At Keystone, we take excellence for granted, but others notice
“It’s not only moving that creates new starting points. Sometimes all it takes is a subtle shift in perspective, an opening of the mind, an intentional pause and reset, or a new route to start to see new options and new possibilities.”
–Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong
For three days last week, members of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS) visited Keystone as part of the school’s 10-year accreditation process, and their feedback was gratifying: “We really like your students.” “You have excellent teachers!” “Your parents love the school!” “Your Board is outstanding!” These educators from ISAS schools assessed Keystone according to the self-study report we wrote during the 2018-19 school year and evaluated us on whether we are the school we say we are and we do the things we claim to do. They also sought out places where we can improve; according to the team, our self-study was so thorough that everything they recommended had already been cited in the document.
On Tuesday morning, I spoke to the Upper School students and shared with them some of the remarks by the Visiting Team. I started by telling one of my favorite stories that comes from a 2005 Kenyon College commencement address by the late author David Foster Wallace. “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” As the story makes clear, it can sometimes be difficult to have perspective when our reality may be all that we know. We become so accustomed to our day-to-day life that we take things for granted and come to believe that what we experience is “normal.” I wanted our upper school Cobras to understand that they are exceptional.
According to this team of highly-regarded educators, our students shone in a number of ways. They express an appreciation for others and show an unusual support for one another. They demonstrate an appreciation for their teachers that is natural and wonderful to behold. The students value Keystone’s inclusive and accepting environment, and they treat each other with dignity and respect. One team member referred to our students as “naturally poised:” they are confident and assured but they did not feel stiff or scripted. I ended our Tuesday morning meeting by commending the students for their outstanding work, and their compassion for one another.
The team noted that perhaps one reason the students act so kindly toward their peers stems from the modeling of collegiality by the Keystone faculty and staff. They stressed that the adults at Keystone clearly enjoy their work and do an excellent job of both challenging and supporting the students.
To be honest, these glowing reviews of our school did not come as a surprise. Over a 30-year career in education, I have been in many schools and talked to a countless number of students, faculty/staff members, parents, and trustees. It takes nothing away from the people in other schools to say that the people at Keystone display an outstanding commitment to excellence, an appreciation for one another, and value being in a diverse and inclusive community. Nonetheless, the comments by the visiting team provided a comforting affirmation. It can always be helpful to hear from outsiders what a school does well and where to make improvements.
Recognizing that the view from someone outside one’s own bubble can always help, we made a change to the self-study process last year that the team appreciated and said that they will take back to their schools as a model for how to optimize the experience. Like other schools, we initially created committees around subject areas, divisions, or functions in the school: for example, there was a committee for the English program, one for the Little School, and one for facilities. Those committees included teachers, staff members, students, parents, trustees, and alumni with a particular interest in that area.
Next — and this is the extraordinary part — each committee contained an outsider: for example, there might be the Director of Technology on the social studies/history committee or there might be a third grade teacher on the committee studying governance. The outsider had two purposes — to ask the hard questions that may only come from someone not in the know and to push the group to articulate clearly the rationale for their thinking and practice. In essence, the outsider should “poke the bear” and prevent groupthink from occurring. As we said, one of the only unacceptable reasons for doing something is “because that’s how we’ve always done it.”
Visiting team members said that they had not seen this practice before, and it may have helped account for the honesty and candor in our report. As study after study has shown, groups that have worked together for long periods of time can become complacent, develop jargon that may reflect intellectual laziness, and neglect to question their practices and procedures. A team of educators from other schools can reflect back to a school what it does well and where it can improve; similarly, an individual on a committee who has not been part of the ongoing conversation can ask probing questions and force important conversations. This can catalyze the group to either recommit to past practices or realize that it may be time for a change.
Students and schools should be characterized by what I would term a “healthy dissatisfaction.” We should celebrate what we do well and maximize our talents and abilities. Just as importantly, in order to develop, we must acknowledge areas of opportunity and growth. I am proud to say that at Keystone, we do both of these. Sometime this summer, we will receive a confidential report from the Visiting Team with commendations and recommendations in every area. As Keystone has done throughout the school’s more than 70 years, we will revel in our accomplishments and do the difficult and joyful work of making our school even better.