Summer moments

As I sat sipping my coffee Saturday morning on my back porch, I stared at our milky pool. Friday night was our annual end-of-year pool party, and we had anywhere from two to 15 kids in there between 5 and 11:00pm. It was a hot night and the kids refused to leave the water. I think they got out to eat burgers and dogs, but I was preoccupied with serving the adults, so I can’t be sure.

I know they ate their ice cream cones in the pool because I took a picture. When I handed over the tray of drumsticks, I didn’t specifically tell the 12 year old, “only give these to kids who are out of the pool.” I assumed it would happen.  But the next thing I knew, 15 kids were hanging off the side of the pool – talking, laughing, and eating ice cream. For a split second, I thought of intervening, but then I remembered our old cleaning lady’s favorite expression, always said loudly, with an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders, and hands in mid-air: ‘What you gonna do?’

Nothing makes me happier than a pool full of kids. But a pool full of kids eating ice cream? Tough call. Maintain a clear pool – and have some rules! – or let kids enjoy the moment and deal with the consequences?  As you can guess, I acquiesced. I always think of Barbara Coloroso’s three considerations – don’t intervene if “it’s not morally threatening, it’s not unhealthy or life threatening.” I believe that sometimes you have to let kids be kids. Besides, it is one night per year, and Kevin is pretty skilled at playing chemist. He can clear the water by Monday (most years anyway).

The next day our friend Mary left a voicemail, thanking us for the party. She said that her four year old declared that his favorite part was, “walking across Niagara Falls with Jacob!” That needed an explanation. We have a rope between the shallow and deep ends of the pool that we sometimes use when there are going to be little ones in the pool. As any thinking person would know, this is not meant for walking. But my son thought this would be a fun game. Again, should I be upset about this? I love to see young and old playing together, and there’s nothing like a pool for that. Just imagine: a teenager helping a four year old, balancing on a rope and trying not to “fall in the Falls.”  Jacob told me that he was calling him Nik Wallenda. How can you get mad about that?

My hope is that you have a few of your own moments this summer… when your rational side that wants to control the situation loses and the fun continues….when the rules slide… and when you let kids be kids.

Here’s to those summer moments…

“You’re just like every other snowflake”

David McCullough gave an unusual commencement speech; depending on who you listen to, he gave either one of the best or one of the worst high school commencement speeches ever.

Have you heard of him? He is the Boston area high school teacher who told students they “are not special.” That’s right, he told graduating students, those dreamy eyed teens about to set forth to pursue their dreams, that they are NOT special. He also made a statement about parents who are overly generous with compliments and shield their kids from reality. He told the audience, “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies are meaningless…. We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”

Many people are not impressed with McCullough. The critics would have preferred that he deliver the more typical speech – about dreams and determination and going for it. They don’t want the children of America to have their dreams – and egos! – shattered.

But my sister and I think he is refreshing. Many current parenting practices – and some educational policies for that matter – focus on building self-esteem without requiring building accomplishments. There is considerable research that has shown that empty self-esteem boosts are detrimental to people in the long run.

Our only issue with David McCullough is that he said it before we did. You see, when Catherine and I get together, as we did this week on our road trip from Charlotte to Ashville North Carolina so I could attend the TABS board meeting, we solve all of the world’s issues, whether we know anything about the topic or not. We joke that we are preparing to write a book. Whenever we find something that bugs us, and we get all worked up about it and agree on a solution, we conclude that it will be a chapter in our book – this entertains us endlessly.

One of our favorite topics, and therefore our most developed chapter (in our minds at least) is on the subject of parenting. (You should know that Catherine is 13 years younger and has no children, but that kind of detail doesn’t stop us from considering ourselves experts.)

Our chapter on parenting shares the title of this blog: “You’re just like every other snowflake.” McCullough didn’t use this expression, so consider this blog our trademark.

Ps. Listen to the speech here. It is well worth the 12 minutes – we need to push for excellence, and we need to encourage students to do what they believe in, which is essentially what he’s saying.

Pps. Read The Subversive Graduation Speech for my favorite commentary by an independent school grad.

I have three friends

The other night at dinner, it dawned on me that I had a first-time experience. I travel a lot for work, and the last 8 days included something special. I told my family, “I got to see my three best friends in one week.” This is pretty amazing because I meant my friend Drina in Calgary, Mo in Nova Scotia and Dawn in Montreal. But my kids started listing other friends – here in St Catharines and elsewhere – and they would challenge me, “Well, isn’t she a best friend too?” When it came to my sister or my sisters-in-law, or to Sonya whom I babysat when she was 18 months and remained close to her now that she has just graduated from university, we had trouble with definitions.

We also talked about friends on FaceBook. Since I am not on FaceBook, my son pointed out that it would take me ‘forever’ to match his number of friends, which is over 100. I was quick to point out: “But they aren’t your friends!” and so the debate on definitions continued.

We eventually agreed that categorizing and defining friendship is irrelevant; and for that matter, so is numbering them. We agreed that we were fortunate to have so many friends, however you define it.

All organizations seem to be thinking about metrics. You see it in ads – maybe you like the HSBC posters in the airports as much as I do. Two of my favorites are ‘Every day 200,000 people leave the countryside for the city’ and ‘Five times more people are learning English in China, than there are people in England.’

In the past two weeks, I’ve heard the following adages:

  • What gets measured, gets done.
  • If you’re not keeping score, you’re just practicing.
  • Measuring something that won’t get talked about, doesn’t matter.

I’m currently reading, The Non Nonprofit: For-profit thinking for nonprofit success by Steve Rothschild. He lists seven principles, and naturally, one of them is called, “Measure What Counts.”

How are our CAIS schools thinking about metrics? Three areas to consider as we head into the final month of school, a month dominated by measurement of students:

  1. At our Governance Focus Groups, we got into a discussion of metrics, and I felt those same questions surfacing. What’s worth measuring? What metrics should the Board examine? NAIS offers a Trustees Dashboard (for members) worth consideration by Boards.
  2. This summer at the Leadership Institute, when we bring together Communications Professionals from across Canada, one of the areas of focus will be metrics – how many hits on your school’s website? How many friends on FaceBook? Do any of these social media metrics matter?
  3. New standardized tests are being piloted in independent schools in the USA, where they struggle with meaningful tests: HSSE looks at high school engagement and CWRA looks at college and work readiness. Kids are our core business, but how do we measure kids and success? And how do we use that data to improve our teaching and learning?

I believe in metrics because I believe in transparency and goal setting. (I wouldn’t be in the business of school improvement through accreditation if I didn’t believe we need to assemble evidence – quantitative and qualitative – to track progress and continually improve.) It was Pat Dawson, Head of Crofton House School, who reminded me of Jim Collins’ approach to metrics in the social sectors:

“A great organization is one that delivers superior performance and makes a distinctive impact over a long period of time. For a social sector organization, performance must be assessed relative to mission.”