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Start with Why

Just days into the school year, I can say with certainty that your kids have grown. For educators, there’s a small miracle at the start of each school year when we see our students getting off of buses or walking down Davenport and standing several inches taller than they did in the spring. They look healthy, alive…and older. 

Our High School begins each new year with a “Run-In,” a longstanding GDS tradition in which the seniors absent themselves from the Forum for the opening assembly and then, at some predetermined time, charge in from the wings to much fanfare, taking their place of pride in the senior corner. This year’s run-in had special significance for me. The Class of 2024 was in Pre-K in the fall of 2010, the year I began my tenure at GDS. I’ve now been privileged to watch the first day for some of these students 14 times, seeing them grow from tiny 4-year-olds clinging to their parents’ pant legs to confident 17- and 18-year-olds, ready to embrace their role as school leaders this year.

In my opening talk to the High School, I asked the students to think about why they are here. (To be clear, a “talk” is perhaps a generous interpretation of what’s possible during the Run-In. The ebullient seniors interrupt frequently with chants of “20!…24!” and other declarations of pride in having arrived. It is joyous and chaotic—and perhaps suboptimal for delivering life lessons. Still, I try. And it is all very GDS.) The first answer to this question is often something like, “because we have to go to school”, “to get into a good college” or “because one day we’ll need to get a job.” 

I challenge the students to think more deeply about the question. I ask them to imagine that it’s their 80th birthday party (they audibly gasp at the notion that they will one day be 80), and tributes are being made about them by their friends and family. What do they hope is being said? What are the things they’ve done in their life that they hope will be celebrated? What friendships have they cultivated, interests have they explored, values have they embodied? And how will the choices that they make this year, the 2023-24 school year, set the stage for those future tributes?

It’s easy for our young people to be on auto-pilot, to work hard because they’re expected to work hard, because our culture privileges achievement. And yet working for someone else’s “why” can ultimately prove hollow, a treadmill without reward and without end. 

Earlier this week I met with an educator who has worked in schools around the world. He talked about GDS having an “intellectual crackle” that he hadn’t encountered elsewhere. I’m extraordinarily proud of this vitality—it’s something that I want us to cherish and nurture. It is no great feat to find kindergarteners who are intellectually curious and excited to learn. To sustain that love of learning throughout a young person’s education—through Middle School and High School–that’s what distinguishes a great institution, and it’s what I believe distinguishes GDS. Our students are and remain excited about ideas. They are excited to wrestle with a new text, to build a stage, to conduct an experiment, to open up themselves to new worlds. Having an intrinsic “why,” a reason for school that is not about the future but about the present, is a goal for all of us to strive for. It will make each day more meaningful and alive.

My “why” each year is to help foster a community in which our students experience being known, valued, and feeling like they belong. In which they feel both supported and challenged, connected and self-reliant. My why is to both help make each day worthwhile and to help prepare our students to build a better world. Finally, it’s to help provide an environment in which students will connect with their own why, one which will sustain them through GDS and beyond.

I look forward to a new school year of exploration, of intellectual adventure, of purpose, of helping each of our students to discover their “why.” Here’s to the journey ahead.

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