurting.  It is, certainly, one of the most endearing attributes of the people connected to this school.  Students, parents, faculty, staff, former faculty & staff, alumni, past parents, board members, everyone in this community cares about the well-being of each person. Indeed, it is through your individual acts of kindness, in a letter, card, hug, pat on the back, or with a listening ear that the axiom comes to life – the “shadows prove the sunshine.”  

Shine on, Walker.

Why Walker?

tws-fall2015-3973Okay, I admit the title is intended to be an eye catcher; but I know many Walker families are often asked why they pay tuition to send their children to an independent school in a county where public schools are considered a good option. While the question is completely reasonable, the answer is relatively straightforward –  families that choose The Walker School are looking for a remarkably different educational experience.

How is Walker remarkably different?  If you were to look at our school’s Core Values, you would find the answer articulated in the second, third and fourth core values:

  • Student learning is the chief priority of the school.
  • The school should provide a safe, supportive, and challenging environment for learning with clear goals and high expectations for student achievement.
  • The school’s curriculum should develop creative and analytical thinking.

Anecdotally, if you were to talk to a new parent, you might hear this answer:  

My wife and I examined at least nine different school options for our daughter. Walker was the one school where the light was on behind the students’ eyes; in the other schools, it was as if the students were going through the motions.”

Or, this answer from a parent of three alumni:

“Like many parents, I am amazed at the difference in my children’s interests and personalities. So I am even more amazed at the ability of the Walker teachers to instill in all three of them a love of learning which has been the foundation for their success in college and beyond. Not only do my children attribute their success to what they learned at Walker, but they cherish the relationships they built, and continue to stay in touch with friends and faculty.”

Perhaps, you believe that statistical evidence provides the answer.  These facts provide great comfort:

  • Walker offers 26 Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings and Walker students average taking between five and six AP courses during their educational career at Walker – the highest average in the county in each of the last two years (Based on the Washington Post’s Challenge Index)
  • Walker also boasts a five-year average SAT score of 1801 and an average ACT score of 27 – each the highest among both public and private schools in Cobb County.
  • Walker’s award-winning college counseling office partners with families the second a student steps foot in our Upper School, ensuring that 100% of Walker’s graduates find the four-year college or university that is his or her “best fit.”

For the overwhelming majority of Walker families, the reason is Walker’s faculty.  A Lower School parent put it in these terms when writing their son’s science teacher this month, “Thanks for the positive influence you are having on Ian’s love of learning and freedom to always wonder and ask “how/why.”  We love watching his little gears turning.” Among independent (private) schools in the metro area, Walker maintains the highest percentage of experienced teachers (more than 16 years teaching experience) and the smallest percentage of teachers with less than six years experience (based on NAIS survey data).  

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The truth is that there are many reasons a family invests in a Walker education.  In an educational culture where, all too often, the bar is lowered so that everyone can get over it, Walker clearly goes against the grain.  Here, teachers hold the bar high and work diligently with students who aspire to clear the bar and then some. As a result, Walker graduates matriculate to college with a level of self-confidence that comes from being in a unique educational environment that is both nurturing and challenging.  Walker is remarkably different.

What Would MLK Say?

With all the excitement surrounding the start of school, it is easy to forget about our country’s and world’s current struggles with so much violence and loss of life.  How does a school approach such difficult subject matters? At Walker, two of our Core Values provide the answer.  We believe that:

  • the school plays an important role in teaching students to value themselves and others; and
  • the school should provide the foundation and framework for giving students the skills and flexibility that are necessary to thrive in a changing world.
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Dr. Cindy Schafer, Walker’s Social Studies Department Chair, leading discussion in class

These core beliefs are the foundation upon which difficult conversations are based and are part of what attracts both families and teachers to join our community.  Students, parents, and teachers embrace dialogue about difficult topics, recognizing that answers are often complex.

Let me share an example from the classroom.  Over the last twenty-two years, I have taught a history elective on the American Civil Rights movement.  It is a class that deals with difficult topics on a weekly basis – slavery, lynching, segregation, civil disobedience, mob rule, injustice, racism, etc.  Often, in the midst of explosive current events, students discuss the similarities and differences between an historical civil rights event, like the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, with present-day violence that has taken place in cities like Paris, Orlando, Nice, Istanbul, and too many others. As we near the anniversary of the March on Washington, I find myself reflecting on what Martin Luther King, Jr. would say about today’s events were he alive. In fact, this is an assignment I frequently give my students and have even challenged myself to complete.

While it is hard to pick just one quote from a man who was one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, this is the quote I would select in completing the assignment:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”

(excerpt from a 1957 sermon of Dr. King’s)

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MLK Jr. at the March on Washington

While recognizing that Dr. King would always want those guilty of brutality or harassment brought to justice, such an assignment gives us the opportunity to discuss revenge, taking the law into your own hands, and the effect each has on a society built upon the rule of law.  Certainly students would be asked how such present-day violence is different from a lynch mob that circumvented the judicial process to carry out its own judgement “at the hands of persons unknown.”  In the Lower School or Middle School classroom, the comparison might be made to the way we treat people who have wronged us  – with a word or on the playground.

Dr. King’s life’s work, striving tirelessly to make the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness equally available to all citizens, helped America become more aligned with its own core values.  Perhaps the greatest lesson we can share with our students is that our country, like each of us, is a work in progress, and sometimes, discussing troubling current events in light of historical events helps us gain a more balanced perspective on our individual journey to become a better person or collective journey to create a “more perfect union.”

Oh, The Places They’ll Go!

She looked perplexed.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I am so sad that Bob Murphy and Kitty Drew are retiring; that Ira Dawson is leaving to be the principal of Atlanta Youth Academy; and when I look at Brad Brown, I start crying,” she shared.

“I know just how you feel.  I am going to miss them terribly,” I replied.

As I reflected on this brief conversation with a Walker faculty member, it was retiring Upper School Principal Bob Murphy, appropriately, who provided the most poignant observation:

“Walker excels at preparing people for the next level, the next opportunity.  That is, in fact, what we do best.  We prepare our students to flourish when they leave us; interestingly, we do that with adults as well.”

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The Class of 2015

As the Class of 2016 prepares to graduate this week, there is no more public example of Bob’s comment.  Our Promise Statement captures this major transition so well:

At the culmination of this carefully guided, increasingly independent journey, Walker graduates have evolved from curious young learners into critically thinking, individually expressive, confidently collaborative, and admirably honest young adults thoroughly prepared for the intellectual and relational challenges of college and life.

The fact that we excel at preparing young people for the next step is one of the two main reasons why families invest in a Walker education. The other is the quality of our faculty and staff. Walker has always been a place characterized by incredibly talented faculty and staff. I often comment that the most important responsibility I have as Head of School is to hire great people and let them soar as professionals.  Ironically, that speaks to the heart of why I find myself sad at this time of every year. When we hire great people like Sherry Walker-Taylor, Sue Rittenberg or Susie Schlich, they may end up staying at Walker until they retire; but in other cases, talented professionals will have opportunities to go on to great things somewhere else…just like our graduates. Regardless, it is hard to let go.

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Sherry Walker-Taylor, Sue Rittenberg, Bob Murphy, Kitty Drew, and Susie Schlich

As we celebrate both the Class of 2016 and departing faculty and staff for their amazing contributions to our school community, we do so with a mixture of joy and sadness. Be encouraged by yet another insightful word of wisdom from Bob Murphy: “If I have to leave somewhere, this is a fabulous place from which to be leaving.”

The Lower School Unveils Honor Code

How do elementary aged student understand the concept of honor?  This intangible word may be difficult even for adults to comprehend and practice on a daily basis, so how do we walk alongside our students and children, teaching and guiding them to lead a life of honor?

unnamedOn Friday, April 29th, during the assembly, the Lower School Student Council delivered an announcement to the student body regarding the new Lower School Honor Code. The honor statements were developed by a teacher-led committee in hopes to align with the Middle/Upper School honor expectations, and to also give our younger students guide of how to make personal decisions of honor. The Lower School Honor Code presents these four important statements:

  1. Honesty: I will tell the truth (even when it is hard).
  2. Respect: I will respect myself, others, and all things around me.
  3. My ideas, words, and work will be my own.
  4. I will encourage others to be honest, respectful, and to do their own work.

Before the honor code was unveiled in the assembly, the Lower School students and faculty heard from two amazing students: Ally Carey, a seventh grader, and Barrett Kulik, a senior who is currently serving as student body president, offered their thoughts about what honor means to them. These presentations were powerful, bringing faculty to tears and engaging the student body in such a way that one could hear a pin drop in the often noisy Gatti Hall.

20160429_081511Barrett spoke about how our actions deliver the message of honor to others – classmates, teachers, parents, our community. When Barrett’s father asks him to mow the grass, he does so out of honor. When he completes an assignment for his teachers, he does so out of honor. Barrett reminded our students/teachers about how our behavior and our words are the truest representations of honor.

Ally spoke about honor, saying to our student/faculty body:

“What is honor?  To me, honor is many things.  It is an abstract word, associated with truth, integrity, morals, self-esteem, and living a life that values right from wrong….

20160429_081305Don’t let the temptation of winning a game, being more popular or getting a 100% on a test get in the way of your honor.  While it is OK to win the game, be popular, or get a 100% on the test, it should not compromise your honorability.  When someone falls, give them a hand.  When someone feels less than popular, give them your friendship.  When someone is struggling, give them your efforts. Although it may be hard at times, do what’s right, do the best you can, and mold yourself into the kind of person you want to be.”

Wow.

As Lower School Counselor, it is MY honor to be surrounded by students with such integrity, kindness, leadership, and truth. As we unveiled these guidelines for our student body, I continued to be amazed by the level of honor that our students already embody, and the actions of honor that are already displayed inside our school walls on a daily basis. Thank you, parents, for sharing your amazing children with Walker, as we are privileged each day to teach and guide these growing people to be honorable adults.

Lessons in Character: Self-Control and Resilience

Do we ever stop growing, in terms of character?  Over the last three weeks, I have been reminded that character development is a lifelong pursuit.

mastersIt has been said that “sports reveals character.” Certainly this was true at this year’s Masters Tournament.  I was privileged to be invited to attend the tournament this year.  It was a very windy Saturday, and I felt for the players as they tried to battle both a challenging course and extremely windy conditions. As I stood near the 7th green, it was hard to watch Justin Thomas’ ten-foot par putt get blown forty feet away from the hole. Billy Horschel had the worst luck, as the ball he marked on the 15th green proceeded to get blown into the water as he watched in disbelief (click here to watch). Of course, many of us ached for Jordan Spieth as he hit two balls into Rae’s Creek on Sunday.  Driving home, I reflected on each golfer’s reaction to the hardship.  None threw a club, cursed out loud, or yelled at their caddie. While each was understandably distraught, each maintained his composure, persevered, and played on.

This week at Walker, two student-athletes exhibited self-control and resilience in a way that made me exceedingly proud.  The varsity girls tennis team, competing for the region katiechampionship, was locked in a very competitive battle with St. Francis.  Needing to win three of the five matches, Walker was leading 2-1, with senior Katie Busch (left) and junior Alice Jiang (below) each trying to capture that final victory for the team.  Unfortunately, both Wolverines were battling physical hurdles. Katie’s right leg was wrapped because of a strained quad; Alice was in severe pain dealing with a blister that covered the length of her left foot.  Both girls had split the first two sets with their opponent and needed to persevere to win the final set.  Wincing often and moving slowly, Katie, urged on by lots of Wolverine fans and heralice teammates, managed to take an early lead in the final set.  Alice, having just lost the second set 6-1, gathered herself and likewise jumped out to an early lead. As I raced back and forth to watch each match, I was inspired by Katie’s and Alice’s determination, resilience, and stamina.  Unfortunately, I had to leave the match before its conclusion to participate in Senior Day activities for the soccer team.  Not long after those activities concluded, I saw Katie headed for the soccer game carrying the region championship trophy (pictured with Holland Martin).  While I was certainly elated that the team FullSizeRender (33)had won, I was even more impressed with the character Katie and Alice had displayed in the midst of a challenging situation.

Life has a way of mixing hardship and joy that is often unpredictable.  As parents and educators, we have an important responsibility to teach our children/students this truth from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”  Facing hardship with self-discipline, resilience and courage will enable each of us to find long-term success.

Walker’s Core Strengths: Nurturing Atmosphere

This is truly my favorite part of the year …the warmth, kindness, excitement, and generosity fills the air and nurtures my spirit. It’s the time of the year where somewhere among the hustle and bustle, we get to take a breath and remember all that is truly important – our people.

At Walker, we often hear our school described as a place with a nurturing environment, and as Lower School Counselor, each day I see the work that happens so that our students are nurtured to grow and evolve into the version of their best selves. I watch the hands-on instruction; I watch the daily hugs, high-fives, and occasional tear-wiping from our teachers; I witness the behinds the scenes genuine LOVE, sweat, and tears of our faculty; and I hear the constant encouragement, reassurance, and inspiration specified for each and every student. These actions are heartfelt, as these precious students are “our people.”

Yet, in order to help our students transform into productive and positive citizens of the world, we have to show them what it is like to be nurtured, and also how to nurture others – how to step aside and put others’ needs as a priority. On Friday, December 18th, the Lower School celebrates its second annual Day of Giving, and we are continuing a tradition with our students in serving others. Each grade level chooses a way to give, whether it is making sure homeless animals have homemade treats to eat or hospitalized children have warm blankets, or sharing the love of reading with nearby preschool children, we must show our little ones what it means to nurture others, and by doing so, we in turn nurture them. Those in need of our service are “our people” too.

Yes, Walker provides an amazing place where are students are known, nurtured, and cared for in every way, and what I love about Walker is the fact that we also give our kids the opportunity to nurture others. May you all have a fabulous winter break and take a moment to nurture your people – those who may be unknown to you and those who you hold most dear.