April 6, 2021
A few years ago, a friend and I planned to run a half marathon. We set goals, trained accordingly, and were ready to go on race day. On that cool, perfect for running April morning, we came out of the chute faster than usual and were “banking” time and feeling great, strengthened by the wind at our collective backs. As we hit mile six, still rolling and way ahead of our goal pace, I had a sense things may be going just a little too perfectly. I shared what would turn out to be an apt prediction, “I think today we are going to be tested.” His response was classic: “I sure hope so!”
It seems to me the proper attitude is to welcome the coming of life’s tests. Life presents these challenges to show us where we stand. We learn from them our areas of strength and need. They don’t just show us what we need to improve upon, as we can improve in every area of our lives. They can validate certain actions we have been taking, but they can also provide a needed wake-up call. The act of stepping on the scales or playing a strong opponent in sports or business may provide us with actionable intelligence from which we may improve.
In the educational world, April and May often bring with them reflection in the way of student assessments. What have we learned this year? Where do I stand? While May often correlates with finals and AP exams, April tends to be a big ACT month, as well as a time for spring achievement tests for our younger students. It is important that we understand, as parents, teachers, and students, how to best approach these assessments and the information they provide.
First, there is always test preparation that can benefit every student. Reinforcing content material as well as learning testing strategies are essential first steps. It is always wise counsel to get a good night’s sleep (every night, all the time!) as well as practice solid nutrition as one approaches seriously and intentionally the challenge ahead.
Sun Tzu famously penned, “Know thy self, know thy enemy.” A little knowledge can be a positive thing, and it makes good sense to understand what kind of assessment one is facing, and the content tested. The ACT family of tests our students take at USJ (i.e., the ACT Aspire and PreACT) are neither IQ nor aptitude tests but achievement tests. This means they exist to measure student learning and are not necessarily intended to predict future performance. They measure content knowledge and skills acquired at the time of test administration and are a snapshot of learning and produce scores that can be improved upon (remember, growth mindset!). Receiving these scores, therefore, should neither be considered a coronation nor a death sentence. At the individual and institutional level, they can show us areas of mastery or proficiency and areas that may need increased focus or perhaps an adjustment in the manner in which they are being taught or studied.
We face all sorts of challenges or tests in everyday life. A problem in a relationship, an obstacle standing in the way of success, or an opponent in this week’s game can all be seen as tests, and I believe they should be seen in a positive light in that they can teach us much about ourselves and often illuminate the path to growth. While a part of me wants to go undefeated or would be so happy with the achievement of a perfect score, I know that success is not about what I want, nor should happiness be the ultimate goal. We need to be appropriately challenged to learn and grow, and learning happens on the other side of obstacles.
This pandemic has certainly tested us all in a myriad of ways, and I know I have grown as a leader and a person in attempting to navigate its pitfalls. We will not respond to every situation perfectly nor get every answer correct, but we can use our successes and shortcomings as catalysts for positive change.
Lastly, perhaps the most crucial element in facing tests may just be showing up well every day. We sometimes think what’s most important is bringing it on game (or assessment) day. Still, we all know learning happens during our first-period class on Monday morning, Tuesday afternoon’s workout, Wednesday’s lab, and Thursday’s tutorial… you get the picture. One can often tell who does well on life’s tests by who is present and how they go about their daily business.
It was mile nine where I hit the wall that race day, by the way. The time I banked was all spent by mile thirteen, and I staggered in a mere eight seconds ahead of my goal. Completely spent, thoroughly tested, and with the lesson of pacing being clearly reinforced to me.
Let us embrace tests with humility and a hunger to improve, and let us use this spring and this day as opportunities for growth.
Head of School
December 1, 2020
Greetings USJ Families,
As I put pen to paper (yes, I still write in this manner) post-run but pre-turkey on Thanksgiving morning, my thoughts are centered around the times in which we find ourselves and how we respond to crises.
I do not know if America has been more unified in the past fifty years than during the week following September 11, 2001. Churches were filled, thousands of young men and women enlisted, and patriotism surged as flags flew from western ranches and urban apartment windows alike. People voiced support of the President and seemed ready to do what was required of them, whether it be standing in airport lines or fighting terrorism abroad.
In 1940 and ‘41, during the Blitz, Londoners mustered great resolve and resilience – their proverbial “stiff upper lip” – to weather the nightly, deadly attacks on their city by German bombers. These moments, which brought fear and destruction, also resulted in unity and singleness of purpose.
As our nation continues to weather this pandemic, along with electoral controversy and social instability, I’ve been considering leadership principles, whether it be school leadership or other areas, such as leading in the home, at church, or place of business during times of uncertainty. I want to share three for consideration:
1.) Double down on one’s values. As Paine famously penned, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” In challenging times, we must know who we are and for what we stand. In these times, one’s faith is critical. Our training prepares us for this. At the school level, we remind ourselves in meetings and strategy sessions regularly of the mission of USJ. We discuss its meaning and application. We review our operating principles:
Effective leaders cannot merely react to events or follow the wave of public opinion but must think foundationally upon principle and be intentional concerning applying their ideals to decision-making.
2.) Read from sources outside of the current time. We must understand the 24-hour news channels, daily periodicals, and social media (don’t get me started) reflect the opinions of others experiencing and seeing things through the lens of our day. We live in a time of collective irrationality; therefore, we must listen to voices that lived outside 2020. In the past few weeks, I have been reading:
A.) Paul’s letters. These are the words of a man who stood firm in the faith and kept perspective in times of extreme personal trials as well as social and political unrest.
B.) The Last Lion. This biography of Churchill set in the 1930s demonstrates a leader who was going against the grain of contemporary thought and holding firm when Britain needed truth spoken to them while serving as a model of firm resolve.
C.) Decision Points. I wanted to understand President Bush’s mindset and personal experience of 911 and how he perceived events and led during that tumultuous period.
3.) Empathy is integral. Regardless of whom one is leading during these times, one needs to listen more than talk. People have been impacted in very different ways, and we all are anxious to differing degrees. We live in a time of fear and polarization, and we often speak with people when they are at their worst. Frankly, we as leaders do not always respond well to these troubled voices. Understanding, then, goes a long way in our decision making and in communicating well.
Our times stand as a tremendous opportunity to learn from each other and love and serve our fellow man. Learning from and serving others is such an essential component of what leadership truly is. On this day, I am most thankful for these times and this very moment.
Head of School
November 2, 2020
Greetings USJ Families,
Did I mention that I love baseball? As a student and teacher of American history, I appreciate it as a quintessentially American invention and activity. I really appreciate this Gerald Early quote:
"There are only three things that America will be remembered for 2000 years from now when they study this civilization: The Constitution, Jazz music, and Baseball. These are the three most beautiful things this culture's ever created."
Baseball is traditional. It brings back so many memories as it has been such a constant in my life. My friendships, family vacations, books, maybe a few video games, and simulations (anyone remember Strat-o'-matic?) all seem to have a connection to the national pastime. And every October brings with it post-season baseball (and not enough Kansas City Royals!). I still enjoy watching the games and the drama play out every night.
One aspect of the game I truly appreciate is the opportunity to learn. I enjoy watching with friends and family and talking about situations and strategies. As a teacher, I love life lessons, and baseball is chock-full of them! Keep your eye on the ball! It ain't over till it's over. Always think one play ahead. The best team doesn't win; the team that plays best wins. Here is my favorite: It always comes down to fundamentals.
One gets reminded of this in big moments, such as with the recent Braves base running debacle or how the Dodgers absolutely blew a World Series game due to a lack of attention to fielding, throwing, and catching(all in the same play)! The experts said they had never seen it before, but true baseball fans witness it EVERY night. I would argue every game at every level is won or lost due to attention (or lack thereof) to details. And we teach most of these elements to ten-year-olds: It's throwing and catching, getting one's glove down, laying down a bunt or moving a runner, hitting the cut-off man, etc. While folks dig the long ball, it usually comes down to getting in that runner from third with less than two outs or often just throwing strikes. This is a beautiful, and often a hard lesson to learn. I know I sound like a grandpa here (and I am all about letting the kids play), but perhaps our time could be better spent on situational hitting and less on handshake choreography.
This lesson translates well to other areas. In business, no matter how well you produce a widget, one must take care of the customer at the point of contact. Regardless of how bright you are, one must show up on time and put in the work. And what about our business of school? The business of student success, as I just stated, always comes down to fundamentals. If we want students to learn, they must get a full night's sleep from pre-K to grad school. There is no way around it! We want to hit the home run on the ACT, but we must complete our 8th-grade math homework, read that summer reading novel, write the 5th-grade essay, and learn Spanish vocabulary terms. Our kids need to move! Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and burns energy to increase focus. Strong bodies and strong minds have always been related. We need to get our kids in the habit of eating healthy food, to be involved in a faith-based community, to be good listeners, and kind to one another. These are the fundamentals of student growth, and there are no substitutes. These components are integral to learning. Did I mention that it always comes down to fundamentals? Always. So keep your eye on the ball, and Go Bruins!
Head of School
November 2, 2020
The Bruin Walk
For those who proudly wear the Red and Columbia Blue, this path isn’t just special but treasured. It stands as a symbol of accomplishment. Emblematic of success. This leads to an important, if not existential question: Just how is this success defined?
We at USJ often speak of it. Of whom we are and aspire to be. We proudly (and rightfully) affirm the accomplishments of merit scholars, state champions, celebrate the elusive 4.0, or the ultimate score of 5 on the AP exam. Even as adults, we define our own measures of accomplishment: the well-earned promotion, new title, or corner office. Although these are all worthy of respect, one could make the case there are higher things for which to strive.
I would pose authentic success is measured in standards over status and can only be achieved by first growing our character. We must, as we are often told by our elders, get our priorities right. A learner must often ask himself the question, what do I truly value? What am I putting first in my life? What is most important to me?
For example, am I putting grades before learning? Popularity over principles? Results rather than fundamentals? Every day we are forced to make choices that really begin with our own ideals and values. When I complain instead of encouraging or lash out instead of showing restraint, it almost always begins with my poor attitude. I too easily get caught up comparing myself to others or mired in temporary, shallow disputes that reflect my own misaligned priorities.
You see, the Bruin walk isn’t a place as much as a mindset. The Bruin walk is the daily process of growth, striving for improvement, even greatness. Integral to this process is practicing and studying harder, putting others first, and the desire to “be” good as well as to “do” good as we advance our mission. When one treks daily toward virtue, discipline, and growth, success in many forms tends to follow. This journey leads to excellence, and one never completely arrives at its destination.
It is truly an honor to daily walk this path with you.
Thank you for your support, and Go Bruins!
Head of School
September 1, 2020
Dear USJ Family,
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, established a philosophy that has become legendary in the business world. He believes and teaches that successful businesses stay in Day 1 mode; the idea being that start-ups are hungry, think creatively, and outwork older, Day 2, operations who live in the static world of complacency. In spite of any criticisms Bezos may deserve, there is undoubtedly merit in this mindset. Major issues tend to grow as soon as one believes he has “arrived,” and we can all benefit from an attitude of constant improvement and daily seeking to solve problems constructively.
As we work through this crisis of COVID, we encounter difficult issues daily. This weekend brought three more positive cases to our school family, a middle school student and two faculty members, while three students returned from quarantine Monday. We also face new logistical challenges, updated CDC and health recommendations, as well the daily issues that one encounters in working toward growing 1200 people who enter our campus every day for school. I believe the Day 1 mindset for problem-solving might look something like the following:
Gratitude. We should start with being grateful for the day and yes, its problems. I am grateful for life itself, for the people with whom God has blessed me, and the opportunity to improve myself and positively impact others. Even these challenges with which we are faced should be seen as the opportunities they are. We face difficult decisions and conversations, criticisms and challenging tasks every day in educating people during these times. What a blessing! As I’ve said before, life is not safe and it isn’t easy. It isn’t supposed to be, and on the other side of working through these problems is exactly where we find the much-needed growth. I am so grateful we are in school today. As we look and learn from other schools around the world and even in our backyard, we can see others aren’t even trying. Others are struggling to stay open, and there are those who are finding much success. We can learn from all of those experiences.
Ownership. We tend to find it pretty easy to blame others and dodge accountability for our problems. ”I didn’t sign up for this,” or “this isn’t my fault” are lines we’ve all heard and probably used ourselves. What if we thought differently and just assumed it was our fault? Did I cause it? No. Ok, could I have prevented it? Did I make it worse? Can I improve the situation, or solve the problem? Now we are thinking in a manner that may bring about better results. As teachers, parents, and students, we should all own this crisis and the related problems. Then I understand that I can perhaps play a better role in improving them. The problems that come from our current crisis have tentacles that can extend into far-reaching consequences that are often worsened by our responses. So what can I do? I can focus on the fundamentals today. Again, teachers must enforce procedures every period. Parents must make the hard decisions regarding what students need rather than what they want. Large group gatherings, for example, such as sleepovers, parties or pick-up games, must be answered with a hard “no.” I know kids will be kids, but we adults must make these adult decisions. And students must “own” their behaviors as well, understanding that there are major consequences for how we respond today.
Teamwork. So our response must be collective. Teachers, parents, and students must work together. Saying no to social gatherings isn’t easy, but as I always preached to my students, “popularity is overrated!” Wearing a mask is no fun, and I am so tired of not shaking peoples’ hands, but success is often the result of doing the unpopular and uncomfortable things. This is a burden which must be shared together, knowing we all reap the benefits of on-campus education. We all want to be in school, to learn and grow together, to discuss a novel, solve a problem, play on the playground, and enjoy the Friday night football game. We all benefit from doing the right things to stay healthy today.
Doing things well on Day 1 may just give us the opportunity to experience another Day 1 tomorrow. So, let us respond well to this challenge today.
Head of School
August 3, 2020
Our Daily Commitment to Health, Safety, and Families
I am a huge proponent of consistency. If one wants to be successful academically, the key is not about rising to the occasion on the day of the ACT but about meaningful time in the books today. A happy marriage does not hinge on a romantic getaway, but on a regular evening strolls. Success under Friday night lights results from challenging afternoon practices and early morning lifts. As a lifelong educator, I believe that great teaching is not measured by the latest program but by the level of student engagement during the second period on a random Monday morning.
During these challenging times, I have had the pleasure of speaking and corresponding with many members of our community about the issues we face today and the importance of working together to meet our children's needs safely. Simply stated, our children need school. They need it for the academic growth it promises and vital relationships, experiences, social interaction, and challenges that accompany the classroom, stage, and fields of play.
Our team has worked all summer to develop plans and procedures to ensure the health and wellness of our students, faculty, and staff. Know that we are committed to following these plans and to the consistent focus their implementation will require. We cannot "lighten up" or look the other way. To make this work, our parents must also be "all in." Success in this endeavor will require support, communication, patience, and cooperation by everyone involved.
We understand that these short-term sacrifices will allow us to accomplish our long-term objectives. So today, I wear my mask, social distance, and scrub up! We are committed to
doing things differently. The classroom, performance, and game won't look the same as they did in March, but we can and will do this to meet the needs of children and advance our mission.
Speaking of March, we remember when so many schools "closed up shop," our teachers rolled up their sleeves, cracked open their laptops, and went to work. They did not shirk from the call in the spring, and they will answer the bell in the fall. They will do the difficult things today, and we will not retreat from making hard decisions. We will make mistakes, learn from them, and adjust accordingly.
I cannot promise you 100% safety. Life is not 100% safe. We take risks by driving cars, flying in planes, and walking out our front door. What I can promise is that we will be committed to the consistent implementation of our plan and procedures. When things get difficult, we will not walk away from this responsibility, from our friends, family, churches, nor our school community. USJ has been here for our families for 50 years, we are here today, and when this current crisis is over, we will still be standing...together.
I look forward to seeing you on campus soon.
Head of School
July 13, 2020
The Heart of Decision-Making
The mission. We all should know it…
“We instill a passion for academic, artistic, and athletic excellence, while committing to personal integrity, mutual respect, and lifelong learning.”
At the heart of this mission lies one objective: growing people. This frames everything we do. The Head of School must grow. Our Board of Trustees, administrative team, and faculty are all dedicated to improvement, and we are all committed to growing our students. We are works in progress, and in order to better serve, we need to learn.
Therefore, every decision we make is centered around growing our people. Learning, whether it be solving algebraic equations, playing the trumpet, or fielding a ground ball, is what we do. Woven throughout learning we find the theme of the second half of the mission statement: character. Without integrity and respect for others, it really matters not how adept you are in the other areas.
So this idea of growing students pervades every aspect of our operation. Who we hire, how we allocate dollars, set our schedule, lead our classrooms, and manage our athletic teams all center around learning. This is why we exist and who we are as a school. Let me say it again: we exist to grow people.
In our current environment, I understand we face many challenges and anxieties that are very real. People are concerned about a virus one cannot see, are worried about safety for our families, economic issues, and we are experiencing a political climate and media that play on our differences and fears. These uncertainties lead to many of the questions I hear concerning the details of how we at USJ will begin the school year. I get it. As we finalize our plan which will be communicated next week, we must respond to a bigger question…
It isn’t just how will we start the year, but how will we sustain it?
We must be prepared to move forward to grow our students. The times and situations are very fluid, but our objective does not change. We must do this for them. So we research. We collaborate. We ask difficult questions. We listen. Then, we make decisions that will meet their needs. Needs that are academic, developmental, and social. Furthermore, we must do so with our minds not just on growth, but safety.
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as well as Simon Sinek’s It Starts With Why both address this very theme in their respective works. Essentially, much anxiety in life derives from the inability to find meaning, and once we understand the reason for what we are doing, our decision-making becomes focused and our motivation heightened. Our mission should guide me as Head of School in relations with the Board, our staff and our families. The question must always be, “What do we need to do to best grow our people?”
I understand that this is not easy. I do not believe we exist to do the easy thing, to make people happy, or do what I want. We stay on mission. This must be the address of where decision-making lives.
Thank you for the privilege of partnering with you in growing your child.
Head of School
June 22, 2020
Greetings USJ Families,
While our leadership team has recently been focusing on the challenges of ending the spring semester, recognizing the accomplishments of our students, and now starting school in the fall, I feel I would be remiss if I did not take the opportunity to share and to challenge our school community in the wake of recent national events that, no doubt, also impact us as a school family.
Our nation has experienced trying times through the COVID-19 pandemic, the accompanying social and economic stresses, and now we have been moved by accounts of racial injustice, and daily scenes elucidate how these have shaken our nation. Like everyone, I have been deeply troubled by images of racism, frustrated by violence in the streets, and inspired by acts of kindness and reconciliation. As a long-time student and teacher of history, I understand how the issue of race has shaped our nation, how much progress has been made in this regard, as well as the challenges we continue to face as Americans. We are now living in a critical period in our history.
As an educator in an independent school whose mission expressly values mutual respect, I see this as an opportunity for us to practice what we preach. I have taught in many institutions, none of whom value diversity more or are more welcoming of all students than USJ. This being said, we must always recognize that we are all works in progress, have room to grow, and much to learn. It is my hope that we as individual families and as a school community use our current state as a society to initiate conversations with our children that challenge them to rise above the negativity and political noise and seek to advance the cause of understanding and love for our fellow man.
Education is a noble profession, one that calls us to higher things. I love our school and the principles upon which we were founded. We value all people and are proud to be a part of an inclusive community. We strive daily to live up to the ideals of our Judeo-Christian tradition, which teach us to embody love and to strive toward the standard that we treat others the way we wish to be treated. Let us always be willing to speak out against the injustice of racism and to use our voice to defend those who defend the helpless. Let us as an institution of learning seize this moment to encourage our children to act in a peaceful and positive manner that might bring about a better world and to live lives that constantly place others before self. These ideals are consistent with the mission of USJ and are worthy of our efforts as a school community.
Sincerely and Optimistically,
Head of School
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