Opening Remarks From the Head of School Forum

The following is taken from the opening remarks by Tom Gibian at the Head of School Open Forum with Parents, held on Wed, Oct. 5. 

Thank you for coming. It is a joy to be with you all. I will begin with some ground rules.

  1. Tonight is a school night so we will wrap up by 8:30 pm.
  2. You are not at a parent teacher conference so we will not discuss concerns specific to your student. We are not doing personnel reviews.
  3. There is nothing of interest to you that is not of interest to me; my door is always open.

To begin I will share a few thoughts, and then we will all talk together. Not like the way the vice-presidential candidates talked together last night; we’ll ask each other questions and take turns.

I went over to say hello to my mom this afternoon. She resides at Friends House. She will be 99 next Tuesday. She was telling me she had heard a review of a book by two Stanford professors. She didn’t get the name of the book, but she said it was about teaching college students what they need to know to be successful on our shrinking, warming, still-beautiful planet. I asked her when we ought to begin teaching our students these important things. Her answer: start at birth. I agree, and that is why the world needs Quaker schools and, especially, our school.

Quakers have an expression: Continuing Revelation. It’s right up there with That of God in Each Person. Continuing revelation is not a Quaker thing. At least not just a Quaker thing. I can’t think of a field of endeavor where continuing revelation is more important than education and, specifically, the question as to what and how should we be teaching our kids. I believe we are well equipped to be on this journey, as long as we pack our Quaker values, listening skills, humility (Quakers have warned against “excessive pride” for 375 years), and appreciation for the GNT (Great Natural Talent) that resides in the people who are sitting all around us.

A year or so ago, a number of us sat down and tried to name what we love most about Sandy Spring. This was not a strategic planning exercise. Nor was it a marketing exercise. We did it because we thought it was important to be able to create and share a narrative as a way of making sure we preserve what we do best. We also thought it would encourage us to do more of it and, as school leaders and trustees, to make better decisions.

By the way, in life we toggle between being in our strong place and our weak place. We know we are in our strong place when time whizzes by; when we accomplish a lot; when it feels most natural. In our weak place, it is the opposite. Time creeps. Everything is a chore. As a school, we need to work on our weaknesses but not all the time. We have to leave lots of time to be awesome.

Some of you may know all this, but we ended up naming five ideas. We call them pillars. We recognize them as being the threads that woven together make the pattern we call Sandy Spring Friends School. The first is Inquiry-Based Learning. Teachers ask questions so that students will ask questions. We encourage inquisitiveness, curiosity, a love of learning. The second is Experiential Education. Learning is stickier when we are fully engaged. We travel, we do community service, we emphasize arts and athletics, we experiment, we occasionally get knocked down, but we get back up. The third we call Teachers as Mentors. This is in the DNA of the school. We are here because we believe there is no greater gift we can give a child than to take them seriously, to listen to them, to care about what they think, to empower them simply by recognizing their intrinsic worth, to acknowledge their light within. The fourth is Community. This one suggests to me something incredibly important as it speaks to what we are teaching that kids will remember for their entire lives. Love of diversity. Cultural competency. A recognition that by being a part of something bigger than yourself you find a happiness that is uniquely satisfying. I am not against rugged individualism and I believe honest, hard work is the key to a fulfilling life, but I also believe that discovering that the sacrifices we make for the good of others—when we pick up the mess someone else made at our lunch table, when we are on time for class, when we take turns, when we collaborate—we are improving our own lives as well as the lives of others and that this is an essential skill and can be modeled, and built into the experience. We expect to expect more of each other. The last pillar is our campus is our classroom. We want to use every square inch of this place to incorporate all of the other pillars into a Sandy Spring Friends School education.

So I will conclude by saying that I believe we are off to a great start of the school year. We have an amazing student body which, by the way, is the largest in our history. In the Upper School we are absolutely full to the point that I am not sure we could shoe horn even one more student. I can also say that I have never worked with a finer group of professionals than the wonderful, committed group of teachers and administrators at Sandy Spring Friends School. And we have our pillars which we recognize because they put us in our strong place.

There are a couple of things that I want to spend particular attention on this year. One is our plans for a new Upper School. This is terribly exciting. Not because a building project is such a big deal. Hundreds of new schools are built every year. But because this school is being designed around our pillars.

The second thing is that David Hickson has pulled together a group including the Division Heads and our Learning Specialists to consider the question of what kind of students thrive at Sandy Spring Friends School recognizing that no school can be all things to all people. But we can be all things to some people. So we are considering a host of queries. What learning styles and differences can we support, what can we do better, what professional development opportunities have the greatest impact, what specialists should we engage, what partnerships should we enter into, how can we make communication on these issues more seamless and what new resources constitute the right mix going forward. And, of course, how do we pay for it.

Never a dull moment.

3 comments to Opening Remarks From the Head of School Forum

  • Patrick Amato

    Dear Tom,

    Hi -I am parent to Jacob (grade 6, been at SSFS since PK and we have been at SSMM since before that time) – and I was present at your annual report update this morning at meeting for business where you described these pillars. I was in the checkered shirt in the back – which probably describes half the back row.

    I heard the five pillars and wrote them down to think on them. After consideration, they are, in my opinion, exactly right. What I *love* about these is what is left out.

    Specifically – academics, teach to the test, a list of colleges students go to as a point of pride, the income of graduates and other measures which already get too much attention in other venues.

    Instead, these correctly focus on developing the person. We care about who the children become as adults, not the list of facts they know or skill sets. Sure, academics are an important part of a contributing member of society (as ignorance is a limiting factor in that regard) but it is *not* the point. Bravo and kudos to the working group who developed these five pillars. I realize you weren’t seeking feedback but for what it’s worth it aligns with my view as well.

  • Howard Zuses

    Thanks for sharing your opening remarks. I’m one of those people who thinks that SSFS is a special place and appreciate the effort that identifying the pillars is a way to focus our attention on sustaining that. However, when I read these, I feel a real lack of something that has been a core part of the School since the founding, and that is the Quaker Meeting and Testimonies. I’d like to propose adding another pillar. One that is direct in acknowledging that “Quaker – Meeting & Values” are a central ingredient in the secret sauce.

  • Barbara Thomas

    I’m so happy to hear of all the new, exciting initiatives, the newly identified “pillars” and good work you are doing.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>