Above all, Mission. Observations from the 2016 TABS Conference

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I think of David Lee Roth, Boy George and Madonna, and how defiantly outrageous the 1980s seemed when I went to boarding school, like we couldn’t push it any further. But the kinds of changes we are seeing these days are changes in the very structure of things. New situations are arising for which there is no rulebook. How do schools respond? At TABS Annual Conference this year, I was privileged to watch a large group of diverse institutions come together to share concerns and victories. The most powerful tool I noticed, that underlined schools’ approaches to radical change – from redefining inclusion to resolving a threat of terrorism – was the use of foundational principles and mission.

Cap BldgGirls can be mean. It’s no joke. They even made a movie about it. In a session entitled Team Girls, Not Mean Girls (the name says it all), one school presented how their annual blood drive diffused the threat of bullying in the girls dorm. The service project was a school tradition, required a lot of work and received a lot of appreciation. An all-hands-on-deck attitude to involve all the girls in the project – because of tradition, because of need, because of fun – got the ball rolling. Positive impact and appreciation from the community being served, and between the teammates, became the glue that bonded the girls to the activity and to each other. Each girl knowing herself, being known, and recognizing others, as a teammate, as appreciated and effective, created an environment where meanness was antithetical to the goal, and to the community that each and every girl was doing her part to create. As a strong mission and guiding principles took hold, the principles began to outweigh, even conflict, with rule-breaking actions, like bullying – such an action no longer made sense within the context of the community.

In another session, a faith-based school founded in 1799 presented on Supporting Transgendered Students in Traditional Dorm Culture. This school expanded their mission statement to explicitly promote and honor inclusion and the rich diversity of its members. The school created a new statement of inclusion that sits alongside its original mission statement, letting there be no misunderstanding about the intentions of the community. In the process of expanding the dorm organization, the school faced multiple structural and procedural issues, from the naming system of boys and girls dorms to procedural paperwork for sign-ins and sign-outs. The principle of inclusion set the foundation for how each structural issue could be approached. What began as episodic and reactionary actions became unified by a guiding principle that engendered a long-range culture shift in the school. Things that were once very difficult became routine. The school sought and found ways to balance their traditions with support for gender expansive students. The session leaders emphatically advised that for success in this area, other schools ground inclusion in their mission.

On an extremely difficult topic, two neighboring schools presented a real life scenario of a terrorist threat (it proved a hoax perpetrated by a student) aimed at one of the schools. This was an entirely new situation. Both schools engaged known principles to guide their actions to take care of their students, families and campuses. Both schools prioritized their highest mission, the welfare of their students, and combined principles of action such as chain of command, proactive engagement, consistent planned communication, division of labor, honesty and compassion. They benefited from the fruits of respect, trust and community, as their strong long-term relationships made collaboration with agencies and authorities easier. One school quickly devised an alternative activity plan to hold students’ interests in a safe, alternative environment. In very broad strokes, a principle or mission-based community is an alternative activity plan – a more interesting world in which to engage.

When people wonder, how does a good education “teach you how to think”? I observe that a mission-based community is a very powerful pedagogy. A principle-based framework provokes critical thinking and supports a creative, but informed, approach to taking action. Mission-based institutions like boarding schools create an environment where making decisions, even forging one’s identity at the critical age of a teenager, can be a creative process based on community principles. That way of thinking, evaluating and doing, lasts a lifetime.

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