A prospective parent asked me an excellent question. She wanted to know how we help our students combat against what she described as stereotypical notions of private school girls. I believe the subtext of this question, quite fairly, was whether or not our girls match that stereotype. Do they see themselves as better than their public school peers? Are they elitist? Are characters from Gossip Girl strutting through our halls? I understand why any parent not familiar with our school culture would want to know what type of community their daughter would be joining, and exploring the answer to that question is important for any school.
My answer to her question covered off a number of things I believe to be true. We expect our students to treat all people with respect. That’s a given. But simply asking them to be respectful of one another isn’t what makes our community caring and authentic. Paying homage to words without action is one of the chief complaints I have against traditional Character Education. What does it really mean when we stick a poster up in a classroom and tell students, “This month’s value is honesty”? Are we implying that we will be honest in October but less so in November when we shift our focus to “responsibility”? Of course that’s not the intent when we explicitly teach values, but I argue that the best lessons arise out of the lived experience of our students.
Twentieth-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Comfort the troubled, and trouble the comfortable.” What a powerful message. What challenging words. And what an important reminder of our School’s responsibility to force students outside their comfort zone if we want them to become compassionate people, ethical leaders and good citizens. You see, it’s not enough to teach our students to “comfort the troubled”. Caring for others is important in a compassionate society, and I believe every society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. But it is possible for us to go through the motions of helping others while still believing that we are superior. We can easily raise money for charities without truly knowing the lives our gift is helping. Now that’s not to say that philanthropy isn’t important: It absolutely is. But I argue that supporting the development of authentic goodness and moral strength in our students requires more than asking them to undertake relatively easy actions. They must be challenged in order to know how strong their beliefs truly are.
The more instructive words Bonhoeffer wrote are, “trouble the comfortable.” What I think he’s referring to is the importance of “cognitive dissonance”, a term coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. Cognitive dissonance is that feeling of intellectual, psychological and emotional discomfort that occurs when our belief system is challenged by new learning and new experiences. When we enter into that state of uncomfortable tension, we want – in fact, we need – to resolve it. We do this either by expanding our belief system – that’s called growth – or by rationalizing away the information, or sometimes by adopting an anti-intellectual stance and claiming the facts aren’t true or simply don’t matter.
Our role as educators and our purpose as a school that commits to developing good and moral citizens must be to guide and support our girls through that period of discomfort, not allowing them to brush it off as insignificant or merely transitory (and certainly not as untrue). We must ask them deep questions about the meaning of this “troubling” (and by this, I mean challenging) new experience. And we need to stay right beside them as they undertake the tough work of formulating important but complicated and oftentimes tough answers.
“Trouble the comfortable” also means that we take our students literally and figuratively outside their comfort zone in order to help them grow. For this reason, we see our school as a part of our broader community, believing that shared experiences and mutual understanding break down barriers and dismantle stereotypes on both sides. We encourage our girls to be curious about the world around them, leading them to understand how strength and creativity is born out of diversity. And we help them realize that when they work to lift others, they lift their entire community, including themselves.
As Head of School, I strive to model what I preach, as does my family. I know that taking myself outside my comfort zone is important to my ongoing development, intellectually, emotionally and morally. Difficult issues that would be easier to ignore – the desperate need to address global inequity for girls and women, the challenge of tackling refugee overpopulation in countries like Jordan, the high rate of suicide amongst Canada’s indigenous youth – these are tough places to go. But I actively seek to be challenged and accept that experiencing moments of discomfort is important because I know it will help me grow.
So I urge everyone – parents, teachers, students, friends – let’s cause some trouble! Let’s move our children and ourselves outside that comfortable place we are fortunate to inhabit. Let’s do more than speak kind words, and instead, use the discomfort we feel to propel ourselves and our community towards a deep and lasting understanding of what it means to live a good life.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German theologian who publicly opposed the Nazi regime in Germany and was vocal in his opposition to the persecution of the Jewish people. He was arrested in 1943 for seeking foreign support for the German resistance movement, and executed in 1945 at Flossenbürg concentration camp, one month before Germany’s surrender.