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Head of School Blog: The Challenges of our Times

Matt Green
You’ve heard me liken Falmouth Academy’s mission statement to a burrito in that, however overstuffed it might be, there’s still lots of good stuff inside.  This past week in our extended lunch advisory, we engaged our student body in a focused discussion about some of that good stuff, specifically the line that reads, “Falmouth Academy emboldens each student to take creative and intellectual risks to confidently engage the challenges of our times.”  

Your student’s advisor led the activity by asking, “What do you think it means to ‘engage the challenges of our times’?” They then distributed an index card to each student, and on the front, students listed what they considered to be the two most important, urgent challenges of our times and on the back the two most important challenges of their generation’s times.  Using the responses as a jumping-off point, advisors facilitated discussions which, I’m told, were rather far-ranging before collecting the cards and sharing them with me.

I expect you are curious about what they said.  Perhaps you are trying to predict their responses; perhaps you are even considering the questions yourself. Ms. Walters and I processed 213 index cards and here is a summary of what we learned:

To the question, “What do you consider to be the two most important challenges of our (the world or society’s) times?” student responses broke out as follows:
Environment/Climate Change: 41%
Economic Inequality: 15%
Civil/Constructive Political Discourse: 13%
International Conflict: 12%
Discrimination/Prejudice: 8%
Humans and Technology: 3%
Substance Use/Abuse: 2%
Other: 3%

As you can see, our students are, unsurprisingly, most concerned with the long-term impact of a deteriorating environment and a warming planet.  I was both heartened and a bit dismayed to find out that they were also worried, however, by the current political climate and the seeming inability for our leaders, among others, to engage in the kind of constructive, collaborative conversation that will undoubtedly be required to solve the rest of these challenges.   

As for the question, “What do you consider to be the two most important challenges of your (a grade 7-12 student’s) times?” student responses tended to fall into three or four buckets.  The most common response related to the stress that sometimes accompanies academic performance expectations:
Grades/Homework: 14%
Time Management/Procrastination: 7%
School-Life Balance: 9%
Stress/Pressure: 12% 

which, when considered together, amounted to 42% of the responses.  Add to that that College (Getting in) and College (Affording) accounted for an additional 12% and you have some insight into what’s likely on your student’s mind.  

Again, I cannot say that I was surprised by these numbers, but I was also intrigued by other concerns.  8% identified “self-confidence/fitting in” as the primary challenge while another 12% added “peers/peer culture,” suggesting that navigating the ins and outs of adolescent peer relations occupies no small amount of bandwidth in the daily life of a teenager.  

Items such as getting enough sleep, mental health, and motivation were all cited, but I was also (pleasantly) surprised that almost 10% cited managing technology–phone, social media, video games, etc. as a pressing “challenge of their time.”

I shared these results with the students at All-School Meeting this week and posed a number of questions for us to ponder:
  • Where is the school, the curriculum, the co-curricular program emboldening you to engage the challenge of environmental preservation?  What more could we be doing? What more could you be doing?
  • How does the discourse and dialogue in our classrooms compare with what you collectively identified as a major “challenge of our time?”  What else can the school do to help you rise to this challenge? 
And:
  • Where is the school promoting healthy relationships with technology?  Where could we do better? What steps can you take in your own life to address this “challenge of your time?”
  • Are there steps the school can take to help you rise to manage the challenge of academic stress?  What habits or techniques do you employ to manage your time, your school-life balance?
  • How does knowing that many of your peers report self-confidence and peer culture/relationships as a major challenge affect how you interact with or treat them? 
There was not enough time in that meeting (or space in this blog post) to answer complex questions such as these, but there is value in the asking.  I did, however, linger for a few minutes on the last one, suggesting to them that cultivating empathy is certainly one answer. I shared with them two quotes, one I was sure they’d recognize:

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 
– Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) - Harper Lee

And one I suspected they would not:

"Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?” 
– Henry David Thoreau

And then suggested to them that the three-word phrase most antithetical to empathy may be: “I’m just kidding,” since the need to say that usually means you’ve just said something unkind, something not funny, or in many cases both.  

Finally, I suggested that though we parents often ask our students, “How was school today?” or “How did you do in school today?” perhaps the question we should be asking is:
“How did you make someone feel today?”

Busy meeting, eh?  Time to get back to the important work of “emboldening!”

Images on this page were created by students in the Photography elective and After-School Photo as centerpieces at this year's MLK Breakfast sponsored by the Falmouth branch of No Place for Hate.
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